Reflections at Weissensee Cemetery-Berlin, Germany
Weißensee Cemetery – I seek out Jewish cemeteries when I travel or cemeteries in general as I find them quieting, peaceful and meditative. Between my love of World War II history and because of my Jewish ancestry I knew I had to spend time at Weissensee Cemetary. I made my way to the Friedrichstraße main station and caught Train S7 in the direction of Ahrensfelde Bhf and got off on the first stop at S Hackescher Market in the direction of Falkenberg. From there, it was 10 stops to Albertinenstr. From that tram, I figured out which direction to walk on Herbert-Baum Strasse and came upon the largest Jewish cemetery in all of Europe.
The fact that this cemetery survived during the Third Reich is a miracle in itself. Approximately 115,000 graves are set in over one hundred acres. Crunching leaves rustled beneath my feet as I walked through the graveyard filled with a mix of Italian renaissance and Art Nouveau styles. I viewed sunken gravestones tucked under trees as the rain started and stopped, adding a quiet soundtrack to my much needed solitude. Towards the end of my walk, I sat in a tomb from the 11th century and saw tiny stones and notes, similar to those tucked into the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The entire experience was humbling and offered me time to think and reflect about how temporary our lives are.
My first stop was Herbert Baum’s grave. Baum was a Jewish member of the German resistance against National Socialism. He organized meetings, along with his wife, to deal with the threat of Nazism. Baum became the personification of Jewish resistance against the Nazis in Germany. Just like my father, Baum was forced into slave labor. He was at Siemens-Schuckertwerke, which today is Siemens AG. He was at the helm of a group of Jewish laborers at the plant who went into the Berlin underground, to escape being deported to the concentration camps. He organized an arson attack on May 18, 1942. This anticommunist and anti-Semitic propaganda exhibition was prepared by Joseph Goebbels at the Berliner Lustgarten. Because the attack was not a full success, meaning Baum only partially destroyed “The Soviet Paradise” exhibit, he was arrested, along with his wife and other members of his group. Baum was tortured to death as was his wife Marianne.
I continued wandering and paused at the outstanding beauty including stunning craftsmanship of wrought iron, mosaics and stone. The early tablets erected before World War I are Silesian Marble or Saxon Sandstone and younger ones were made of Scandinavian dark hard rock or even artificial stone in the 40’s. I was pleased simply to have found German-Jewish painter and printmaker Max Liebermann’s grave.
The Department of History of Architecture and Urban Design of the Berlin Institute of Technology, the Berlin State Office for the Preservation of Historic Monuments and the Centrum Judaicum cooperated on a comprehensive project from 2010 to 2012 to document the entirety of the 134 burial fields. I’ve read that there are aims to make this cemetery a UNESCO World Heritage site. Because it suffered almost no damage during The Third Reich, it forms one of the most important and best-preserved Jewish monuments in Germany.
Perhaps because all of my father’s family (mother, father, three sisters, two brothers) were killed at Auschwitz and one brother died in Treblinka during the uprising, and because my family from Poland have no graves at all, I find these graves remarkably beautiful. I see tiny stones resting atop gravestones where people have visited someone from their past and I find beauty in that dignity.
Being at the Weissensee Cemetary offered me a quiet place to take a long walk, a journey into the past. Even if one doesn’t have family there it is a special sacred place to walk, wander, remember and wonder.
The photos I’ve made remind me to enjoy the present while I still have my inhale and exhale and to breath in deeply and profoundly as we enter into the Age of Aquarius. We have such a short amount of time here. I hope that these images will remind every one of us to stay present to what’s in front of us, to embrace our changing consciousness in humanity, and remember that we are all going to the same place where death is the great equalizer.
Reflections at Weissensee Cemetary-Berlin, Germany
The zinc-clad, jagged structure of the Jewish Museum in Berlin is likened to a deconstructed Star of David, which I find genius. Zig zagging turns, slopes, voids all designed by Daniel Libeskind, a Polish-Jewish architect based in the U.S. His idea was to invoke disorientation, loss and the destruction of Jewish Life. Every facet of the museum from the plan, shape, style, interior and exterior arrangement of the building are part of a complicated philosophical programme to illustrate the history and culture of Germany’s Jewish community and the repercussions of the Holocaust.
I purposely set out early in the morning so I could savor the silence before I entered the space located in what was West Berlin before the fall of the Wall. I believe that a Jewish Museum in Berlin offers not just a memorial but dedication to the rebirth of the Jewish people and their history. The Jewish Museum (Jüdisches Museum) has succeeded. Every place I visit, every word I write and every time I share, I honor the memory of my father, who survived eight Nazi forced labor camps.
