Tag Archives: Germany

A Cemetery Story

Berlin's Weissensee Cemetery (courtesy of Seventh Art Releasing)

A documentary about a cemetery: It may not sound like much of a crowd-pleaser, but the German film In Heaven, Underground, directed by Britta Wauer and tracking the 131-year history of Europe’s second-largest Jewish cemetery, has been garnering some high praise. Last month, the New York Times called the movie, about the Jewish Weissensee Cemetery in Berlin, “poetic and exquisite.” Wauer spoke with Moment‘s Sala Levin about the past and present of Berlin’s Jewish residents.

What inspired the film?

It was not my idea—five years ago a program director from a Berlin television station asked me to make a film about this cemetery. I knew the cemetery and found it very special, but I felt that it wasn’t a good idea to make a film about it. You can walk in there and look around, and you can read online about the famous people buried there, so why make a film? I thought that no one would be interested. The only thing I was interested in were the stories behind the graves that hadn’t been told yet, so I tried to find people who are related in any way to the cemetery—people who have ancestors there, but also maybe people who work there. I had no idea how to find them. I wrote a article in a magazine called Aktuell published by the Berlin government for ex-Berliners. Many of them had to leave during the Nazi reign, so most of them are Jewish. I wrote a little article about the cemetery saying that if there was someone who wanted to help me by sharing their memorikes or photos, they would be welcome to write me or call me. I hoped for 20 or 30 responses. In two weeks we had 215 letters from everywhere: Australia, South Africa, South America. I was really overwhelmed. I thought, ‘Okay, I can think about really making a film.’ And then I had another problem: which stories to choose.

Most of the stories were related to Nazis and the Holocaust. I didn’t want to use stories only from this period, so I tried to find stories from the 1900s, when most Jewish people were really proud to be German and Jewish. I tried to find people with stories from post-war times, when the cemetery belonged to East Berlin. I tried to find stories from each time, for each period. I always chose from the unknown, the non-famous people, because you can read about the other ones in books or online.

What role does Weissensee play in the consciousness of the German public?

Most Berliners have heard of Weissensee, but never went there, though there were always people who were interested and went there. There’s a German term for this kind of Jewish cemetery—they call it an orphan cemetery, because all the relatives [of those buried there] were murdered or had to leave Germany. There’s no one really to take care of it. In the 1950s, the German government decided that they were responsible for Jewish cemeteries because they killed the people in charge, or forced them to flee. There are also private citizens who want to help, who go to the registry and say, ‘I really want to do something. What can I do?’ The people at the registry might say, ‘These are graves of families who committed suicide, so there’s really no one who can take care of the graves. If you want to, you’re welcome to.’ They choose one or two graves and say, ‘I’m the one who goes there now because there’s no one left to do this job.’ So for every birthday or date of death there’s someone coming, sometimes with flowers, or to put stones on it. They feel responsible for it. We, the Germans, are responsible. But there are also governmental intitiatives to take care of the mausoleums, because they say, ‘That’s something that belongs to our culture, and we have to preserve it.’

Are there other Jewish cemeteries in Berlin?

Since the eighteenth century, there were three Jewish cemeteries, but they were completely filled, so they had to open a new one. The oldest one was completely destroyed by Nazis. The next one closed in 1880, when Weissensee was opened. That one is untouched—it’s overgrown and really little compared to the Weissensee cemetery. Weissensee is the third Jewish cemetery. There are also other ones in that area that were destroyed.

There’s another Jewish cemetery in the west part of Berlin, which was opened around 1956. The Jewish community uses both of the cemeteries, but the plots in the West Berlin cemetery are all reserved now; they don’t have any space for Soviet Union Jews. So all the families who came here in the last 20 years from the former Soviet Union are supposed to go to Weissensee.

Can you tell me about contemporary Jewish life in Berlin?

There are some Jewish families in West Berlin. In East Berlin most of them were also communists and not really proud to be Jewish. Right now much of the Jewish community is from the former Soviet Union. Eighty to 90 percent is Russian, and most of them are not speaking German and don’t have any relations to Jewish culture, because they were not allowed to celebrate Jewish traditions in the Soviet Union. Berlin is the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world, but you have to look at the members of the community and see where they’re from and what they’re bringing. That’s why the cemetery changed that much—because the gravestones of the Russians are really different from the older stones. There are also Jewish people from the U.S. or Israel who live here in Berlin, but most of them are not officially members of the Jewish community—they’re just living here, or being an artist. So you find a lot of people on the street who speak Hebrew or people who have Jewish backgrounds, but they’re not in the Jewish community.

