February 25, 2020

Amid memories, cemetery documentary imparts lesson of Jewish survival

The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery is 130 years old and has survived the kaiser’s imperial Germany, the Weimar Republic, and, astonishingly, the Nazi regime.

It is the largest active Jewish cemetery in Europe and adds daily to the 115,600 graves on its 100-acre grounds in northeast Berlin.

Offhand, such a site seems an unlikely focus for a 90-minute documentary, but German director Britta Wauer has used her subject as a lively historical guide to Berlin’s Jewry from 1880 to the present.

Even more, “In Heaven, Underground” introduces us to the descendants of the cemetery’s inhabitants as they return from Israel and all corners of the Diaspora to pay respects to their recent and distant ancestors.

Harry Kinderman, whose father worked as a bricklayer at Weissensee, remembers the heavily forested site as an enchanted playground. There Harry and his schoolmates played soccer on the Field of Honor, where many of the 12,000 Jewish soldiers who died for their fatherland in World War I are buried.

Most remarkable is the survival of the cemetery during the Nazi regime, when the storm troopers left the gravestones and extensive archives untouched.

Local legend has it that the brownshirts feared the presence of a protective Golem, but a less fanciful explanation is that the Nazis didn’t get around to destroying the place.

Another threat was a long-standing plan to build an expressway through the forested heart of the cemetery, but the plan was put off by one municipal administration after another.

Overseeing the spiritual, and many of the practical, aspects of the place is Rabbi William Wolff. He proves to be real character, confirming again that in dialect and attitude, native Berliners are the German equivalent of Brooklyn homeboys and girls.

The rabbi explains the importance of sliding a coffin smoothly into the grave and observes that a well-conducted funeral is more important than a wedding ceremony, because “you can help the people more.”

Over the decades, business at the cemetery held pretty steady, except during two dark periods. One was in 1942 and 1943, when Berlin Jews facing deportation committed suicide in large numbers.

Another was during the Soviet occupation of postwar eastern Germany, when the Berlin Wall cut off the Weissensee cemetery from the more populous Jewish community in West Berlin.

Also, the cemetery was largely neglected during the communist era; weeds sprouted on the grounds and the facilities fell into disrepair.

As if to compensate for this neglect, after Russia opened its borders to Jewish emigration, Berlin’s Jewish population expanded rapidly, to the point that Russian émigrés now make up more than 70 percent of the capital’s Jewish community.

For Germans wishing to show their remorse for the crimes of their fathers, the cemetery has become a focal point. Groups of German military reservists show up regularly to perform volunteer maintenance, and students from a nearby high school come to make rubbings of the gravestone inscriptions and to learn the meaning of sitting shivah.

There are other visitors, such as two German researchers taking an inventory of the birds of prey, who find the jungle-like enclave in the middle of the city an ideal venue for their pursuit.

But most of the visitors are descendants of Berlin Jews, seeking some reconnection with their forebears.

After living 30 years in New York, Berlin-born Baruch Bernard Epstein returned to discover, amid tears, the grave of his grandmother.

Daniel Hakerem was born in Israel, the son of German-Jewish refugees. Visiting Weissensee, he, too, found the grave of his grandmother.

Also making an appearance is a group of Israeli soldiers, joined by German troops to pay their respects.

And so the tradition continues in the country once destined to be Judenrein, while a film tackling what could have been a rather morbid subject turns into an affirmation of survival and hope.

“In Heaven, Underground” opens Jan. 13 at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino.