Jewish Berlin – What does that mean exactly? Berlin can look back on centuries of Jewish history. From the Middle Ages onwards, various Jewish communities lived in the city. The relations with the Christian majority population were sometimes better, sometimes worse and experienced their darkest hour in the Shoah. Today we not only want to introduce you to places in Berlin that remind us of the Jewish past (including memorial sites), but also to show you, with the help of several objects, what Jewish life in the city looks like today. But first, let’s have a look at the history of the Jewish community of Berlin
The history of the Jews in Berlin
The beginnings in the Middle Ages
Jews already lived in the area of today’s Berlin in the Middle Ages. They were first mentioned in an official document in the year 1295. In contrast to other places in Germany, they initially enjoyed some freedoms here and did not have to live in their own quarter. However, they were denied many professions and were always dependent on the favor of the particular rulers, thus had a frequently changing legal status.
In the 15th and 16th centuries in particular, there were repeated attacks on the Jewish population, and expulsions were also commonplace. Often it was ridiculous accusations such as desecration of the communion wafer or the ritual murder of children to which the Jews of Berlin were exposed.
Displacement and resettlement
At the end of the 16th century, the Jews were expelled from the city and could not settle here again until about 100 years later. The resettlement was mainly by Jews expelled from Vienna. In 1700, there were already over 100 families living in the town.
In the mid-18th century, Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I ordered all Berlin Jews who did not have a house of their own to move to the Scheunenviertel quarter, which is why a lively community developed here in particular, most of whose residents were poor. Wealthier Jewish citizens subsequently settled mainly in the adjacent Spandauer Vorstadt. Today, these are the two parts of Berlin where one encounters the most traces of the Jewish past.
Emancipation and immigration
The Prussian Jewish Edict of 1812 brought partial legal equality to the Jews in Prussia. In the middle of the 19th century, the Jewish community of Berlin grew strongly; by 1860 it already had 28,000 members.
Flourishing time and Holocaust
As a result, more and more Jews came to Berlin. This was a time of cultural blossoming, which in the following decades also led to an ever greater differentiation into various religious currents and schools of thought. Many Jews held important positions in science, administration and business, and numerous Jewish cultural institutions were established during this period. The period of prosperity lasted until the Weimar Republic.
The cultural rupture brought about by National Socialism soon had fatal consequences for the Jewish community, which had grown to 160,000 members at the time of the Nazi’s seizure of power. Pogroms, humiliation, exclusion and escape characterized the following years before the Nazis sought to exterminate the European Jews. Several gathering camps were set up in Berlin, from which trains left for death in the concentration camps in the East. It seemed that Jewish life in Berlin would never be possible again.
Jewish Berlin today
After the war, many Jews in both the east and west of the city emigrated and two small communities formed, which merged in the course of the reunification of Germany. As a result, Berlin’s Jewish community grew significantly again as more and more Jews came to the city due to the influx of numerous Eastern European migrants. More recently, the city has gained a reputation in Israel as a creative, hip and tolerant metropolis, which is why young Israelis are now increasingly enriching Jewish life in Berlin. This community is more diverse today than ever before and yet will never again reach its old pre-Shoah size. What is dismaying is that most of the objects we present to you now have to be protected by the police even almost 80 years after the Holocaust.
Europe’s largest Jewish museum was built in 2001 to a design by star architect Daniel Libeskind. Actually, that’s not quite true. Rather, it is a combination of a modern building created by Libeskind with a zigzag look and a baroque building that used to house a court. The complex also includes the so-called Garden of Exile, in which 49 concrete steles with olive willows refer to the founding of the State of Israel and the city of Berlin.
Describing the building in all its facets would go beyond the scope of the article here, but it is definitely worth seeing and provides a worthy setting for the exhibition. It was last redesigned in 2020 and provides information about Jewish life in Germany, Germany’s Jewish history, Jewish customs and traditions, and the coexistence of Jews and non-Jews in Germany.
- Lindenstraße 9-14, free admission (temporary exhibitions cost extra), click here for the website
Across the street from the museum lies the impressive building of the Blumenthal Academy. Opened in 2012, the center houses, among other things, a reading room, a library, an archive, a children’s museum and several event rooms. The academy is named after the founder of the Jewish Museum, W. Michael Blumenthal.
