Tag Archives: Jewish History

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.

Not the First (or Last) Jew in Spain

by Hilary Weissman

While studying abroad in Spain this spring. I found myself unintentionally making numerous trips to the southern town of Córdoba– it served as a stop along the way in order to make the most of my EuroRail pass at the end of the semester. Córdoba’s storied Jewish heritage manifested itself when my sister and I were lucky enough to find the Mazal Sephardic restaurant (pun very intended) during my second visit. We sampled pumpkin flan and raisin roasted chicken with rice before the start of Passover, which we later celebrated with a congregation from Madrid. Other than the saffron-spiced yellow gefilte fish, the seder experience felt very familiar, as I was lucky to have my sister there with me to celebrate, daiyenu. We were transported between two different worlds as the Rabbi delivered a sermon and led us through the Spanish haggadah, and then brought us right back to our hometown synagogue, it would seem, as soon as he began to sing in Hebrew. Even his inherent Jewish kibitzing couldn’t be lost in translation.

Learning from my guidebook to Jewish Spain that there are merely 5,000 practicing Jews in Barcelona and Madrid each, along with pockets of communities sprinkled along the Costa del Sol (the southern border of Spain) surprised me much more than finding what was left intact of their ancestors after the original Diaspora. Spanish Jewry left their mark through the Sephardic flavor that enriches Spanish history.

Among the many eye-opening experiences I had while studying in the Madrid province–language immersion, living on my own with seven girls from three different countries, trying exotic and native food, and crossing borders on my own–nothing was quite as charming as my interview and guided tour of the barrio, Alcalá de Henares’ ghost of a Jewish quarter.

You would only know you had entered the Madrid suburb’s Jewish quarter if you happened to catch the small plaques on top of the entryways, marking where the two synagogues were supposed to have been, pointed out to me by the owner of a small souvenir shop on Calle Mayor (Main Street). He said he would show me around the 15th– and 16th-century Jewish homes, lofted apartments over their storefronts, set apart by holes in the floors for the residents to see who was knocking at their front door below. If they knew the caller, they would throw their keys down to let their guests up. My tour guide shared some of his favorite Ladino music with me and, after I told him that our family had traced our lineage back to pre-Inquisition Spain, even let me in on the fact that my grandmother’s maiden name, Mirels, was probably Catalán (from the now-autonomous regions of Cataluña).

Though he claimed not to know much about the Jewish quarter, I spent the next two hours with him discussing the barrio, the architecture, religion, politics and current events. He told me about speaking with the Spanish ambassador to Croatia, who happens to be Jewish, and discussed the symbolism of the proximity of the old Jewish and Muslim quarters of Alcalá. The minor synagogue and the mosque were once across the street. Still, he said, “It became difficult to maintain the Hebrew religion and culture; the same happened with the Muslims—another 300,000 were expelled, and we never speak of this. In Alcalá de Henares alone the expulsion of the Muslims lost 10 percent of the population…but it’s not in the collective Spanish conscience like the expulsion of the Jews.”

After this conversation, I made sure to find the Jewish quarters that remain in several Spanish cities, like Toledo, Córdoba, and Seville. They are kept in various states—some only have rumored ties to Jewish communities and others are left in anthropological disarray, while a few have retained thriving historical proof of our ancestral fingerprints. Toledo, the most well known keeper of Sephardic heritage in Spain, boasts two of Spain’s three remaining pre-Inquisition synagogues, while Córdoba has the third. According to the Casa Sefarad in Córdoba, a colorful museum detailing the Inquisition and the journey of Cordoba’s native son, Maimonides, the 14th-century synagogue in Córdoba is Spain’s best-preserved synagogue, though it has fallen into disuse.

These interviews and trips were perfect supplements to the readings on the Jewish and Moorish coexistence and ultimate expulsion we studied in my Spanish culture and civilization class, in the form of history textbooks and historical fiction excerpts like “The Inquisitor” by Francisco Ayala, a story about a converted Jew who became a priest, confronted by his family and hidden past when they are presented before him to be interrogated. After all the nagging from my mother, grandmother, and every Judaica storeowner in Spain, I finally tackled The Last Jew on my commutes into the city with my newfound understanding of the context, and I think it is better this way, rather than drudging through it before my education abroad.

Revolutionary American Jews

By Adina Rosenthal

“You’re Jewish, so do you celebrate Independence Day?” When you live in a small town with a small Jewish population, such a question is commonplace. Though the reply may be polite (with an inconspicuous jaw-drop, of course), I really want to scream, “Jews enjoy fireworks, barbecues and a day-off from work like everyone else! We’re Americans too, after all!”  Why do people think American Jews don’t celebrate holidays that commemorate American history with dear old Uncle Sam?

