Berlin for Jews: A Twenty-First-Century Companion

Berlin for Jews: A Twenty-First-Century Companion

by Leonard Barkan


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What is it like to travel to Berlin today, particularly as a Jew, and bring with you the baggage of history? And what happens when an American Jew, raised by a secular family, falls in love with Berlin not in spite of his being a Jew but because of it?  The answer is Berlin for Jews. Part history and part travel companion, Leonard Barkan’s personal love letter to the city shows how its long Jewish heritage, despite the atrocities of the Nazi era, has left an inspiring imprint on the vibrant metropolis of today. 

Barkan, voraciously curious and witty, offers a self-deprecating guide to the history of Jewish life in Berlin, revealing how, beginning in the early nineteenth century, Jews became prominent in the arts, the sciences, and the city’s public life. With him, we tour the ivy-covered confines of the Schönhauser Allee cemetery, where many distinguished Jewish Berliners have been buried, and we stroll through Bayerisches Viertel, an elegant neighborhood created by a Jewish developer and that came to be called Berlin’s “Jewish Switzerland.”  We travel back to the early nineteenth century to the salon of Rahel Varnhagen, a Jewish society doyenne, who frequently hosted famous artists, writers, politicians, and the occasional royal. Barkan also introduces us to James Simon, a turn-of-the-century philanthropist and art collector, and we explore the life of Walter Benjamin, who wrote a memoir of his childhood in Berlin as a member of the assimilated Jewish upper-middle class.  Throughout, Barkan muses about his own Jewishness, while celebrating the rich Jewish culture on view in today’s Berlin. 

A winning, idiosyncratic travel companion, Berlin for Jews offers a way to engage with German history, to acknowledge the unspeakable while extolling the indelible influence of Jewish culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226010663
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/04/2016
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Leonard Barkan is the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton, where he teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature and holds appointments in art and archaeology, English, and classics.  His books include The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism and Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture.

Read an Excerpt

Berlin for Jews

A Twenty-First-Century Companion

By Leonard Barkan

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-01083-0


Places: Schönhauser Allee

For those who seek the body and soul of Jewish Berlin, whether on foot or in guidebooks, ground zero tends to be pinpointed in the Scheunenviertel, or "Barn Quarter," named for a proliferation of structures that once kept highly flammable hay, as well as some less than desirable inhabitants, away from center city. It's a neighborhood within the larger outlines of Mitte that stretches from Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz westward, and it certainly qualifies for such a community-defining status. Within this square mile we find some of the earliest authorized settlements of Jews in the metropolis; and, not far into this period of history, we can locate the entrance point into Berlin of the fourteen-year-old beggar-student Moses Mendelssohn. Through the nineteenth century, it was the immigrant zone par excellence for the Ostjuden, immigrants from the East, after Berlin's middle- and upper-class Jews had succeeded in leaving such oriental traces behind them. And — presumably uniting the opposite ends of the social spectrum — it became the site for the Neue Sinagoge when that grandiose building was constructed on Oranienburger Straße in the 1860s.

The visitor of today, to be sure, won't want to miss this densely packed urban fabric of reclaimed Jewishness: not only the Synagogue (nowadays, only incidentally a synagogue, and principally a museum), but also the remains of Jewish schools and hospitals, and an early extant, or barely extant, graveyard, which includes an approximation of Moses Mendelssohn's resting place. How pleasant as well that the same neighborhood is ablaze with contemporary art galleries, intriguingly alternative eateries, and chic clothing boutiques. Indeed, one can visit the beautiful 1920s building in the "New Objectivity" style that once housed the Jewish Girls' School, and find it now transformed into several floors of art installations cohabiting with a fashion forward contemporary restaurant and an ersatz New York deli serving gray replicas of matzo balls.

Not that any of these twenty-first-century ironies, or Der Spiegel's droll announcement of the building's inauguration — "Warhol und Pastrami to go" — should be allowed to detract from the historical primacy of the Scheunenviertel. Be that as it may, my travelogue does not begin there, seeking instead some corners of the city where the heritage feels a little less commodified and a little more alive.

