When I was asked five years ago if I could make a documentary about the Weissensee cemetery in Berlin I was full of fascination for Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery still in use – but also skeptical. Who would go to the cinema to watch a cemetery film? The special nature of the Weissensee cemetery, the mixture of stone graves and wild and rampant nature, the miracle that this site survived the Nazi era without being destroyed – can be best experienced by going there oneself.
I felt that a film would have to show things that remain hidden to the cemetery visitor on a Sunday morning walk; the stories behind the gravestones. I didn’t want to tell the story of the well-known people who are buried there like Louis Lewandowski, the composer of synagogal music or Adolf Jandorf the founder of Berlin’s famous department store KaDeWe. Their life stories are written in books or can be easily found online. I was searching for unknown stories and people who were almost forgotten.
The index cards in the cemetery registry are still in existence but don’t tell who the 116,000 people were who lie buried there. I thought that scattered around the world are living grandchildren, nephews or cousins of these people. But what do these descendants know about their ancestors? Does something link them to the cemetery in Weissensee? And how was I to find them?
Hermann Simon, Director of the “Centrum Judaicum” in Berlin, suggested publishing an article in the magazine “Aktuell” which is issued by the Berlin Senate and sent to former Berliners all over the world. In May 2007 I wrote about the film project in this magazine and asked for help. I hoped that perhaps 20 or 30 people would respond to the article, but within a few weeks almost 250 letters arrived! It was a lovely surprise, but also quite overwhelming. The mail came from New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa, Canada, the USA, Australia, Israel and every corner of Europe. A 95 year-old from Australia sent pictures from his last visit to the family grave in 1936 and a woman from New York remembered how she was sent to the cemetery to work there as a fourteen year-old. Sad stories, fascinating descriptions, useful information and incredible facts all reached me. In this moment I thought: if there is such a strong initial response I can risk making a film about the Weissensee cemetery. On the other hand I could not cope with the growing correspondence which soon filled 12 files. With each new letter I realized how impossible it was to get all the special and fascinating stories into one film. Which should I choose?
Naturally the era of Nazi dictatorship overshadows all other events. But I didn’t want to restrict myself to recounting deaths from those years. I wanted the screen be filled with people telling stories of the rich lives that were once led in Berlin. Many of those buried there achieved something special or experienced something strange. I wanted to show the period around 1900 when German Jews were proud of their “Fatherland” and also the post WWII era when the cemetery belonged to East Berlin.
The film does not aim to tell the complete story of this place, but to bring together collected memories. The idea was one of pursuing a few human fates and letting protagonists who were personally connected tell the tale. People with memories, feelings and thoughts make plain to the viewer what is precious about Weissensee.
Of course, there is no chance of being comprehensive. At the end only five stories from the hundreds I received appear in the film. A comfort to me is that the be.bra publishing house was pleased to issue an accessory book containing over 70 stories with text in both German and English. All the original correspondence has been preserved in the archives of the “Centrum Judaicum” in Berlin waiting for a historian or student who will take a look at this treasure about German-Jewish history.
In Heaven Underground, a documentary about the Jewish cemetery in Berlin-Weissensee just opened in New York’s Cinema Village followed by a national release (Seventh Art Releasing).
The book “The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. Moments in History” contains over 140 historic and current photographs is available at www.amazon.co.uk