Many of your films deal with Jewish topics—where does your interest come from?

Everybody asks me why I’m making Jewish films if I’m not Jewish. It’s not Jewish-themed for me: It’s Berlin’s history, German history. I made a film about a Jewish couple who were also communists and had to escape to the U.S. After the war they were still communists, and had to flee from the McCarthy era, so they went back to Europe. I was really interested to make a film about the older communists who are still believers in the communist system. The ones who lived in America found it much better there. This woman was the founder of the pediatric department in a very famous hospital in Berlin, and my father was one of her students—so I have a special relation to the topic. I made a film about the Jewish quarter here in Berlin, but it was also a communist quarter. I chose this quarter to tell the story of German history over 100 years. That’s the quarter where I grew up, so I was always influenced by Jewish people. I’ve always been interested to know about Jewish people.

Should Jews Play Wagner?

by Theodore Samets

Richard Wagner, the lauded 19th-century German composer of operas such asTristan und Isolde and Parsifal, had an anti-Semitic streak.

It was more than just a streak. He discussed Jews throughout his writings, most notably in an essay, “Judaism in Music,” which derided Felix Mendelssohn and other Jewish composers, as well as the Jewish people in general, for corrupting German culture.

“Judaism and Music” is troubling to read, with its claims that “Jewish music is bereft of all expression, characterized by coldness and indifference, triviality and nonsense,” and at the “harmful influence of Jewry on the morality of the nation.”

Long after his death, Wagner’s anti-Semitism continues to cause many to chafe at his music. This is particularly true in Israel, where for decades no group publicly played any of his music, as part of an unofficial ban.

Yet in recent years, some Israelis have tried to change this. In 2001, Daniel Barenboim, the renownd Argentinian-Israeli conductor, asked an audience if his Berlin Statskapelle orchestra could play the overture of Tristan und Isolde as a second encore – he had originally intended to perform a different Wanger piece before the organziers of the Israel Festival, at whose invitation the orchestra was performing, made clear that “Wagner should not be played.”

The audience debated Barenboim’s request; most in attendance made clear that they wanted the orchestra to perform Wagner. A few audience members left, but many more stayed and gave the orchestra and maestro a standing ovation. Yet even among those who stayed, not everyone agreed whether Barenboim was in the right: Haaretz wrote at the time that some “spoke about the ‘trick’ that Barenboim had executed, about ‘exploiting the festival stage and the auditorium for his own private obsession,’ and also about the breach of the understanding between him and the festival.”

Since then, no orchestra has performed Wagner again in Israel.

On Tuesday, however, the Israeli Chamber Orchestra performed one of Wagner’s compositions at the Bayreuth Festival, which the composer founded, in Berlin. The festival, where a veriety of Wagner’s operas are performed, is an annual occurrence, organized in part by Wagner’s descendants, many of whom have played an important role in addressing Wagner’s anti-Semitic beliefs. According to Fox News:

The piece, the “Siegfried Idyll,” is a symphonic poem lasting just 20 minutes that Wagner composed for his second wife Cosima after the birth of their son Siegfried in 1869. But the fact that it was played at all has scandalized many Jews, The (London) Times reported Wednesday.

Wagner was a hero of the Fuhrer, who admired and drew inspiration from the composer’s anti-Jewish essays, which raged against the “corruption” of the “German spirit” by Jews.

Playing Wagner is obviously a sensitive subject for many Jews, and increased acceptance of the composer’s music may be a sign of younger generations’ increased distance from the Holocaust.

Yet while Wagner’s views on Jews were unquestionably abhorrent, the opposition to performing his compositions only began after Hitler embraced his work. In the 1930s, the Palestine Orchestra (now the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra) performed works by Wagner, including during its first concerts.

The Philharmonic has intended to play Wagner since 1991, when member musicians voted to perform concert of his music in December, only to see Philharmonic officials cancel their plans.

