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Tourists Flock to Berlin's Historical Cemeteries

Felix Mendolssohn Bartholdy, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Marlene Dietrich, Willy Brandt, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht all have something in common: their graves are to be found amidst Berlin's myriad assortment of cemeteries.

The Russian Orthodox cemetery in the Tegel district is worth a visit

Some 260 cemeteries of varying size are to be found in the German capital, of which 190 are still in use today. Extraordinary in their size and character, they sprawl across more than 1,200 hectares (3,707 acres) of land in and around Berlin.

"The prolific number of cemeteries is due to the city's more recent history," said Hellmuth Pohren-Hartmann, the German author of a recent book on Berlin's Friedenau cemetery, where Hollywood legend Marlene Dietrich and famous Berlin-born photographer Helmut Newton are buried.

"When Berlin was made the capital of the newly-founded German Empire in 1871, it was a pleasant though somewhat provincial city," he said.

Weissensee Jewish cemetery in northern Berlin

Pohren-Hartmann said that only later did it become a world-class metropolis, expanding in size via the incorporation of numerous surrounding towns, villages and communities in 1920.

"These towns and villages all had their own cemeteries," points out Pohren-Hartmann. "Hence, the city's wealth of burial places."

The city owns some cemeteries

Today, 90 of the cemeteries belong to the city-state of Berlin, 118 to the German Protestant Church authorities, and nine to the Roman Catholic Church.

There are five Jewish cemeteries in Berlin, including Europe's largest site of Jewish burial, in the city's Weissensee district. There is also a Muslim, a Russian Orthodox Church and a British Commonwealth War Cemetery on the city's Heerstrasse, near the Olympic Stadium.

One of Berlin's first: Dorotheenstädtische Friedhof

Some Berlin cemeteries were devastated during World War II, and a few in the border area during the city's postwar division were sealed by the communists and spiked with watch towers and border installations after the Wall went up in 1961.

Those devastations aside, Berlin's cemeteries are in remarkably good shape, having been handsomely restored, often by volunteer working groups.

"The city's cemeteries are something of a magnet for tourists nowadays," Pohren-Hartmann said. "Especially for visiting ex-Berliners who have moved abroad. They make guided tours of the more famous burial places, feeling they are reliving history when doing so," he said.

Gravestones as artworks

Marlene Dietrich's spot in Friedenau

Pohren-Hartmann is active in the Berlin Historical Cemetery Network, created 10 years ago, which traces the history of municipal cemeteries and the lives of those buried there.

"Berlin's cemeteries fascinatingly reflect the work of 19th century sculptors," he said. "More than 400 sculptors worked in the German capital during that period. Their work consisted of marble and bronze statues, wall engravings, reliefs, mausoleums and memorial works which are to be found in city cemeteries."

Among them were sculptors with names like Schadow, Tieck, Rauch, Siemering, Schaper, Begas, Tuaillon and Gaul, whose work was greatly admired abroad.

Statues and monuments -- made in Berlin -- were exported around the world. The Washington Monument in Philadelphia was designed by Rudolf Siemering, a gifted 19th century German sculptor.

In South America, national monuments were masterminded by Gustav Eberlein, a prominent Berlin sculptor, who also conceived the Goethe Memorial in Rome.

Destroyed statues

Muslim burial place at Columbiadamm


During World War II, many of the city's bronze statues were ordered to be melted down to help with the Nazi war effort.

Afterwards, during Berlin's postwar division, Prussian-made sculpture was frowned upon by the communist hierarchy in East Berlin.

The famous horse-riding statue of Frederick the Great was banished from its pedestal on Unter den Linden and confined to a shed in Potsdam.

Not until the late 1970s did then East German leader Erich Honecker indulge in a spot of "rethinking history" and agree to the statue's return to its original site, opposite the Humboldt University.

Nowadays, the cost of maintaining Berlin's cemeteries causes headaches for those charged with their upkeep. In many cases restoration work would hardly have been possible in recent years if it hadn't been for donations from private individuals, foundations, and the state lottery.

Loss of income is primarily a result of people living longer, preferring cremation to burial in many cases when they die or simply wanting their ashes scattered at anonymous points around the country.

A poet's final resting place

Among cemeteries which attract a steady stream of visitors every year are the Dorotheenstädtische Friedhof in Berlin's Mitte district. It is there you find the grave of poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht in a tranquil, tree-shrouded corner plot.

Brecht wasn't given to great extravagance, so it's hardly surprising to find the humble stone commemorating him bears his name only on it, nothing more.

Playwright Bertolt Brecht's quiet little corner

The grave of sculptor Gottfried Schadow, designer of the Quadriga atop the Brandenburg Gate, is also found in the cemetery, as is that of philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose fame spread far beyond Germany's borders in the early 1800s.

At the Holy Trinity Church in the Kreuzberg district, you'll find the grave of composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. For years after World War II, the musician's grave was unrecognizable, just a weed-grown, rodent-frequented mound.

A US army sergeant came across it in the early 1970s. Shocked, he sent a note to Berlin's mayor, pointing out the sad state of the grave and proposing a Mendelssohn Music Festival be held in Berlin mark the then 125th anniversary of his death.

The reason for the shame was clear enough. The long dead Jewish-born composer had been erased from official memory by Hitler and his music banned. The mayor issued orders for the grave to be tended to immediately.

Since then, a Mendelssohn music festival has been held in Berlin every year. Not only that, the composer's burial plot alongside that of his much loved sister Fanny and other family members, was made an "honorary grave" on the mayor's orders, which meant it would never be left unattended again.

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