In the 1800s forests and farmlands marked the edge of city and land was bought up in Weißensee by the Jewish community as the old cemetery on Große Hamburger Straße in Mitte had reached capacity. Over time, the city has grown around the cemetery, though the cemetery itself feels like a primeval forest.
Nothing reminds you of your own mortality like a visit to a cemetery, and no other cemetery can be a better reminder. In winter, crumbling black art nouveau mausoleums are outlined in snow and you have the place to itself. In spring, an abundance of flowering trees is a striking contrast to the somber atmosphere of the graveyard. In summer lush ferns erupt through forgotten graves. And in fall, the golden gingko trees are simply radiant in the dull gloom.
After years of neglect, this cemetery is getting some much needed attention, though many doubt it can be enough to save it. Berlin’s Jewish community once numbered over 600,000, and today there are just 14,000, too small to keep up with maintenance without outside help. Renovation is proving costly and although the city pledges to help, the estimated 40 million euro required seems out of reach. A bid has been made for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List, but no decision has been taken yet.
A new documentary film, winner of the Berlinale Panorama Audience Award 2011, about the cemetery is out, and I strongly recommend it. Catch it now while it’s still in the cinemas.