Playing Wagner in Israel is an issue that arises complex emotions. Some claim that Jews and Israelis should be able to appreciate Wagner’s music, irrespective of his anti-Semitic beliefs, and others argue that Israelis should play Wagner as a way to show the strength of the Jewish people, who thrive around the world more than 65 years since the end of National Socialism in Germany. And many believe that Wagner’s operas, no matter how impressive they might be musically, should not be performed in a Jewish state.

Hopefully the Chamber Orchestra’s decision will reignite a debate that has lain dormant in recent years, which may someday allow more Israelis to realize that Wagner is much more than an idol of Hitler’s; he is a composer of great historical import who fundamentally altered the course of music. If Israel truly wants to consider its classical music scene among the best in the world, Wagner’s compositions ought to be a part of that scene.


Lessons for Germany’s Turks from France’s Jews

By Symi Rom-Rymer In the midst of cheering crowds and booming music at an auditorium in Düsseldorf, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Turkish audience of 10,000 to “integrate…into German society but don’t assimilate. No one has the … Continue reading

Keeping Up With the Times: Digitizing Holocaust Archives

By Amanda Walgrove

The rapid growth of technology, characteristic of the twenty-first century, has altered methods of human relation. Communicating through Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and email correspondence can make interpersonal connections seem trivial and dispassionate, but technological advancements can also produce meaningful intimacy. For example, we can video chat with estranged loved ones on the iPhone and reconnect with old friends through social media networks. The resources of cyberspace not only affect how we communicate, but also how we access, preserve, and retain information.

On the eve of International Holocaust Day, Yad Vashem announced that the world’s largest collection of Holocaust archives would be incorporated into Google’s overwhelmingly vast pool of virtual documents. Yad Vashem began digitizing their collection in the 1990’s but collaboration with Google is a vast leap for any remote assemblage of archives. What was once only accessible to those who visited the museum on a hilltop in Jerusalem is now available at the fingertips of anyone with Internet access. Now 130,000 photographs from the Holocaust archives can be sifted through with the aid of the world’s largest search engine.  Adding to the ease of the search process, the photographs have been scanned using optical character recognition. This means that during a search a photograph can be identified using any text in the picture, even if it is inscribed or written in another language. After locating an image on Google, the picture will then link to Yad Vashem’s website where users are encouraged to add their own text in the “Share Your Thoughts” section. To allow for immediate circulation, there are options to link the page to Facebook, Twitter, and Google Buzz. Family history can be published and distributed in cyber space instantaneously, but this isn’t the first time Google has teamed up with Yad Vashem for these purposes. Due to their first cyber collaboration in 2009, Holocaust survivors were able to post testimonials on their own YouTube Channel. Still, this recent project marks only a stepping-stone in Google’s plans to annex Yad Vashem’s collection of millions of documents, survivor testimonials, diaries, letters and manuscripts.

For Google employee, Doron Avni, this technological merger meant a chance to search for an image of his grandfather with the click of a button. Avni is a policy manager at Google’s research and development center in Israel and once the project was finished, he immediately took advantage of the opportunity. A recent New York Times article featured his search as a prime example of how history can be unearthed from Yad Vashem’s recent circulation project. Avni’s grandfather, Yecheskel Fleischer, was taken in 1941 after he was released from a Nazi-run prison in Lithuania. After locating the photograph of his twenty-seven year old grandfather, Avni was then able to type in the details of his family’s story.

While historical and familial bridges may be gapped, there are always risk factors that accompany the widespread digital circulation of vital information. John Palfrey, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, said that there are concerns about “the central role a company is playing in the preservation of the world’s cultural information.” Although these photographs are not physically tangible in cyberspace, the opportunity for a broad audience to access these documents will have a profound educational impact as well as a sentimental one. “What my grandfather wanted was for the next generation to know about the Holocaust,” Mr. Avni said. “He would have been inspired by this, to know his message is now being communicated to so many people around the world.” The easiest way to access the next generation is through the twenty-first century’s social, educational, and political playground: the World Wide Web. Google’s gradual acquisition of Yad Vashem’s primary sources will enhance the way in which the memory of the Holocaust can be shared and passed on by those who survived and those who left documents behind.

