In Heaven,
Underground

The Jewish Cemetery Berlin Weissensee

Im Himmel unter der Erde (c) Amelie Losier Britzka Film
Im Himmel unter der Erde (c) Amelie Losier Britzka Film

Story

Tucked away in the north of Berlin, surrounded by walls and hidden beneath a primeval forest of trees, rhododendrons and ivy - this is the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. It was created in 1880, is about 100 acres in size, currently contains 115,000 graves and is still used for burials today. Neither the cemetery nor its archives have ever been destroyed, making it a paradise for gatherers of stories. 

During their many visits to the cemetery, Britta Wauer and her cameraman Kaspar Köpke discovered a place overflowing with life, visited by people from all ends of the world who bring with them tales of the Jewish, Berlin and German history which embody this site.

Accolades

"Poetic and exquisite."

NEW YORK TIMES

"In Heaven, Underground is a delightfully upbeat look at death."

THIS WEEK IN NEW YORK

"Stunning...a film that is inspiring, heartfelt, soulful."

JEWAICIOUS

"A cemetery film that couldn't be livelier. Sad and funny."

DER TAGESSPIEGEL

"It's a wondrous, captivating and genuinely heartfelt documentary."

NYC MOVIE GURU

"A funny, sad and wise work."

BERLINER MORGENPOST

"Stunning... gorgeously photographed."

PASTE MAGAZINE

Protagonists

Rabbi William Wolff

was born in 1927 in Berlin. In 1933 he and his family moved to Amsterdam and six years later on to London. Even as a child in Berlin, at the age of four or five years, he dreamed of becoming a rabbi - a wish even his teenage self couldn't part with. However, as he had neither the money nor the security to finance such an outlandish career path, he chose to begin work as a journalist after finishing school in order to earn some money quickly. In 1984 he was finally ordained as a rabbi. In April 2002 he took up the position of State Rabbi for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern - a seat which had been empty for 65 years. He has cared for the three Jewish Communities in Schwerin, Rostock and Wismar, which together make up around 2,000 members, ever since. He still lives near London and commutes to and from his various places of work. 

Harry Kindermann

was brought into the world in 1927. Although his parents had migrated to Palestine in 1924, they returned to Berlin at the wish of Harry's grandfather - a German patriot - that his grandchildren be raised in Germany. It was also his grandfather who landed Harry's young father a job as a bricklayer at the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery, where he soon earned a decent income as Chief of the Foundation Construction Department. In Harry's own words, he was "practically raised in the cemetery", as his father often brought him along to play in the grounds.  In 1939 at 12 years old, his father even taught him how to drive in the cemetery. When the Jewish schools in Germany were closed, 14-year-old Harry was conscripted to the Weissensee cemetery. It was there that he fell in love with his schoolmate Marion Ehrlich, who was deported in Autumn of 1942 and later murdered in Auschwitz. Even his grandfather, who wore the iron cross, and his grandmother were deported and murdered. Harry Kindermann survived World War II as a forced laborer in a gang which built underground bunkers under the orders of Adolf Eichmann. After the liberation he worked among other things as construction manager for the firm Philipp Holzmann. He married in 1950 and named his daughter after his first love, Marion.  When an anti-semitic hate-campaign began in Moscow in February 1953, Harry Kindermann fled with his wife and daughter out of East-Berlin. He moved to Ludwigshafen on the Rhein, where he still lives today. 

Benny Epstein

was born in 1933 in Berlin. As his father was a Hungarian Jew, the family was forced to leave Berlin suddenly in 1939 within 24 hours' notice. They moved to Budapest. In 1943 his father was conscripted to the Russian Front for compulsory labour, from where he never returned. Benny, his mother and young sister, born in 1938, survived in Budapest. After the war, the family moved, via Romania and Switzerland, to Palestine, which at this time was becoming part of Israel.  In August 1953, Benny Epstein began working for a bank in Tel Aviv. In December 1958 he emigrated to the USA, where he married his wife Zohara four years later. He lived in New York for almost 30 years, working in different banks. In 1978 he opened his own independent travel organisation and moved to South Florida in 1987. His eldest son lives with his family in Atlanta. His youngest son was murdered in 1996 in Houston, Texas. It wasn't until 2008 that he visited the Weissensee Cemetery for the first time, where his grandmother Helene Epstein is buried. 

Daniel Hakerem

was born in 1951 in Haifa, Israel. As the son of a German immigrant he had a "typically German" upbringing. His mother tongue is German; he first began learning Hebrew at school. As an eight-year-old in 1959 he he visited his grandmother in Berlin for the first time, who had survived the Nazi Era there with her husband and the help of a few friends. On this trip, Daniel Hakerem was also introduced to the Weissensee Cemetery, whose huge trees left a lasting impression on him. His grandmother, Anna Katz, died in 1969 in West-Berlin and was buried in Weissensee next to her husband Alexander. In 1974 Daniel and his wife Jochi moved to Germany, where he studied Medicine in Marburg (Lahn). His two daughters, Nurit and Efrat, were born there. After completing his medical training, Daniel Hakerem and his family returned to Israel, where he still works as a doctor today. 

