Europe's ostensibly biggest Jewish cemetery has become so dilapidated that Berlin community leaders fear for its future. They hope deeming the graveyard a UNESCO world heritage monument will save it.
The Weissensee cemetery serves a vastly diminished community today
Nature started reclaiming the 115,500 plots of the Jewish cemetery in the eastern Berlin neighborhood of Weissensee long ago. Ivy has made large swaths of the 42-hectare (104-acre) enclosure hardly accessible, and many of the crumbling gravestones have toppled over or are on the verge of doing so, their weathered engravings nearly illegible.
"If help doesn't come promptly from the state (of Berlin) and the federal government, an end of the Jewish cemetery in Weissensee will no longer be avoidable," Albert Meyer, the leaders of Berlin's Jewish community, said on Monday.
The Jewish community started a campaign several weeks ago to have the cemetery added to UNESCO's list of world heritage monuments.
Now Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit has announced in a letter to Meyer that the graveyard was of "national significance" and that he would back the bid.
The Weissensee cemetery was the most important graveyard for the 175,000 Jews in Berlin before the Nazi's rise to power, in 1933.
Many important German personalities were buried there, including journalist and social critic Kurt Tucholsky, publisher Samuel Fischer, philosopher Hermann Cohen and department store magnate Hermann Tietz. In late 2001, the author Stefan Heym was also buried at Weissensee.
Meyer estimated that at least 40 million euros ($49 million) would be necessary to restore the cemetery. The costs of maintaining the vast grounds go far beyond the means of today's Jewish community in Berlin, which -- though the largest in Germany -- numbers only 12,000.
"Currently, we have 600,000 euros at our disposal," Katrin Losser from the cemetery's administration said.
Urgent help needed
But the bid to put Weissensee on the UNESCO list may not hold the answers. Berlin's development senator, Ingeborg Junge-Reyer, has already made clear that the city can't afford to cover the costs of restoring the cemetery alone.
While making the UNESCO list could generate the money funds needed, time is not on the Jewish community's side. The final decision to put a site on the UNESCO list often takes more than a decade.
Meyer, however, said it can't wait that long.
"It's five to 12," he said. ""Something could be destroyed here that can't be recreated."
UNESCO's list of world heritage sites includes 812 monuments in 137 countries, 31 of which are in Germany. In August, the German section of the border line of the Roman Empire, part of what is known as the "Roman Limes," became the latest world heritage site.