Okay, so "alive" is going to turn a little ironic when I reveal that one of my candidates for Jewish ground zero is, in fact, a cemetery. We'll return to those paradoxes anon; for the moment, though, let it be said that there are two epicenters in my own Jewish Berlin: one is in the East, the other in the West, one reflects Berlin in the nineteenth century, the other in the twentieth; one is a place where people lived, the other where they were laid to rest.

If I choose death before life, it is for the simple reason that the idea of writing this book came to me — not exactly full-blown, but with stunningly focused effect — at the moment when I first entered the Schönhauser Allee Jewish burial ground. What I was expecting, as I passed through the little iron gate of the cemetery and donned the obligatory loaner yarmulke, was nothing very uplifting: here, after all, was a graveyard that had witnessed a century or so of history before 1933, then the unspeakable annihilations sponsored by Nazi terror, then the decimations of total war that reduced the city to rubble, then forty or so years of stewardship under the DDR, presumably no special protector of imperial history or religious observance. What I saw, however, was a landscape of serene elegiac beauty. There were, to be sure, a goodly number of tumbled and even crumbled gravestones, though whether it was owing to the Holocaust or bombing raids or simply the ravages of time I couldn't tell. But I also felt that I had entered upon the gracious memorial garden of a particular past in which proud, well-to-do, and accomplished Jews had staked their claim on the civilization of a great city (Figure 1.1).

Why, precisely, was I so struck? My Manhattan upbringing, to begin with, did not prepare me for the notion of a center-city graveyard. Granted, there are a few historic burial grounds with ancient, barely legible markers wedged in among the brownstones of Greenwich Village or the high-rises of the Financial District. But where I grew up it is unimaginable to find the kind of commemorative space where generations of the local citizenry have been interred and where a visitor of today can swiftly exit from the density of the urban landscape and take a bucolic stroll down this sort of memory lane. That would require, by my count, 29 stops on the Lexington Avenue IRT, for Woodlawn, and God only knows how long a ride into the terra incognita of Queens, for the many such sites located in that spacious borough. A fact brought home to me many years ago when the limo returning us in blistering heat from my father's interment broke down on the L.I.E. very far from any alternative transportation; I'm happy to report that when the hired rabbi, unknown to any of us before that moment since we were a decidedly rabbi-less family, lost all semblance of his unctuous clerical dignity and turned nasty in the face of this inconvenience to his pastoral schedule, my mother and I both got the giggles. Nor is this set of geographical arrangements merely a new world phenomenon: famous European cemeteries like Highgate and Père Lachaise are also tucked rather far from town centers.

Less so Berlin. There are, of course, important burial grounds at remote corners of the map, including the monumental successor to Schönhauser Allee, Friedhof Weissensee, said to be the largest Jewish resting place in Europe. (Like the Scheunenviertel, it has interested other chroniclers of Jewish Berlin more than it has interested me, though if you have three or four days to spare you can attempt to walk its perimeter.) But it is also possible to come across a considerable number of cemeteries, of all faiths, by taking the briefest of detours off the urban grid. I commend the St. Matthäus Kirchhof, scarcely five minutes' walk from the gritty Yorckstraße S-Bahn station, where you can see the identical tombstones of the Grimm Brothers lined up in a row; whether this regimented formation appears ominous or comical may depend on one's mood. Or, if you can tear yourself away from the hectic café life of Bergmannstraße, it takes only moments to enter a complex of Kreuzberg Protestant burial grounds and do as I did, which was to place memorial pebbles on the graves of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn — a microscopic act of protest against their family conversion. (I was disappointed at not being the first to commit this little sacrilege: my contribution joined a sizeable pile of previous such ritual interventions.)

So, if we are to understand the stunning effect of entering Schönhauser Allee, it's best to begin with the experience of radical contrast. You are likely to approach the place having ridden the U-Bahn two stops beyond Alexanderplatz, than which nothing could be more urban in (literally) the most concrete sense. At the beginning of the short walk from the underground, you'll find a little triangle of pathetic greenery amusing only because the statue of Alois Senefelder, to whom the space is dedicated, records his name in mirror-writing, thus honoring his status as the inventor of lithography. At the end of the walk, quite obscuring the destination itself, there was for years a supremely ugly construction site, which only very recently has given way to some luxury condos wedged up against the hallowed space itself. In the middle, you'll be passing the rarest, though not the sweetest, of Berlin monuments: a cute little octagonal nineteenth-century pissoir, in burnished green metal and, I'm grateful to report from frequent experience, in perfect working order.