Gabriella Naidu

was born in 1950 in Sorento Lugano, where she grew up with her three brothers. Her father was an Italian shoe-designer, her mother a foreign language correspondent. In 1960 the family moved to Zürich, where Gabrielle Naidu later completed an apprenticeship as a teacher of manual labour, a profession she pursued ever since. Her great-grandfather Adolf Schwabacher, director of the Berlin stock exchange towards the end of the 19th Century, had a handsome gravestone built under the engraving 'Number 222' for himself and his family in Weissensee. No-one from the family knew of the grave until Gabrielle Naidu discovered it, still unscathed, only a few years ago. In the spring of 2011 it was restored at the wish of Gabriella's uncle.

Background

The Jewish Cemetery in Berlin-Weissensee

On the map it looks like a garden from the Renaissance: a tessellation of right-angles, trapeziums and triangles. The overlapping alleys form circles and squares. Those who tread through the grounds feel as though they’re in an enchanted place. Dew and mist, tall trees, thicket forest, in amongst it all handsome columns, stones, mausoleums, ivy, lilac and just to the right, a little fox: the Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee.

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It was the third cemetery to be constructed by the Jewish Community in Berlin. At almost 130 years old, it is the biggest Jewish cemetery in Europe still in use and could quite comfortably hold about 86 football fields. Walking through the cemetery grounds is like strolling through a history book. The list of famous artists, philosophers, barristers, architects, doctors, religious instructors and publishers buried there, is lengthy. The founders of two renowned German department stores, Jandorf (KaDeWe) and Hermann Tietz (Hertie), are amongst other names such as the painter Lesser Ury, the hotelier Kempinski, the publisher Samuel Fischer (S.Fischer Publishers) and Rudolf Mosse, to whom Europe’s once biggest publishing house belonged.

The first to be buried was in fact not a celebrity, but Louis Grünbaum, a nursing home resident, on September 22nd 1880. A large “1” is engraved on the side of his gravestone. The fact that his gravestone remains erected is symbolic of the tradition that Jewish cemeteries are built for eternity. The graves are not levelled and there is no time limit for the burial. All graves in Weissensee are numbered consecutively; the most recent grave numbers are six-figured.

More than 115,000 people are buried in the Weissensee Cemetery. Simple gravestones lie embedded between splendid mausoleums from the Art Nouveau or Art Deco styles. A few gravestones were designed by architects Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Some engravings seem quirky, many are touching, others are impressive by their sheer monumentality. However wide the budget disparity between the graves must once have been, the state of the graves today couldn’t be more equal - crumbled, overgrown, forgotten. Hardly a sliver of summer light seeps through the dense treetops onto the graves. Some pathways are so overgrown, they seem to have been devoid of grave-visitors for years.

There are few relatives left who can care for the graves. The Holocaust not only obliterated the lives of millions, it also robbed them of their memorial. In the 1930s there were around 170,000 Jews living in Berlin; after the war only round 1,500 remained.

Most intriguingly: Weissensee was never closed. The cemetery belonged to the handful of Jewish institutions in Germany which, even during the Nazi era, remained self-managed by Jews. Jewish children would play in Weissensee when the German streets became too dangerous for them. There they would feast on plums and apricots from wild fruit trees. Some Jews spent a night or two hidden in freshly dug graves or in the capital of a gravestone, concealed from their pursuers. Between 1933 and 1945, in the time of Rabbi Riesenberger, burials were still carried out regularly - all to Jewish custom, except for one detail: that Riesenberger and his remaining staff were the only ones permitted to carry the coffin to the grave.

The story of the Jews of Berlin is written on the graves. Some stones, where the deaths of both parents and their children are marked with the same date, whisper of suicide. On other graves, empty space was reserved for the names of people who could never be buried there. Sometimes more of the story is revealed by the occasional family grave, offering the words “In Memory of…”

Set in the outskirts of the the capital city of the GDR, the cemetery sank further and further into oblivion after the war. The small East-Berlin community couldn’t keep up with the ever-growing forest in Weissensee. In their despair, the cemetery management decided to hand over the biggest part of the cemetery to nature, in order to save energy and resources for at least a few token lots at the entrance, where burials would still take place. Since the German Unification the cemetery staff have been trying, one by one, to reclaim the lots.

Today, the Jewish Community in Berlin, with over 12,000 members, is the biggest Jewish community in Germany. According to the American Jewish Community, it is also currently the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world. This is due to the immigration of Russian Jews in the last few years. Currently 80% of the community members are Jews who emigrated from the former Soviet Republics. The customs and traditions of the families, brought with them from their old home, create the youngest and most intriguing chapter of Weissensee.

What is buried in the cemetery is not just Jewish History, but also in its essence the history of Berlin and Germany altogether, a story which is by no means complete.

Director's Comments

To do justice to the fates of more than 115,000 departed souls and their relatives in one film was a challenge to say the least. It is impossible to be comprehensive. A list of famous names, a resumé of lifetime achievements or the tales sad deaths do not make for an interesting film. Yet the Weissensee cemetery has earned this.