The building itself was also designed by Daniel Libeskind and represents a former market hall that was cleverly redesigned for the new requirements of an educational institution. Not so well visible in the photo: On the roof of the entrance area, the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, Alef and Bet, can be seen.
- Lindenstraße 9–14, free admission, click here to get to the website
The New Synagogue on Oranienburger Straße to me is one of the most beautiful buildings in Berlin and one of the most important centers of Jewish life in the German capital. It was built by Eduard Knoblauch and Friedrich August Stüler, a student of famous Prussian architect Schinkel, who also created the New Museum in Berlin (which is part of our list of the most exciting sights in East Berlin, compiled here for you).
The oriental-style building, inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, was not without controversy, especially among Jews from the middle classes. They were of the opinion that the exotic-looking exterior could make Jews in Berlin look even more like outsiders and not belonging to the German people.
The Nazis tried to destroy the building during the Night of Broken Glass. It was thanks to the policeman Wilhelm Kürtzfeld that the fire set by the SA could be extinguished. And so church services could still be celebrated here in the aftermath, before the Wehrmacht confiscated the building for the purpose of setting up a storage camp.
Heavily damaged during the war, most of the synagogue was torn down in the 1950s, citing the danger of collapse. Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a foundation was set up to rebuild the synagogue. While the representative front of the building was restored, a different approach was taken inside. Today, an exhibition about Jewish life in Berlin is shown here, but the building no longer functions as a synagogue.
Unfortunately, there was an Islamist knife attack on security guards in 2019. A sad sign that Jewish life in Germany is still under threat.
- Oranienburger Straße 28, click here for the website
House of the Wannsee Conference
The Wannsee Conference marked one of the darkest days in German history. Here, on Jan. 20, 1942, high-ranking Nazis met in a villa to coordinate the Holocaust under the leadership of Reinhard Heydrich. Although the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was not de facto decided here, the conference marked a serious step towards the extermination of the European Jews. Today, in the educational center that was established here, one can learn about this fateful moment.
- Am Großen Wannsee 56-58, guided tours: 3 €, click here for the website, here you can also visit the exhibition online
Cemetery at Schönhauser Allee
Schönhauser Allee is home to a large, albeit heavily weathered, cemetery that was established in the 19th century. It only existed for about 50 years before burials took place at the cemetery in Weißensee from 1880, but people were still buried here later in isolated cases.
Several famous Berlin Jews are buried here, including the composer Giacomo Mayerbeer and the impressionist painter Max Liebermann. Many interesting discoveries can be made on a walk through the cemetery, which offers a colorful mix of extremely simple graves and elaborately designed tombs.
- Schönhauser Allee 23, donation requested, click here for the website
Former Jewish Girls School
Between 1927 and 1928, this building was realized in Berlin-Mitte, which housed a school for Jewish girls. In 1941 Jews were rounded up here, and in 1942 the educational institution was finally closed. In GDR times, the polytechnic high school Bertold Brecht was housed here, the building gained recognition as the venue of the 4th Biennale in 2006. Today, several galleries are located here.
- Auguststraße 11–13
Deportation Memorial Putlitz Bridge
In the Berlin district of Moabt, a bridge spans an old freight station that holds a dark history. From here, starting in 1942, a total of 32,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps, where the vast majority of them met a cruel death. The monument, created in 1987 by Volkmar Haase, is reminiscent of a gravestone and bears the following inscription:
“STEPS THAT ARE NO LONGER STEPS. A STAIRCASE THAT IS NO LONGER A STAIRCASE. DEMOLISHED. SYMBOL OF THE WAY THAT WAS NO LONGER A WAY FOR THOSE WHO HAD TO WALK THIS LAST WAY OVER RAMPS, TRACKS, STEPS AND STAIRS. FROM THE RAILROAD STATION PUTLITZSTRASSE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF BERLIN’S JEWISH CITIZENS WERE DEPORTED TO EXTERMINATION CAMPS IN THE YEARS 1941-1944 AND WERE MURDERED.”
It is also sad that the memorial has been desecrated several times, in 1992 there was even an explosive attack that damaged it so much that after restoration it could not be placed here again until 1993.