You may be ready, in other words, for something a little more uplifting. The pay-off, I'm afraid, is not instantaneous, as you proceed past the yarmulke dispensary and the admonitory welcoming inscription ("Here you keep silent, but when you leave, keep silent no more!"), and make your way through a tangle of garden tools and Dumpsters that often block one's first view of the gravesites themselves. Soon, though, this is all behind you, and all I can say is that at that point, on my first visit and ever after, I felt as though I had traveled to another climate. The Schönhauser Allee cemetery has, I discovered over many visits, two seasons. Either there are hints of brilliant sun dappled into radical oppositions of light and shade by the density of forestation, or else there is a uniform ashen hue of steel, rendering sky and boughs completely indistinct as the winds send the tree trunks into harmonic motion. I'm not talking about summer and winter here: in fact, the density of nature that confronts the visitor immediately upon entering its pathways is so overwhelming that it matters rather little whether the canopy of leaves is verdant, or golden, or fallen in amber hues to the ground, or wasted into a snow-covered powder. Indeed, I frequently encountered the two seasons within a quarter of an hour.

One reason for this seeming defiance of the round of the year, and for the impression that one has entered primordial nature, is that the whole space is governed by ivy (Figure 1.2). Swaths of erstwhile pathways are now packed in vine — not just a layer of tendrils but a veritable memory foam of creepers. Where ivy is choked out of groundspace, it climbs tree trunks. And since the trees are too tall for the vines to conquer, they have sought altitude, whether in the grandest or the humblest corners of the cemetery, by mounting the graves themselves. The result offers a surprising variety of decorative shapes: truncated stones that barely manage to raise their heads above the choking ground cover, others proudly erect but their contours and inscriptions completely obscured by a perfectly form-fitting coat of greenery, making them seem like lapidary forest people, still others fully visible and readable but decorated by a strand or two of vine, often on a rakish diagonal, as though smartly decked out for some woodland senior prom. Where the ivy stops, the moss begins. It, too, covers pathways and stones; it, too, ranges from complete wraparound enclosure of the memorials to elegant grace notes of decor.

I'm sure I was struck that first time — I'm not a late twentieth-century trained literature professor for nothing — by the fact that there is something almost embarrassingly, overdeterminedly metaphorical about the visual ensemble. Many of the stones feature actual sculpted ivy garlands — some now barely visible among the real garlands — as part of their aesthetic, while others are designedly rusticated, conceived in craggy boulder shapes that have been artfully mutilated by representations of creeping nature, and still others incorporate tiny marble-enclosed garden plots, summoning live greenery into the display itself, an invitation to which the decades have responded enthusiastically. Not to mention that one of these enshrines a family (a quite important family, as it happens) with the name MOSSE. God's pun on death.

So, with all this quietude and a color spectrum as intense as it is narrow — evergreen and ever-gray, sometimes sequentially, sometimes simultaneously — the space of Schönhauser Allee slaps you in the face with time-honored reflections under such rubrics as "memento mori" or "sic transit gloria mundi." Not to mention the nearly infinite number of set-ups for possible touristical snapshots, where crumbling sandstone morphs seamlessly into dead tree trunks or where marble shards are composed such that one can piece out fragments of the German for "deeply beloved Grandfather."

But right from that first visit this particular line of graveyard profundities gained no hold over my imagination. The whole Gray's "Elegy" thing, in fact, went out the window. That poetic masterpiece, to which Hardy owes "far from the madding crowd" and Kubrick "paths of glory," nailed down for centuries what it meant to muse on the long buried dead while gazing at their tombstones. But this book of mine would never have been born in a country churchyard. Gray's dead people were humble and nameless, "mute inglorious Miltons," flowers "born to blush unseen" with "homely joys and destiny obscure." The poet saunters among them, taking for granted that he can't know their names or their lives; and I'm not sure he cares.