In March 1939, the Berlin couple Ruth & Wolfgang Prager, sent their children on a transport to Sweden. Because Ruth required treatment in a sanitarium, she and Wolfgang put off emigrating until it was too late. In October 1941, they were deported to the Lodz ghetto, where they died the following year. Here is the letter they sent to their children.
The Holocaust tower is a void of intimidating height with no windows, blank walls and a small slit just under the ceiling which allows in a tiny amount of light and amplifies the outside sounds. Being in this room one is completely separated from the rest of the museum (and world) which invokes a feeling of isolation while feeling the cold. This room is best visited alone to receive the full experience. It felt like having a moment, one tiny space of what it must have been like to be a prisoner in a camp, being incarcerated by the Nazis. Victor Frankl wrote of camp inmates experiencing shock, apathy, and depersonalization in Man’s Search for Meaning. I remember my father, when interviewed for Spielberg’s Shoah project, cried and explained that he choose not to share with his children when we were young because “I didn’t want them to know the suffering I went through.” The heavy door is opened and I couldn’t get out fast enough. As a second generation survivor, I experienced a brief feeling of discomfort that can never, ever come close to what my father experienced in the labor camps for years.
The Jewish Museum is dedicated to 2,000 years of history, culture and traditions of the Jewish communities in Germany. I loved the physical voids that Libeskind created throughout the building. These so-called voids extend vertically throughout the entire museum and represent the absence of Jews from German society.
The Memory Void contains a work by the Israeli artist Menace Kadishman, who calls his installation, “Shalekhet,” or “Fallen Leaves.” He has dedicated the over 10,000 faces covering the floor not only to Jews killed during the Shoah but to all innocent victims of war and violence. These 10,000 faces punched out of steel are distributed on the ground of the Memory Void. You can walk on the faces and listen to the sounds created by the metal sheets as they clang and rattle against each other. I think it’s powerful and made to unnerve.
The Garden of Exile is forty-nine tilted pillars to represent the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 plus one for Berlin. The garden symbolizes the forced exile of Germany’s Jews. There are concrete columns with oleaster (which look like olive but are wild) trees surrounding them. It’s not truly a garden to relax in and that’s precisely the point and intention.
As I exited the museum and began to find the train station that I came from, I began my solitary walk looking at people, trees, sidewalks, cafes, buses, bicyclists. Walking helps me to simultaneously quiet my mind while thinking. My thoughts flow better when I am moving my legs. Walking helps me reclaim myself as I am recently overworked, which feels like self escape. Unable to turn off the demands at work by not switching off my phone, I am invigorated by walking and being disconnected. I am inspired by the cold air and rain and relish the surprises I find when simply wandering. I have always been motivated to photograph exactly what my eyes see.
In Augustiner’s Restaurant, I was captivated by these two men’s faces while the Festival of Lights was endlessly compelling.
“A Jew must believe in miracles. If a Jew doesn’t believe in miracles, he is not a realist.” – Simon Wiesenthal
I traveled to Berlin for the opening of the Berlin Foto Biennial 2016, where I am part of the Second Generation Holocaust photographers exhibit with a triptych from my seven year, ongoing series called Survivor, a study on my father’s survival of eight Nazi forced labor camps.
Another reason for Berlin’s appeal for me is its volatility, its traumatic history. I feel a Berlin traumatized by its historical suffering, its emotional past. There is almost a haunting aspect to the city. A city where Hitler came to power in 1933, the site of the infamous Olympic games in 1936, Kristallnacht – where Jewish properties were attacked and set on fire in 1938, Hitler’s headquarters–and the place where the Führer took his last breath & World War II from 1938 to 1945. A historic, reunited capital where a 96.2 miles long wall divided family and friends for 28 years, the only border fortification in history built to keep people from leaving rather than to protect them. Berlin is a capital that has been the most powerful and also fallen to the lowest of lows. Yet Berlin is also a city of tolerance, liberalism, a center of the arts and truly a cutting edge cultural center of Europe.
I spent time years ago in Frankfurt, when I was working in the publishing world and attended the annual Frankfurt Book Fair but Frankfurt does not hold the appeal for me that Berlin does. Berlin is tucked away in the north-eastern area of Germany and is only 49.7 miles from another favorite place I love–Poland.
As I walk along Friedrichstrasse, I think about the great German artist Käthe Kollwitz, regarded as the most important German artist of the twentieth century who worked with drawing, etching, lithography, woodcuts, painting, printmaking and sculpture. Käthe Kollwitz captured the hardships suffered by the working class in drawings, paintings, and prints. She went to Munich to study at the Women’s Art School. She didn’t want to be controlled by her father and also wanted freedom as a married woman.
The death of her youngest son in battle in 1914 profoundly affected her, and she expressed her grief in another cycle of prints that treat the themes of a mother protecting her children and of a mother with a dead child. Kollwitz lost her husband in 1940, her grandson during WWII in 1942. She created timeless art works after suffering a life of great sorrow and heartache believing that art not only can but should change the world. Kollwitz created art that stirred emotions, incited action and served the people.For twelve years; from 1924 to 1932 Kollwitz also worked on a granite monument for her son, which depicted her husband and herself as grieving parents. In 1932 it was erected as a memorial in a cemetery near Ypres, Belgium. Her art did not serve the state thus Hitler hated what she created. In 1936 she was barred by the Nazis from exhibiting, her art classified as degenerate and was removed from galleries. Kollwitz said “All my work hides within in life itself, and it is with life that I contend through my work.”
I also think of The Berlin Trilogy–David Bowie’s creative apex where he wrote three consecutively released studio albums that Bowie referred to as his DNA: Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979). Bowie moved to Berlin to escape the drug scene in Los Angeles (yet fell back on his bad habits initially). Berlin became Bowie’s sanctuary because he could be more anonymous there than in Los Angeles. His genius was his constant desire to reinvent himself. Low and Heroes were both recorded at Hansa Studios, known then as “Hansa by the Wall” because the Berlin Wall could be seen from the control room. I loved Lodger, a concept album about a homeless traveler. I can still hear the lyrics from Breaking Glass on the Low album. “You’re such a wonderful person, but you got problems.” I always loved Bowie because he rejected conformity, truly he was out of the box.
The nights were cold and windy and often rainy yet I feel invigorated coming from the recent relentless heat and two hour daily commutes in Los Angeles. Instead of sitting in a car for hours of traffic, I am free to roam about walking from trains to trams to underground travel.
I chose the Melia Berlin Hotel for multiple reasons but mainly for the location along the river Spree, on the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Am Weidendamn and only 100 meters from Friedrichstraße Station which provided me with great underground, city rail, and tram links to all parts of Berlin. Not to mention their restaurant with an extensive menu of Spanish tapas which is one of my favorite ways to eat in the world. I ended up never eating at the tapas bar because I was enjoying the German food so much.
S-Bahnhof Friedrichstraße Station used to be the border station between East and West Berlin. Built in 1882 to a design by Johannes Vollmer, a roof was added in 1925 that covers the hall and & the platforms. The only remaining structure from the original station is the special pavilion once used as a waiting room by those waiting for emigration clearance. The nickname of “Palace of Tears” refers to Berliners from different sides of the city would say goodbye to each other after a visit.
I ventured out in the rain (it is a venture because of my cameras) to find the Brandenburg Gate, an 18th century neoclassical monument and symbol of European unity and peace. The site of major historical events, it is considered a symbol of the tumultuous history of Europe and Germany. It is truly the quintessential symbol of Berlin and one of the few remaining historic city gates. I had the bonus of being there during Berlin’s Festival of Lights– famous landmarks beautifully lit up by lights.
The gate is one block south to the Holocaust Memorial or Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; a truly radical concept for a memorial. The construction of this memorial for the Jews killed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 began April 1, 2003 and was finished December 15, 2004. Designed by US architect Peter Eisenmann, it covers 205,000 square feet. It’s above ground, an undulating field of 2,711 visible, graffiti-resistant coating concrete slabs which you can enter from all sides and walk through. They are organized in rows, 54 of them going north–south, and 87 heading east–west at right angles but set slightly askew. The memorial leaves you to contemplate the meaning of the design. I returned multiple times during the day and the evening. Rain slowly flowing down the slabs looked like tears to me.
Around the corner is the Hotel Adlon, which opened its doors in 1907. It was largely destroyed in 1945, in the closing days of World War II. The new building is a design largely inspired by the original, other sources say only loosely inspired by the original. Only a two minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate and three minutes from the Berlin Wall, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin stayed here but my real reason for wanting to view it was because Michael Jackson stayed in the presidential suite. On Tuesday, Nov 19, 2002, he was caught up in the moment and showed his baby nicknamed Blanket to the fans waving below his balcony.
Here are some photos I made my first day and night wandering the streets in Berlin.
“Berlin -The greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.”