Jewish Retirement Home at Berkaer Straße
Alexander Beer was one of the most important Jewish architects in Berlin in the interwar period and created several buildings, three of which are still preserved today. One of them was the old people’s home in Berkaer Straße, built between 1929 and 1931. The brick building with plaster bands is one of the wonderful examples of modernist buildings in Berlin (pioneering this style was, among others, the city of Chemnitz, whose modernist buildings we present to you here). In 1941, the Nazis dissolved the retirement home and deported the last remaining residents to extermination camps. Beer also did not live to see the end of the war and was murdered in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1944. Later, the building served British forces as accommodation, and later as a hospital. Today, there is once again a Jewish retirement home in Charlottenburg.
The Heerstraße cemetery not far from the Olympic Stadium is known primarily as a cemetery for celebrities. Beyond Heerstraße, however, there has also been a modern Jewish burial ground since the 1950s, which is still used by Berlin’s Jewish community. It was expanded several times in the following decades and was unfortunately repeatedly the target of attacks. Among others, Hans Rosenthal, the famous television presenter, and Heinz Galinski, former chairman of the Central Council of Jews, are buried here. Many of the gravestones indicate the Ukrainian and Russian origins of the deceased and thus also show the change that Berlin’s Jewish community has experienced since the fall of the Wall due to the arrival of so called contingent refugees and repatriates.
- Heerstraße 141
Moses Mendelssohn Jewish High School
The “JGMM” in Mitte district can look back on a long history. The Jewish philosopher and Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn from Dessau organized a Jewish school here as early as the 18th century. In 1906, the school finally moved into the building in Große Hamburger Straße that had been erected specifically for school operations. At the beginning of the Nazi dictatorship, 1000 children went to school here before the building had to be cleared during the war and Jews of all ages were rounded up here. In GDR times, the building served as a vocational school, before Jewish schooling was possible here again after the fall of the Wall.
Today, both Jews and non-Jews go to school here, and the Jewish Community institution is a state-approved private school. From here it is only a short walk to St. Hedwig’s Hospital.
- Große Hamburger Straße 27, click here for the website
Cemetery at Große Hamburger Straße
The history of this cemetery in Berlin-Mitte dates back to the late 17th century. Several thousand Jews found their final resting place here (the exact numbers are disputed). This cemetery was also vandalized by the Nazis, but some gravestones were preserved because they were embedded in the wall. Moses Mendelssohn was also buried on the site in 1786, and is commemorated today by the only gravestone in the cemetery. Towards the end of the war, non-Jews were also buried here, as there were simply too many dead in the city.
In front of the cemetery there is a monument by sculptor Will Lammert entitled “Jewish Victims of Fascism”, which was erected here in 1985. It shows 13 people with petrified facial expressions and had actually been intended for the Ravensbrück memorial.
- Große Hamburger Straße 26, donation requested, click here for website
St. Hedwig’s Hospital
A Catholic hospital has also made it to our “Jewish Berlin” list. It was built in the mid-19th century and is one of the largest hospitals in the capital. Why do we list it here? Between 1942 and 1945, Catholic doctor Erhard Lux and social worker Marianne Hapig, along with several nuns, helped Jews here who were threatened with deportation. Disguised as supposedly Catholic patients, the residents of a collection center set up in a Jewish retirement home in the neighborhood found refuge here. The deeply religious Hapig also helped resistance groups and opponents of the regime, and a road in Rudow district is named after her today.
- Große Hamburger Straße 5-11, click here for the website
Museum of the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind
The fact that Oskar Schindler saved the lives of numerous Jews in Krakow during the Second World War has been known to the whole world at least since the film “Schindler’s List”. But there were other people who offered protection to the persecuted. Otto Weidt was one of them. In his factory for brooms and brushes, he mainly employed blind and deaf Jews and also set up a hiding place for his employees in a back room here in his workshop. In the workshop and the hiding place, which has been preserved mostly original, you can learn about Weidt and his work today.
By the way, the passage in Rosenthaler Straße, where the workshop and also the Anne Frank Center are located, is very photogenic and covered all over with street art.
- Rosenthaler Straße 39, free admission, click here for the website
Anne Frank Center
Most of you know the fate of Anne Frank and her diaries. Here in the Passage is a small center that informs about Anne Frank, her life and fate, but also about the time of National Socialism. Numerous personal documents and photos are shown. The interactive design of the center makes it very interesting for children and offers a good introduction to the darkest chapter of German history.