Perhaps the reason is that when people look back on this country’s founding, they think of names like John, Thomas and James; not Moishe, Dovid, and Shlomo. Jews are thought of as immigrants who came to the United States about 100 years ago with strong ties to Eastern Europe and, eventually, Israel, so what part could they possibly have played back in 1776?  As it turns out, Jews were in the thick of the American Revolution.

Of the 2.5 million colonists in 1776, the Jewish population in America numbered no more than 2,000. These Jews were mostly Sephardic, of Spanish and Portuguese origin, emigrating from South America, the Caribbean and Western Europe to the American colonies. Despite such small numbers, Jews played an active role in the American cause on a variety of fronts. Financially, Jews like Jonas Philips, who had business connections to their coreligionists in the West Indies, became blockade-runners, jeopardizing their ships to bring goods through the British blockade on American ports.

Among investors, Polish-born Jewish immigrant Haym Solomon, played a significant role in financing the revolution. After being arrested as a spy by the British in 1776, Solomon was pardoned and served as an interpreter for the Hessians (German troops hired to fight for the British). In this role, Solomon helped prisoners escape and encouraged the Hessian mercenaries to desert, resulting in another arrest and a death sentence. Fortunately, Solomon managed to escape to the patriot capital, Philadelphia, where he used his financial acumen to support the rebels, lending thousands of dollars to the Continental Congress and advancing the American government $200,000 during the war effort. Solomon also supported his fellow Jews, becoming an influential member of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel Congregation and advocating to repeal the restrictive laws that barred non-Christians from serving in public office. In 1975, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Solomon as a “Financial Hero…responsible for raising most of the money needed to finance the American Revolution and later to save the new nation from collapse.”

Jews also served bravely on the battlefield side-by-side with their non-Jewish compatriots. Examples include Lieutenant Colonel David S. Franks, an adjutant to Benedict Arnold; Dr. Philip Moses Russell, George Washington’s surgeon; and Colonel Solomon Bush, adjutant general of the Pennsylvania militia. In Charleston, South Carolina, location of the largest American Jewish population until 1830, most Jews served on the American side of the conflict, with one regiment comprising so many Jews that it became known as the “Jew Company.” One important Jewish South Carolinian, Francis Salvador, championed the American cause as a member of the South Carolina General Assembly, the first Jew to hold the office in any of the American colonies. Salvador served as a delegate to the revolutionary Provincial Congress, which set forth the colonists’ complaints against Britain, as well as on a commission that attempted to convince the Loyalists throughout the colony to join the American cause. Unfortunately, Salvador could not see his efforts come to fruition, as he died in combat in 1776, becoming the first Jewish casualty of the war. In 1950, to celebrate the bicentennial of Charleston’s Jewish community, the City of Charleston erected a plaque in commemoration of Salvador that reads:

Born an aristocrat, he became a democrat, an Englishman, he cast his lot with America.
True to his ancient faith, he gave his life for new hopes of human liberty and understanding.

Jewish participation in the American cause did not go unnoticed in revolutionary times either. In response to a letter from Moses Seixas, warden of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington wrote:

May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

This letter not only set the standard for religious freedom in the fledgling nation, but also solidified Jews as citizens in the newly created United States of America.

So, on Independence Day, I will raise my Hebrew National hotdog in the air to commemorate the Jewish patriots who served this country in the American Revolution, who fought for our freedoms and our livelihoods, which include allowing us to live as both proud Jews and Americans.  No questions asked.

Auschwitz, in 2011

by Kayla Green

Today marks Yom HaShoah, the day we commemorate those killed during the Holocaust. Across the world, people share stories of those who survived and those who didn’t, of yellow stars and barbed wire, of a terrifying life lived in ghettos and camps. Among the camps, Auschwitz is often pointed to as the pinnacle of the Nazis’ brutal science. The horror that occurred at the three death camps that comprise Auschwitz should be memorialized as, in the words of a plaque at the camp, “a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.” However, to some people, Auschwitz, or rather, Oświęcim (the Polish pronunciation of the word, which was used before Nazi occupation) is more than the site of the world’s most terrible genocide: To this day, Oświęcim still exists as a town.

More specifically, Oświęcim, (the place which once housed death camps Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Monowitz,) is now a small town, with a population of about 43,000 inhabitants and an area of 30.3 square kilometers. Every day, these 43,000 people go on living their lives, moving forward in a place so deeply tied to the past. To many, it must seem backwards to go on living this way, establishing a life in a graveyard. Even Oświęcim’s town square, filled with stores and businesses, is built on a bunker. The once-proud castle is now a coffee shop. The street that comprised the “Jewish quarter” is desolate.

