The community cemetery of the Jewish Congregation Adass Yisroel is located in the Berlin borough of Weissensee. Its address is 14 Wittlicher Strasse; originally the address was On »Falkenberger Chaussee«. It was opened on February 24, 1880 with the burial of congregation member Abraham Michelsen, a Berlin Jew from the 18th century, who died at the age of 95 (his grave site is: field A, row 1, number 2). It is traditional in an orthodox congregation for Kohanim to attend the digging of the first grave. The Kohanim could only stay and work in a place that was untouched by Tumáh beforehand (before the arrival of the corpse). Adass Yisroel established its own institutions, ran its own synagogue and other facilities, but considered itself for many years as still being a part of the Berlin Jewish Congregation to a certain extent. The cemetery grounds, which measured 2.09 hectares, were purchased on December 22, 1873 as a matter of precaution. The historic patron of the Congregation, Gustav Hirsch (of the »Hirsch-Kupfer« family from Eberswald, who were prosperous proprietors of the brass-works there) bought the plot for the Congregation and had it prepared. After the decree of the »Leaving Law« of July 28, 1876, which allowed institutional Jewish plurality outside of the until then only Jewish Congregation, the Berlin Jewish Congregation responded angrily: »If Hildesheimer doesn’t want to live together with us, then he also shouldn’t be buried with us«. In addition, regulations and customs which had hitherto been preserved according to tradition were undergoing a subtle change: for instance, at funerals, expensively made coffins were increasingly being used instead of the simple, metal-free Aronot (wooden coffins). Likewise, large, ostentatious gravestones were allowed, as well as the opening of the cemetery on the Shabbat and Jewish religious holidays to visitors.
Consequently, there was nothing else for it but for the members of Adass Yisroel to open their own place of burial. Following the commandment of »Gemilut Chessed schel Emet«, both the nature of burial and the care and maintenance of the cemetery, as well as the idea stemming from the »Hevra Kadisha« of »love thy neighbour«, counted as the most highly regarded acts both within and outside of the Adass Yisroel Congregation.
Today, the cemetery contains approximately 3,100 graves. During the 50 years of the national-socialist and GDR periods, not only did all the records go missing, but also whole gravesites and gravestones were pilfered. From the founding of Adass Yisroel in 1869 through to the opening of its cemetery in Weissensee, its members (such as A. H. Heymann) found their final resting places in the cemetery of the Berlin Jewish Congregation, which was located on Schönhauser Allee in the Prenzlauer Berg district. In the cemetery of Adass Yisroel one can find from 1880 onwards the grave sites of both the well-known names as well as the lesser-known members of Orthodox Judaism in Berlin. There lie Rosenberg, London, Struck, Hirsch, Goldschmidt and Zamory – the greats of rabbinical teaching and education. Also buried at the cemetery of Adass Yisroel in Berlin-Weissensee are Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer, his sons Hirsch and Meier, Rabbi David Zwí Hoffmann, Rabbi Lurie, Rabbi Abraham Berliner, Rabbi Eliahu Kaplan, many members of the Rosenblüth family, and other luminaries.
The cemetery of Adass Yisroel survived the Nazi era mostly intact. Thousands of congregation members were murdered. The cemetery was put in charge of the Jewish Congregation of East Berlin. In the 40 years of the GDR, mainly after 1974, the community cemetery was defiled and destroyed beyond recognition. With the hard work of members and help from volunteers, reconstruction of the cemetery began in the mid-1980s, and gravestones were pieced together and straightened up.
Until 1974, the cemetery was looked after by the cemetery caretaker, Mr. Starr. After he retired in 1974 no replacement was appointed; the cemetery was declared to be »closed«. The weeds and undergrowth ran riot. Unknown people used the cemetery during this time as a romping place. The cemetery was vandalised, and many gravestones were knocked over. At the beginning of the 1980s, the extent of the damage became clear: 2,200 gravestones had been destroyed, and 200 were stolen.
In June 1986, the cemetery was able be reopened in the presence of members of Adass Yisroel from Berlin and all around the world. This was the first phase of an extensive restoration project with the help of volunteers and limited state financial aid. Even today the work is not yet complete, and is still carried out.
Seeing as the Congregation is not in the position to do the extensive repair work on its own, it relies to a large extent on the help of volunteers. The contributions of these volunteers make up an important part of the efforts of Adass Yisroel towards the preservation and care of the cemetery. An example of this is the German Military and the German War Graves Commission (Inc.). The Berlin division of the military helps with its soldiers of the Guard of the Federal Ministry of Defence and the reserves from the Society of Military Reserves to repair the graves of victims of war and violence. Volunteers and members of Adass Yisroel care for other gravesites. The volunteer groups consist of (amongst others) pupils and students, congregation members, and voluntary helpers. The congregation cares for the instruction of the volunteers. The condition of the cemetery, which has become satisfactory in recent years, cannot be maintained without the help of volunteer workers.
Hevra Kadisha: »Holy Brotherhood« in the Community Cemetery
The term »Hevra Kadisha« means »labours of charity«, which every Jewish congregation has to follow as a part of its social responsibility. These »labours of charity« can include care of the dying, the appointment of the »funeral brotherhood«, the consolation of family members during the period of mourning, and the preservation and maintenance of the community cemetery in the broadest sense. All the responsibilities carried out by the pre-war »Hevra Kadisha« are also carried out today by the congregation. Amongst these responsibilities are: the care, preservation and organisation of the community cemetery though skilled experts, who possess a thorough knowledge of death, burial, and preservation, the care of gravesites, the treatment of remains, identification and repair of graves, as well as general maintenance of the grounds.