- Rosenthaler Straße 39, Admission: 6 €, click here for website
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe has been commemorating the Jews killed by the Germans in the Holocaust since 2005. Until 1989, the area had served as part of the Berlin Wall. But since a central memorial was to commemorate the Shoah, the area not far from the Brandenburg Gate was chosen for it. There are now a total of 2711 concrete steles here of varying heights. Walking through them, one gets the feeling of walking into a labyrinth and almost being crushed by the cold concrete steles. The monument is one of the most impressive memorials and its composition is truly unique. Visiting this place is free of charge and there is also an exhibition under the memorial.
- Cora-Berliner-Straße 1
In the district of Pankow, Alexander Beer erected a building in the neo-baroque style in 1912/1913, which was henceforth used as the Jewish Orphanage. Its roots go back to an older institution that housed children and young people who had been brought to Berlin from Brody near Lviv at the end of the 19th century. Previously, there had been anti-Jewish pogroms in the tsarist empire and committed Berlin Jews helped the parentless children in this way.
A school was attached to the orphanage. Since in the course of the “racial segregation” Jews were forbidden to attend public schools from 1935, the school of the orphanage grew strongly. Some children could be saved as part of the Kindertransporte (see also the memorial ” Trains to Life – Trains to Death”), but most of them were deported to the concentration camps in the East and met their death there.
Today, the orphanage serves as a cultural and meeting place, among other things. Various events are held here, most of which are intended to promote intercultural dialogue.
- Berliner Straße 120, click here for the website
Seat of the Central Council of Jews in Germany
The building in Tucholkystraße is not a building that I include here because of its history or its special construction, but because of its function. In former times, in the so-called Leo Baeck House, the Teaching Institute for the Science of Judaism was located here. So it was a building with a long Jewish tradition, which was used in various ways after the war and finally transferred to the Central Council of Jews in Germany in the 1990s.
The Central Council of Jews is the largest association of Jewish communities in Germany and represents the interests of around 100,000 Jews in the country. It plays a key role for Jewish life and since its founding in 1950 has been an important organ of the Jewish community in Germany and its central point of contact with politicians.
- Tucholskystraße 9, click here for the website of the Central Council of Jews
Synagoge at Rykestraße
Many think that the New Synagogue is the largest synagogue in the city. With 1200 seats, however, it is surpassed by Synagoge in Rykestraße, which is thus the largest synagogue in Germany. In the middle of today’s trendy Prenzlauer Berg district, it was completed as early as 1904 and served as a place of worship primarily for Eastern European immigrants. Also because of this neo-Romanesque synagogue, the district quickly developed into an important Jewish center. Since the synagogue is located in the middle of a densely built-up area, it was not as badly destroyed during the Night of Broken Glass as free-standing houses of worship; during the war, it was misused as a horse stable.
As the only synagogue in the east of the city that was not destroyed, it quickly assumed a key role for the Jewish community in Berlin in the post-war period and at times counted 3,000 members. After several waves of emigration, however, only about 200 worshippers belonged to it at the time of reunification. Elaborately restored in 2007, it now shines again in its old splendor and, as at its opening, mainly Jews with Eastern European roots pray here today.
- Rykestraße 53, click here for the website
Synagoge at Fraenkelufer
During World War I, a neoclassical synagogue was built in Kreuzberg district to serve as a place of worship for the local Orthodox community. A small complex was built around the synagogue, which, like the place of worship itself, was designed by Alexander Beer, who also designed the orphanage and the retirement home. With 200 seats it was one of the largest synagogues in Berlin, unfortunately it was set on fire during the November pogroms. It turned out to be a stroke of luck that there was a public school in the immediate vicinity and the fire department kept the flames at bay.
From then on, services were only held in the small youth synagogue that you can see in the picture. As the first synagogue after the war, the synagogue on Fraenkelufer was reopened in time for Rosh ha-Shanah 1945. Currently, there are plans by the city administration to rebuild the old, much larger synagogue, which would be a unique event for Berlin so far.
- Fraenkelufer 10-12, click here for the website
Monument at Rosenstraße
In the past, the Old Synagogue of Berlin was located in Rosenstraße in the center of the city. At the end of February 1943, the Nazis deported 8000 Jewish citizens from the city, including many male Jews from so-called “mixed marriages”. These were first rounded up in Rosenstraße in the building of the Jewish Social Administration. 600 courageous women then demonstrated for a week in front of the building for the release of their relatives. And they were indeed successful! At the beginning of March, all the prisoners were released. In 1995, in memory of this unusual episode, this monument was unveiled by Ingeborg Hunzinger, who according to the Nazi racial laws was also a “half-breed Jew” and created numerous works in Berlin.
