Book Proposal: Great Jewish Cemetery of Berlin

Many images of pre-War Berlin are familiar to us: the lush elegance of Unter den Linden, the grandeur of the Hotel Adlon, the urban spectacle of Potsdamer Platz or Alexanderplatz; but these images survive only in miniature photographs that scarcely represent the grandeur of their subjects. There remains in Berlin today another image of lost Berlin, this less familiar than the others, but no less grand and compelling, with a scale and detail that is more suitable to a reasonably priced book of photographs. That relic is the Great Jewish Cemetery in Weissenssee, formerly a rather inaccesible section of (East) Berlin. First established in 1880, it differs from other Jewish cemeteries in its immense size (over 115,000 graves) and its short history, which gives both first-hand and second-hand experience of the place a epistemological coherence. Here are the gravestones of Jews who lived in Berlin after 1860, when Berlin Jews received full civic equality, when Jews, though never more than five per cent of the total city population, had such a disproportionate prominence that, to the remainder of Germany, Berlin was known as a Jewish city. Now that the notorious Wall has come down, The Week in Germany reported in its edition of 8 November 1991, "Visiting Berlin's 164 cemeteries has become popular, and organizing such visits has become profitable for others, according to the news magazine Der Spiegel. The Wiessensee Jewish cemetery has been particularly hard hit; Manfred Alpern, supervisor of the cemetery, described the wave of commercialism as 'like an amusement park.' He said that he has come to work one recent Sunday morning to find a banner strung up between two Trabant cars offering "Tours Through the Jewish Past." Even publications on the cemeteries have taken on a new life: 10,000 copies of a book on the 100-year-old cemetery in Stahnsdorf near Berlin were snapped up."

Choosing to regard this graveyard as the principal surviving representation of a Lost Berlin, I shot in the early 1980s a book of photographs, punctuated by short texts, designed to be an exemplary visual history. These black-white photographs are set two on a 6" by 9" page, except when a text supercedes a photograph. The book has a brief preface and will conclude with explanatory footnotes correlated by page numbers to certain individual photographs, adding essential information that might not be apparent in the photographs alone. I also hope to obtain, for an appendix, a complete list of all the individuals buried there, along with their birthdates and deathdates (thinking that this would make the book essential to the descendants of Berliners). All this prose notwithstanding, the unusual presupposition of the book is that the photographs tell most of the story, for in the gravestones we see not only individuals, whose lives are evoked in the data and design of their unusually idiosyncratic stones, but an entire community that, at least until the late l930s, clearly felt glad to be in Berlin, confident that the city would remain secure for Jews forever. By contrast, the fewer stones laid after l935 and then after l945 tell other sorts of stories.

Thanks to support from the Berlin Senat and then Inter Nationes, the German translation agency, a Berlin colleague joined me in producing a set of six documentaries about the significance of this extraordinary place--while the visual track is similar for all six, the soundtracks have separately composed testimony of sometime Jewish Berliners speaking German, English, Spanish, French, Swedish, and Hebrew. These films have been screened at festivals and over public television. I also have several hundred color transparencies that, sponsorship willing, could be exhibited in a museum.

My first-draft dummy of book has over 250 pages. Publishers interested in considering a photocopy of The Great Jewish Cemetery of Berlin, and promising a quick reply, are invited to write me. Thank you for your interest.