Surprisingly, considering that Oświęcim does not have a single Jewish resident, the town does still have a synagogue, which serves as a Jewish museum, synagogue and education center.

The museum is built from the home of the Kornreich family, former residents of Oswiecim. The main exhibition is dedicated to displaying the nearly 500 years of Jewish history, tradition, and culture that once existed in Oswiecim, giving visitors a sense of what Jewish life once was in a place where such a thing seems incomprehensible. The museum is filled with photographs of individuals and families, documents and artifacts from local Jewish organizations and businesses, and Judaica excavated in 2004 from beneath the site of the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim. Personal stories of the Holocaust survivors from Oswiecim, who live in Israel today, are featured in a special exhibition.

The Temple component, known as the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, is the only surviving Jewish house of prayer in Oswiecim. Built in 1913, it survived a transformation into a munitions warehouse during the war and then a carpet warehouse during communism. In 1998, the synagogue became the first Jewish communal property to be returned to a Jewish community in Poland and the recipients of the property, the Bielsko-Biala Jewish Community, donated the synagogue to the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation. The building was completely restored to the pre-war condition described in testimonies and the recollections of survivors, and was re-opened in September 2000. Despite being the only Jewish house of worship within 3 kilometers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the synagogue currently has neither Rabbi nor congregation.

Finally, the Auschwitz Jewish Center has an Education Center, dedicated to public education about the richness of pre-war life, the Holocaust, and the dangers of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. A wide range of programs, including workshops, lectures, seminars, meetings, tours, and cultural events, are available for visitors. The Center also organizes tours of the synagogue, cemetery, and town for family, school, and adult groups.

More than anything, it is the Education Center that gives the town of Oświęcim a sense of progress. Right in the center of a town that will forever be associated with genocide and hatred, there is movement toward a peaceful future.

Denmark’s Jewish Heritage

by Kayla Green

Many experiences come to mind when one imagines a trip to Copenhagen, including seeing the famous statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, visiting ornate castles and indulging in decadent smorgasbords. However, what is not as well known is the rich Jewish history and multitude of Jewish sights at the fingertips of any tourist visiting Denmark’s capital.

The Danish-Jewish community has been thriving for 400 years and is the oldest in Scandinavia. Today there are about 7,000 Jews in Denmark, the majority of whom  live in Copenhagen. Denmark’s Jews range in origin from Spain and Poland to Germany and Russia.

The Danish Jewish Museum gives a good first taste of Jewish Copenhagen. The building was designed by Daniel Libeskind, whose Studio design study was selected in February 2003 as the master site plan for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center Site, and who also designed Berlin’s Jewish Museum. The museum itself is truly a sight to behold—in true Libeskind style, the architecture and décor are ultra-modern, from the sloped blond-wood walls to the interactive screens that provide visitors with additional information and videos. At the entrance of the museum, there is a video describing the Jewish community in Denmark in which Libeskind, who is of Polish-Jewish descent, discusses the flourishing community. Libeskind based the museum’s architectural design on the idea of mitzvah to symbolize the rescue of Danish Jews in 1943 and the peaceful coexistence of Jews in Denmark.

The rescue on which the museum is based truly exemplifies the relationship between Denmark and its Jewish community. In October 1943, when Hitler ordered that Danish Jews be arrested and deported, many Danes took part in a collective effort to evacuate their country’s Jews to nearby neutral Sweden. The rescue allowed 7,000 members of Denmark’s Jewish population to avoid capture by the Nazis while 481 were sent to Thresienstadt. The rescue, or “Mitzvah,” is considered to be one of the largest actions of collective resistance in the countries occupied by Nazi Germany. Over 99% of Denmark’s Jewish population survived the Holocaust.

The memory of this astonishing resistance, as well as the thankfulness of the global Jewish community, is represented by Israeli artist Bernard Reder’s sculpture, “Wounded Woman,” located in Churchill Park behind the Museum of Danish Resistance. Reder’s passion for the subject is obvious in the piece, which depicts a group of intertwined stone nude female figures twisted together in strong support. The sculpture, unveiled in 1969, was presented by the State of Israel to the Danish people in appreciation of their support.

Aside from the Danish Jewish Museum and the “Wounded Woman,” Copenhagen boasts several other symbols of the positive relationship between Denmark and its Jewish community. The Copenhagen synagogue is situated in the oldest part of the city, in a building constructed in 1830-1833 based on drawings by Professor G.H. Hetsch, who was also responsible for the design of  St. Ansgar’s, Copenhagen’s Catholic cathedral. The synagogue sits behind a high gate—its brown façade blends well with its neighbors, but the gold Hebrew lettering notifies passersby of its Jewish heritage.