Monument “The Abandoned Room”
When I visited the memorial in February 2021, two young people were just sitting on the table, comfortably drinking a coffee. Thus the memorial shares the fate of many places of remembrance, which unfortunately are not regarded as such by many. The Berlin sculptor Karl Biedermann created an impressive work here in the Spandauer Vorstadt, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation. To me, it seems as if a family had been torn from the midst of life and forcibly abducted here. The location was not chosen by chance, because many Jews had lived in the area since the 18th century and already in 1923, 10 years before the Nazis came to power, a pogrom took place here that was already a dark announcement of what was to come.
The stumbling stones were created on the initiative of the Berlin artist Gunter Demnig in 1992. The small brass plaques exist throughout Europe and are usually located in front of the last homes of those people who were murdered, deported or expelled by the Nazis. There are now over 75,000 of them in Germany, commemorating not only Jewish residents but also members of other persecuted groups. Demnig’s main concern is to give back their names and thus a piece of their dignity to people who were reduced to a prisoner number in the concentration camps. In Berlin there are already almost 9000 of them, whose exact location you can trace here by means of the symbols with the blue little houses.
Jewish Cemetery in Weißensee
In 1880, a neo-Renaissance cemetery designed by Hugo Licht was built in Weißensee in what is now the district of Pankow. This had become necessary because the cemetery in Schönhauser Allee no longer offered enough space for the deceased. With an area of over 40 hectares, it is now the largest Jewish cemetery in all of Europe. Bordered by a brick wall with a magnificent entrance portal, the cemetery has several places commemorating the Holocaust, including memorial stones, but also an urn field with the ashes of Jews murdered in concentration camps.
The tragic fate of the Jewish communities is also witnessed by the 1907 Jews who were buried here because they committed suicide during the Nazi dictatorship. Why the cemetery was not desecrated by the Nazis like so many others is a mystery to historians to this day. The cemetery is also definitely worth a visit because of the magnificent graves and mausoleums.
- Herbert-Baum-Straße 45, donation requested
Jewish Adult Education Center
In 1919, the Freie Jüdische Volkshochschule was founded in Berlin. After being closed by the Nazis, it was not reopened until 1962 and is now one of the most important places of Jewish life in Berlin. What is particularly nice about it is that the Jewish Adult Education Center sees itself as a place of dialogue where non-Jews can also come together to learn about Judaism. Here, however, not only are prejudices dispelled, but Jews can deepen their knowledge of their history and traditions. Otherwise, the Jewish Adult Education Center functions like other similar non Jewish organisations of that kind. In addition to language courses (Yiddish and Hebrew), cultural aspects of Jewish life are also covered in individual seminars.
- Fasanenstraße 79-80, click here for the website
Monument “Trains to life – Trains to death”.
At Friedrichstraße station there is an impressive monument created by Frank Meisler. The location was not chosen by chance, because it was from here that the trains departed for freedom or death. Just before the outbreak of World War II, the British government allowed many Jewish children to enter Great Britain. They are remembered here, as are the children who were sent to their deaths from the Friedrichstrasse train station and were not lucky enough to be taken in by Great Britain or other countries. The artist himself was saved by the action and created similar monuments in other places, including his hometown of Gdansk, in Hamburg and in London.
- Georgenstraße 14 (go down the stairs at Friedrichstraße station, there are signs)
The history of the Jews in Berlin and Jewish Berlin in general have been well researched for years and there are numerous books on the subject. Three of them we would like to recommend to you here in particular.
Well written book about a Jewish student in 1980s Berlin
Memoires of Jenny Barth Borstein, wo describes her childhood being a Jew in 19th century Berlin
Inge Deutschkorn describes what is what like being a Jew in wartime Berlin
We would like to warmly recommend the Jewish Places project. Here are not only all Jewish sights listed, but also stumbling stones, walks and much more to the traces of Jewish life throughout Germany.
You haven’t had enough of Berlin yet? Click here for our article about the most exciting GDR buildings in East Berlin. And if you click here, you’ll get to our article about Karl-Marx-Allee. Fans of Art Nouveau should definitely not miss this article.
How did you like the article? Which places of Jewish Berlin do you think should be listed here? Let us know and write us a comment! Also follow wildeast on Facebook to stay up to date with the latest articles.