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Rather than graves, ivy and gravel, it should be people who fill the screen, telling the intricate tales of the lives that were once led in Berlin. For me, it's about personal connections. The idea was to pursue a small handful of fates, letting the characters who were personally connected to the dead tell the story. People with memories, feelings and thoughts are crucial. They should play the main role in the film and make conceivable to the viewer what is precious about Weissensee.

Naturally, the era of Nazi dictatorship overshadows all other events. But the film shouldn't restrict itself to recounting tragedies from those years. To reduce the dead of Weissensee to their sad ends would be wrong. Many of the buried accomplished extraordinary things, achieved something special or experienced something curious. The film also intends to portray funny, absurd and thoughtful moments, and of a great love – one without a happy ending.

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Book

In her research of the Weissensee Cemetery, Britta Wauer came into contact with numerous relatives of the buried, who came from all over the world. Hundreds of letters from New Zealand, Canada, Argentina, South Africa, Israel and many other countries found their way to her, stuffed with family photos and moving personal histories. Only a fraction of those were able to fit into the film. And so the idea of the book came about, which documents over 70 stories. The pictures depict historic photographs from archives and private possession, juxtaposed with new, modern shots by photographer Amélie Losier.  

Britta Wauer: 
The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. 
Moments in History 
with photographs by Amélie Losier
and an epilogue by Hermann Simon

Over 140 photos,
with written text in German and English
published by: be.bra Berlin

24,95 EUR
available for purchase:
» amazon.de 
» bebra.verlag.de

In Heaven, Underground. DVD-Cover © Britzka Film

DVD

IN HEAVEN, UNDERGROUND
The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery

available for purchase at:
amazon.co.uk
 amazon.de 
 delicatessen.org
 jpc.de

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with English subtitles

A film by: Britta Wauer

Duration: 90 min
Language: German
Subtitles: English
Extras: Booklet, audio-description for the visually impaired
Edition Salzgeber
FSK: approved for 6+ years

DVD

NEW: RABBI WOLFF:
A Gentleman before God
starring  audience favourite
from  In Heaven, Underground

available for purchase at:
amazon.co.uk
 amazon.de 
 delicatessen.org

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The new film by Britta Wauer with Rabbi William Wolff portrays 
the turbulent daily routine of audience favourite from
"In Heaven, Underground"
with English and Russian subtitles

 
A film by Britta Wauer
Duration: 91 min + bonus material
Language: German/English
Subtitles: English, Russian, German for the hearing-impaired
Extras: Booklet, Audio-Description for the visually impaired, Deleted Scenes, Cinema Trailer
Edition Salzgeber
FSK: approved for 0+ years


In Heaven, Underground. CD-Cover © Britzka Film

CD

Original Soundtrack 
"IN HEAVEN, UNDERGROUND"
composed by Karim Sebastian Elias

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The soundtrack by Karim Sebastian Elias,
performed by the Brandenburg State Orchestra Frankfurt & led by Jörg Iwer,
is available at Alhambra Records

currently not available
 amazon.de 

Contact

Germany

Edition Salzgeber
Prinzessinnenstraße 29
10969 Berlin
Germany

salzgeber.de

USA

7th Art Releasing
6579 Pickwick Street
Los Angeles, CA 90042
USA

7thart.com

Producer

Britzka Film - Britta Wauer
Rosa-Luxemburg-Str. 30
10178 Berlin
Germany

britzka.com

Credits

Credits

IN HEAVEN, UNDERGROUND
with Rabbi William Wolff, Harry Kindermann, Ron Kohls, Gabriella Naidu, Reinhard Männe, the Pobbig-Schulz family, Hermann Simon, Alfred Etzold, Benny Epstein, Daniel Hakerem, Ronnie Golz, Michaela Panske, Gesine Sturm, Leb Tabachnik and others

Author and Director: Britta Wauer
Cameraman: Kaspar Köpke
Montage: Berthold Baule
Sound: Felix Heibges, Garip Özdem
Sound design: Sebastian Tesch
Mixing: Martin Grube
Music composition: Karim Sebastian Elias
Music performed by: Brandenburg State Orchestra; Frankfurt
Directorial assistance, film management: Jana Westmann
Still photography : Amélie Losier
Editorial: Dagmar Mielke (RBB/ARTE), Birgit Mehler (RBB), Hans-Günther Brüske (SR)
Production management RBB: Rainer Baumert
Line producer: Karsten Aurich
Producer: Britta Wauer

a co-production by Britzka Film
with Radio Berlin Brandenburg and Radio Saarland 
in collaboration with Arte

Supported by
Neue Synagoge Foundation Berlin - Centrum Judcaicum
Familie-Guter-Molvidson Foundation
Ursula-Lachnit-Fixson Foundation

Production funded by Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg
and the German Federal Film Fund

Publishing House: Edition Salzgeber

Imprint

Imprint

Britzka Film - Britta Wauer Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße 30 10178 Berlin – Germany
Finance Office Mitte-Tiergarten von Berlin USt-ID DE 240097612
T: +49.30.247 245 24 E: film@britzka.de www.britzka.de
Web creation and content according to § 6 MDStV: Britta Wauer

Copyright
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