Adjacent to the main Ohlsdorf Cemetery, the Jewish Cemetery spans nearly thirty acres and contains approximately 18,000 graves. Designed by the German architect Johann Wilhelm Cordes (1840–1917), the cemetery opened its gates on September 30, 1833. It is a magical place, with narrow pathways and a peaceful atmosphere. Huge trees, considered to be linked to the graves through via their root systems, provide ample shade to the departed and their visitors.
The Jewish Ohlsdorf has its own fence and gate — as dictated by Jewish tradition — forming an independent burial place for the Ashkenazi (German-Israelite) and Sephardic (Portuguese-Jewish) communities of Hamburg. By tradition, Jewish men are required to cover their heads in public, an acknowledgment of being in the presence of the Divine. Accordingly, the entranceway has a box with Kippahs, for use during funeral services and cemetery visits.
Memorial For The Holocaust Victims
A single, detached stony urn near the entrance contains ash and soil from the Auschwitz concentration camp. The German architect Felix Ascher designed the memorial in 1951 to commemorate the six million Jews murdered by the Nazi regime, including approximately 8,000 Jews from Hamburg. Behind the urn is an unpolished granite wall decorated with the Star of David. The wall marks the years of the Jewish persecution: 1933-1945, along with the corresponding years of the Hebrew calendar, 5693-5705. The inscription, from Jeremiah 8.23 (New American Bible, Revised Edition), written in Hebrew and German, reads: “Oh, that my head were a spring of water, my eyes a fountain of tears, That I might weep day and night over the slain from the daughter of my people!”
The Funeral Hall
The German architect, August Piper (1844–1891), designed the funeral hall in neo-Romanesque style. When the cemetery began its operation in 1833, the Jewish community in Hamburg was the largest in Germany. The funeral hall, featuring a cupola, rose window, and circular arch, is one of only a few Jewish religious sites that survived the Nazi reign.
Victims Of The First World War
Near the entrance, west of the funeral hall, there is a section designated for the Jewish soldiers of WWI. Eighty-eight individual graves, with tombstones made out of shell limestone, face east towards Jerusalem. The dead are buried with their feet facing Jerusalem. Behind this custom is the belief that, when the Messiah arrives, resurrected Jews need to know in which direction to walk.
An obelisk, crowned with a bronze wreath of laurel, marks the center of the cemetery. Nine memorial stones on both sides of the square show the names of more than 400 Jewish soldiers from Hamburg, who are buried in foreign soil.
A Few Facts About Jewish Cemetery Ohlsdorf
After the historic Ottensen and Grindel Cemeteries closed in 1934 and 1937, respectively, numerous historical Jewish tombs were transferred to Ohlsdorf. The Ohlsdorf Jewish Cemetery closed in 1943 when the Nazi regime decided to erect provisional accommodation for families displaced by bombings on the grounds. The temporary homes, however, fell victim to bombs a short time later.
The cemetery reopened in 1945, at the conclusion of WWII. Today, the Jewish Cemetery Ohlsdorf consists of different sections. They include the New Jewish Cemetery, the Portuguese Cemetery, and the Grindel Cemetery. The areas of Sephardic (Portuguese and Spanish) and Ashkenazi (Eastern and Central European and thus also German) Jews are separated from each other.
Forced to convert to Catholicism, Sephardic Jews chose to flee Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century. Arriving as Catholics in Protestant Hamburg, they quickly reverted to Judaism and resumed their burial traditions. As a result, their section features stones carved in a sarcophagus style, with gravestones lying flat on the ground. This section of Jewish Cemetery Ohlsdorf is known as the Portuguese Cemetery. Common memorial symbols found here include skulls, crossbones, hourglasses, angel and bat wings.
Other Sections Of Jewish Cemetery Ohlsdorf
The Ashkenazi section consists of roughly 375 Ashkenazi tombs relocated from the Grindel Cemetery. The sign of a hand pouring water from a jug into a bowl is the symbol of the Levites of Ashkenazi descent. Consequently, some of the tombstones in this area are decorated with a water jug and a water bowl. Levites are responsible for washing the hands of the Temple Priests or Kohanim before the latter performed their priestly duties. A tombstone with this symbol indicates the deceased was a Levite. Gravestones in Persian and Russian languages are noticeable in the new section of Jewish Cemetery Ohlsdorf, highlighting the many Jews who immigrated to Hamburg after 1945.
Although traditional Judaism forbids cremation, numerous assimilated Jews were cremated. The first urn burial took place in Ohlsdorf in 1897. Stone urns draped in cloth indicate cremation.
House of Eternity
Jewish burial grounds are sacred sites and must remain undisturbed in perpetuity. Hence, the Jewish name for cemeteries is often referred to as “House of Eternity,” “House of Life,” or “good place” in German-speaking countries. Eating, drinking, or smoking are forbidden in the presence of the dead.
Jewish tradition does not favor opulent displays. The argument is that, in death, the rich and the poor meet on equal terms (Proverbs 22:2). Consequently, the gravestone should reflect this humble reality.
Ostentatious stones are viewed as undermining the belief in the Messiah and resurrection. The practice of placing a statue or face on a Jewish tomb is also strictly forbidden, lest the image be construed as idol worship. This belief is based on the second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:4): Thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them. Should a gravestone fall over, Jewish tradition prohibits any effort to return it to its upright position. Graves are not covered with plants, except ivy or similar ground-cover plants. Vegetation growing naturally is not pruned.
An unusual exception in a Jewish cemetery is the tomb of Dr. Gabriel Riesser (1806- 1863), a German politician and lawyer. In October 1860, he became the first Jewish judge in Germany. Upon his death, Riesser was buried in the Jewish Grindel cemetery in Hamburg. When the Nazis ordered the demolition of the Grindel cemetery in 1937, his grave, among others, found a new final resting place in Jewish Cemetery Ohlsdorf.
Sculpted in the neoclassicism style, Riesser’s tombstone represents an ancient temple. The relief block shows a half-dressed female figure — possibly an allegory on truth’s triumph over falsehood, or a depiction of “Justitia” (Lady Justice).
The Ohlsdorf Jewish Cemetery is a green oasis with huge, mature trees, lush rhododendron, and songbirds. It reflects an atmosphere unique to Jewish burial grounds. IF you have the opportunity, I suggest visiting this peaceful, historic site. The cemetery is closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
For those of you who want to learn more about Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, I recommend the book, Houses of Life: Jewish Cemeteries of Europe, by Joachim Jacobs.
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