One of the most exceptional sights in Copenhagen is Israel’s Square. The small, centrally located park contains a large memorial stone, erected in 1975 with the following inscription: “This stone from the Holy Land is a gift to the Danish People from friends of Denmark in Israel 1975 – And night fell and morning came”. More than anything, this memorial displays that the positive sentiment that characterized the relationship between Jews and Denmark in the past still exists, and will continue to do so.

An Ancient Synagogue in Damascus

By Samantha Sisskind

If you go to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Damascus, Syria, you’ll find hardly any obvious traces of Jewish life.  There remains a school that is unidentifiable as a Jewish institution, a few doors with the Star of David engraved in the granite lintel of the doorways, a small unobtrusive synagogue, abandoned houses and storefronts and some dusty narrow streets.  If you didn’t know it was there, it would be virtually unrecognizable as a relic of a once-vibrant Jewish community with a heritage and history centuries long. However, the major monument to Jewish life in the country lies in the National Museum of Syria, just a few minutes outside of the Old City. At the very end of the classical period wing, past the Greek, Roman and Palmyrene exhibits, you’ll find a reconstruction of a third century synagogue from the initially Syrian Greek city of Dura Europos, a trading hub along the Euphrates River. Not only will you see beautiful clay wall and ceiling tiles painted with flora and fauna, but also frescoes from the walls of the synagogue depicting scenes from the Torah and portraits of Abraham, Ezra and Moses.

The frescoes from the synagogue at Dura Europos tell a fascinating story of one of the first synagogues erected in the Jewish Diaspora. Hidden under a ramp built by the Persians at the end of the third century C.E., the synagogue’s frescoes were undisturbed for over fifteen hundred years afterward until its discovery by the British military in 1921. The style and character of the frescoes at the synagogue borrow from Hellenistic art, and the architecture draws from the dominant Byzantine religious art culture of the time of the temple’s construction. Of the four frescoed walls, the best preserved is the Western Wall, which benefited from the ramp’s direct protection and faces Jerusalem. Surrounding a permanent ark niche carved into the wall are paintings of David as the King over Israel; the Red Sea crossing; the infancy of Moses; the anointing of David; Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; the sacrifice of Isaac; Moses receiving the tablet and many other biblical stories. The lack of any archaeological evidence for a gender separation barrier in the prayer room makes the worship culture of the Dura Europos Jews even more curious and divergent from the traditional Jewish practices.

While artistic renditions of animals and scenes from the Torah have been found on Jewish artifacts from that time period, nothing of this magnitude and detail has ever been discovered.  Some scholars maintain that the Jews in Dura Europos were influenced by the decorated Christian churches in the same city and Dura Europos was home to several religious groups and tolerant of the faiths of all its residents.  Yet the more prevalent theory is that the synagogue was decorated and painted to resemble a Roman temple so that worshippers could avoid religious persecution.

On the surface, it appears that the Jews of Dura Europos diverted from their faith in order to avoid punishment from the Romans. However, upon second glance, they seem more like Hannah and her sons in the Hanukkah story, who refused to break the commandments or apostatize, even when faced with execution. Like them, the Jews of Dura Europos prayed under the Romans’ noses and defied Roman law in order to stay true to their Jewish heritage while they were far from the Holy Land.

The Dura Europos Jewish community’s beliefs and interpretations of the Torah remain a mystery to this day, but the synagogue is a monument to the development and transition of Jewish faith and practices in the Diaspora. It is a testament to the existence of Jewish life outside the Holy Land, and a rare example of the resilience of a Jewish community in the face of unfriendly foreign occupation.

Traveler’s Note: If you are able to pay a visit to Syria and you’d like to go to the National Museum in Damascus to see the frescoes from the synagogue at Dura Europos, don’t plan your trip for the upcoming year. The entire classical wing is currently closed for renovations, and a few other exhibits are closed for renovations as well. Visiting to the ruins themselves may be slightly disappointing as little remains but rocky foundations, and would require much imagination to picture the city as it once was. However, viewing the museum in Damascus first and then traveling to the historical site near the modern town of Salhieh will give you more context and insight, and would be a much more educational and beneficial experience.

This article referenced the book “Dura Europos,” written by Bashir Zahdi and published by the National Museum of Syria in Damascus, as well as a very well synthesized and researched article analyzing the historical significance of the art and architecture of the synagogue.