I had, and have, other plans. Somehow, and double quick, I got past all those living metaphors of moss and ivy and the crumbled past, of dust thou art, unto dust thou shalt return. As I began to study the monuments, moving through this broad triangular space comprising something like five city blocks, broken by pathways into rectangles, sometimes trapezoids, of varying size, the whole ensemble created in the 1820s and in regular use until the early twentieth century, I swerved from elegy to archaeology. I began to ask — with, at first, no more erudition than my own eyes and my own imagination — what I might learn about this lost tribe from reading the gravestones, if I imagined them as the half-buried remnants of an unknown city. Which is exactly what they are.

There's plenty for an assiduous reader to absorb. The eyes of this assiduous reader, for example, given that he was well into his seventh decade, were drawn magnetically to the years of birth and death. A notably long-lived tribe, it seems. "Frau Emilie Hüterbock ... Born 18 June 1811, died 19 March 1899": that math was particularly easy. "Amalie Cohen, née Engel, 9 April 1843–23 September 1929"; that's good: Engel was my grandmother's maiden name. "Sara Katz 16 September 1829–2 March 1898": my mother was a Katz, but this lifespan narrows in a little too closely on my own. And the winner:

GEB. D. 5ten JANUAR 1818
GEST. D. 7ten JANUAR 1917

Dazzled by longevity, I didn't pause to ask why no first name or what a former Gürtlermeister might be. On the other hand, my eye soon lit upon "Berline Schneider, 10 March 1851–3 February 1852."

But letters may prove more articulate than numbers. Names, to begin with. Schönhauser Allee is like a thesaurus of Jewish family names, a potential secret weapon in the lifelong quest to know who is Jewish, who isn't, and who's in hiding. Not that these tombstones nail the matter shut. There are, of course, Cohens and Levys and Solomons. And you could probably call half the roll of my third grade class by just reading off some of these markers: Jacobi, Blumenthal, Jacobson, Horwitz. That class was taught by a Miss Gans, a name also represented here. (She claimed to be Scandinavian, but my mother had suspicions.) But what to do with Fabian or Paradies, and what about Werther, redolent of Goethe, or Burg, which puts me in mind of Luther's "Ein' feste Burg ...," or Hagen, right out of Wagner's Ring? Or echoes of other great, indisputably non-Semitic German writers, like Leibnitz and Lessing? The truth is that we identify Jews by their surnames, but we have to learn that they are, as the postmoderns say, constructed. Literally so; after all, some of this cemetery's inhabitants lived only a couple of generations past the time when Jews had the privilege — or was it compulsion? — of assuming surnames, which had to be fabricated for the occasion.

The information on the stones yields other, perhaps more substantial, clues. I began to notice some stray indicators of where these people came from and where they were going. Quite a few graves tell us the deceased's birthplace, and, though many of those cite Berlin, a larger number make reference to quite different origins. They are designated in German, but nowadays we know these places under names that are (at least for me) much more difficult to pronounce: Pyrzce; Miroslawiec; Zduny; Chojna; Szczecin. It all happened in the lifespan of one individual; they were born Polish Jews, they died Berliners. And just what kind of Berliners they were — both the eastern immigrants and those whose families had made that trek earlier — we can also read on their tombstones, where a riot of majestic titles gets enumerated: Justizrat, Professor an der Universität, Königlicher Commerzenrath, Überregierungsrat, Amtgerichtsrat Professor. The very fact that I have no idea what some of these grandiose and forgotten tokens of honor signify only makes them, and their possessors, the more lordly.

Of course, from the shtetl to the Amtgerichtsrat is an old story, but you don't have to look very far, in Schönhauser Allee or elsewhere, to notice the undertow in this surge. Just when you are about to marvel at (or, if you have tastes different from mine, bewail) the vast project of assimilation represented by these stately monuments, you are struck by the fact that a certain notable proportion of the writing is in Hebrew. Which makes me an unreliable narrator. The not very rebellious child of anticlerical parents who would sooner have noshed on a raw pork knuckle than ship me off to bar mitzvah school, I seem to have cultivated four or five foreign tongues, ancient and modern, in the course of my life without the language of the Bible even making it onto the waiting list.


Excerpted from Berlin for Jews by Leonard Barkan. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Me and Berlin
1: Places: Schönhauser Allee
2: Places: Bayerisches Viertel
3: People: Rahel Varnhagen
4: People: James Simon
5: People: Walter Benjamin
Epilogue: Recollections, Reconstructions
Suggestions for Further Reading

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