The Human Touch

By Merav Levkowitz

Tuesday (November 9th) marked seventy-two years since Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” which marked the beginning of the Holocaust in Germany. The first manifestation of Nazi-led violence against the Jews, Kristallnacht saw destruction and vandalism of synagogues and Jewish businesses. Over the past few days, Jewish communities around the world have gathered to remember Kristallnacht and the Holocaust. While “Never Forget” has become a mantra for the Jewish people in particular, I, as many others, fear that as time goes on, we risk distancing ourselves from the Holocaust in a dangerous way.

While the Holocaust remains at the root of much of contemporary Jewish thought and action, for many of us it lives on as part of collective memory, which causes pain but is very much intangible. As American Jews in particular, the realities of 1940s Europe are remarkably distant.

Though I am not a descendant of concentration camp survivors, my paternal grandparents escaped to Israel from Poland just before World War II. On both sides, their large families perished at the hands of the Nazis. While I did not grow up seeing the direct imprints (tattoos, even) of the Nazis, the Holocaust was made real for me by my father’s stories of growing up without grandparents. Beyond the stories of what happened, I was struck by what could have been—that is, the way world Jewry, and on a small scale, my own family, would have been different if not for the Nazis.

Museums, monuments, organizations, and films that seek to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, those who perished, and those who acted righteously are crucial to the preservation of knowledge and memory. But they are often sterile; there is nothing like the human touch. In the vast hallways of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, among the statistics and the photographs, I get the chills, but it is when I hear a survivor’s personal account—a story of being separated from parents, for example—that my heart aches and I cry.

My generation is the last that will have the opportunity to meet Holocaust survivors in person. As we lose these contacts, I fear that our understanding of the Holocaust risks fading like old photographs and becoming diluted. It is our duty to maintain our ties with survivors for as long as possible and to preserve their stories. Even in a globalized, virtual world, the human connection continues to reign supreme. Reach out and connect, so that we never forget.

When Good Intentions Meet Reality

By Symi Rom-Rymer

In a recent posting on the Washington Post’s OnFaith blog, a Rabbi and law professor recount their experience on a joint US Jewish-Muslim trip to the concentration camps of Germany and Poland.  According to the authors’ account, “the Muslim leaders were visibly shaken by what they saw” and even those who had previously expressed skepticism about the Holocaust were moved and encouraged those with similar doubts to visit the camps for themselves.

Upon their return, the participating imams issued as statement saying in part, “We condemn any attempts to deny this historical reality and declare such denials or any justification of this tragedy as against the Islamic code of ethics…We have a shared responsibility to continue to work together with leaders of all faiths and their communities to fight the dehumanization of all peoples based on their religion, race or ethnicity. With the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hatred, rhetoric and bigotry, now more than ever, people of faith must stand together for truth. Together, we pledge to make real the commitment of ‘never again’ and to stand united against injustice wherever it may be found in the world today.” Continue reading

Germany and Poland Revisited

By Symi Rom-Rymer

When Helen Thomas declared recently that Jews have no place in Israel and should go home to Germany and Poland, she unleashed a current of outrage within the American Jewish community.  How dare she suggest, they wondered, that Jews should return to the countries of ‘the Final Solution.’

From her comments, it was unclear if she meant that Jews should have been killed in the Holocaust or that they should simply go back to what she viewed as their ancestral homelands–never mind that Israeli Jews are from all over the world, including Israel itself.  However, the reaction within the community to the suggestion of Germany and Poland demonstrates that for many American Jews, it amounts to the same thing.  But, in fact, it is not.  While her proposition is at best preposterous and at worst despicable, let us examine for a moment what exactly today’s Israeli Jews would discover waiting for them in Germany and Poland if they left Israel. Continue reading

Saviors in the Night

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Those seeking a Holocaust movie rendered in bold strokes of black and white, where the distinction between good and evil is clear and unwavering, will not find it in “Saviors in the Night;” the opening film of this year’s  New York Jewish Film Festival.   Directed by Ludi Boeken and based on the 1967 memoir of Marga Spiegel, this film seeks to tell multiple complex stories at once and where there are no clear heroes.

The film begins with a brief prologue: Deep in the muddy trenches of World War I four young, exhausted men in dirty German uniforms help each other flee to safety in the wake of a gas attack. One of those men is Siegmund “Menne” Spiegel, a decorated Jewish soldier who now, 25 years later, must seek the help of his wartime friends when he and his family are in imminent danger of deportation.  Continue reading