Museums, temples, and trendy coffee shops – it’s still there, despite the darkest chapter of European history: Jewish culture in Berlin. And still it plays an important role in shaping the face of the city. Did you know how closely linked the history of Berlin is to its Jewish community? We from Industriepalast Hostel want to explore this interesting aspect of the German capital and find out more about the many facets of Jewish life here in our newest series: Jewish Berlin. We’ll kick off with the Jewish History of Berlin.
Always a part
Compared to some other German town, Berlin does not exactly seem like a medieval city. But believe it or not, it’s got some almost 800 years on the clock. And right from the beginning in the 13th century, Jewish merchants played an important role in shaping the emerging settlements along the Spree river. Excavated tombstones from the Judenkiewer Spandau, Berlin’s first Jewish cemetery, bear witness to this long history. The oldest stone dates back to the year 1244 and marks the oldest tombstone ever found in the German capital. They are currently being displayed in the museum of Spandau Citadel. Another relict from early history is Großer Jüdenhof, a historic enclosure of medieval half-timber houses, erected between the 13th and 15th century. At the time it was in the heart of medieval Berlin and it still would be, if it hadn’t been destroyed in World War II. Currently, archeologists are excavating the remains in order to find out more about this fascinating chapter of history. Persecution of the Jews was, however, very common throughout Europe at the time and it did not bypass Berlin: Up to the 17th century Jews were persecuted, displaced, and even murdered under ludicrous pretences. Only in 1671, right after the Thirty Years’ War, Jewish life was re-established in town when a couple of families settled here and started what is the Jewish Community of Berlin up to this day. Within a short period of time a separate Jewish neighbourhood emerged in the so-called Spandauer Vorstadt, a borough that was given the name “Scheunenviertel”. The Old Jewish Cemetery on Große Hamburger Straße dates to that period; the first temple – later to be called Old Synagogue – was built until 1714 on Heidereuthergasse.
Over the following centuries, the community was thriving. Jews were not allowed in the guilds of craftsmen, instead many turned to the flourishing field of trade and the emerging banking and finance system. Jewish intellectuals like humanist Moses Mendelssohn were formative to the philosophical movement of enlightenment and Jewish salons became a hotspot among the aristocracy and untitled high society. Splendid New Synagogue on Oranienstraße bears witness to this period, it was consecrated in 1866. Until 1925 the number of Jewish people living in Berlin climbed to no less than 173,000 – one of the biggest Jewish communities ever seen in Europe.
The darkest chapter
The NSDAP, Hitler’s fascist party, made no secret of its antisemitism and began to oppress Berliner Jews immediately after seizing power in 1933. Things escalated quickly: 1938’s Reichskristallnacht went down in history as the night when Nazis all over Germany destroyed Jewish institutions, shops, and even residential buildings. The brutal pogroms were only the beginning though, the systematic killing of Jews started in 1941. Of those who couldn’t escape in time, 55,000 Jewish citizens of Berlin became victims of the Shoah. Only 9,000 people of Jewish ancestry survived the Holocaust in Berlin – 5% of the original population. You can meet these victims all throughout town on little Stolpersteins.
Yet, Jewish culture has survived and it still shapes the face of the capital. The Jewish community, too, was separated during the epoch of the Berlin Wall, but it 1990 it was reunited – just like Germany. Since then it has become one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world, mainly due to in-migration from Russia and eastern Europe. The area around Hackescher Markt is still a popular hub of Jewish lifestyle, with numerous cafés, bistros, restaurants, and bars. Jewish Museum Berlin is the biggest of its kind in Europe and since 2005 the Holocaust Memorial has commemorated the murdered Jews of Europe. Also, Berlin is quite popular among young Israelis, especially from Tel Aviv. The Axis Berlin – Tel Aviv makes for vibrant exchange between artists and creative minds of both cities.
You see, there’s a lot to discover still about Jewish Berlin, so stay curious and keep following our little series.
Shalom and lehitraot,
is Berliner by choice and a passionate backpacker himself. As a receptionist he knows the real hostel life; as a blogger he's been writing for Industriepalast Hostel's Berlin blog since 2014.