I suppose it’s not surprising, if you embark on a journey in search of your family roots, that you end up visiting a lot of cemeteries. That is, after all, where you’re most likely to find your forebears.
So here I am, in the grandest cemetery of them all – the Weissensee, in the eastern suburbs of Berlin, a 20-minute tram ride from the centre of town, and then a 10-minute walk along a thoroughly unremarkable residential street.
But there is nothing unremarkable about the cemetery itself. It is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, covering more than 100 acres and containing more than 110,000 graves. Among them, those of my great grandparents and my great great grandparents.
They couldn’t be easier to find. Hand in the details at the office, a few clicks of a computer mouse, and the precise plot numbers and locations are identified. A helpful map is provided, with a dotted line along the footpaths to show how to find the right plots.
On my way along the immaculately swept paths, I pass soaring family mausoleums that would surely make a Medici or a Bourbon proud. They certainly don’t reflect the unadorned simplicity of most Jewish cemeteries. But then I remember: these are the last resting places of Berliners who were as much German as they were Jewish – and it shows.
My great grandfather Theodor Lustig (1837-1906) shares his more modest spot with his life-long friend David Hesse. They married two sisters, Pauline and Franziska Cohn (not related to my mother’s family, who were also called Cohn), who are each buried with them. Indeed, so close were the Lustigs and the Hesses that my grandfather Franz was named after his aunt Franziska. (My father remembers going to his grandmother’s funeral as a child.)
Theodor was a modestly successful businessman (something in the iron trade, apparently) who would much preferred to have been a doctor. He wasn’t a practising Jew, unlike his much more devout father-in-law Victor Cohn (1803-1896). Theodor’s son, my grandfather Franz, was even less Jewish, and he and my grandmother decided to have their children baptised as Lutherans. My aunt wrote many years later: “They believed that by having been baptised and brought up in the Christian faith, their children would no longer be considered Jews, which was always a handicap in Germany. Hitler taught them otherwise …”
Indeed, he did. My father and his three elder siblings all managed to get out of Germany in the years following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 – one sister to Portugal, an elder brother to the US, my Dad and another sister to London. My grandparents didn’t escape until April 1940, when they left Germany by train for Italy and then took a ship to Portugal to spend the rest of the war there with their daughter. (It’s not widely known that something like 32,000 German Jews managed to get out even after the start of the war.)
But back to the cemetery and my great great grandfather Victor Cohn. He and his wife Amelie ran a leather business – he shares his plot in the cemetery with her, and with two of his four daughters, Therese and Jenny. The only picture I have of him shows him to have been round-faced, with a high forehead and slicked back hair. I’m afraid I don’t think we would have got on.
Stu and I started our journey in Belarus, in the pretty little town of Pastavy, which Stu’s grandfather Julius left in 1914 (full story here). We visited all that’s left of the ancient Jewish cemetery there, most of the headstones too worn now to identify whose remains lie beneath them. But we know that Stu’s great grandfather was still there when the Nazis invaded in 1941 – and when we stood by the mass grave in memory of the 4,000 Pastavy Jews who were murdered in November 1942, we couldn’t help wondering what happened to him.
In Lithuania, we visited the grim Ninth Fort at Kaunas, where my grandmother Ilse Cohn was murdered by an SS death squad (full story here). In Wrocław, formerly Breslau, we found my grandfather’s grave, hidden beneath 70 years’ growth of ivy (full story here). So many cemeteries, but thank goodness, not all the stories are sad ones.
My mother’s family story was certainly sadder than most, but when she came to write down her memories of her life, she decided to call them “Born under a lucky star”. It seemed an odd choice, so I asked her to explain why. “I was lucky to be born with an optimistic disposition,” she wrote. “It helps when things go wrong.”
The hotel we’re staying at in Berlin is built on the site of the only gate that Jews were allowed to use to enter the city in the 18th century. There used to be a hostel here for Jewish travellers who didn’t have enough money to pay the entry tax.
So is Berlin a more welcoming place now for Jews to live in than it was in the 1930s, in my father’s time, or in the 18th century? You can hear a fascinating conversation I had with a Berlin-based Israeli guide and historian by clicking here.
(There are some pictures of my Berlin forebears and their graves here.)