Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Did you know that no fewer than 28 members of the Mendelssohn family are buried at one of the old cemeteries between Mehringdamm, Zossener Straße, Blücherstraße and Baruther Straße in Kreuzberg? The best known among them are the composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (mind you, he himself was not keen on using the double-barrelled name containing the word “Bartholdy”- it was the name of a family estate, adapted by the Mendelssohns to give their Jewish surname a more “Germanised” flair) and his equally talented sister, Fanny Hensel nee Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
Together with their parents as well as other relatives including children who died at young age, the two ingenious musicians found their resting place at one of the six (now only five) burial sites collectively known as the Friedhöfe vor dem Halleschen Thore. Their graves can be found at the old Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof, a nearly 8,000 m² site opened first in 1742 and then gradually expanded to provide burials to the growing parish of the Dreifaltigskeit-Gemeinde, a protestant church community from today’s Berlin-Mitte.
Although the family had Jewish roots, some of its members chose to follow different religions: the Mendelssohns buried at The Cemeteries outside the Gate to Halle (so the English translation of the name) were all protestant converts.
By 1835 when the first Mendelssohn, Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Felix’s and Fanny’s father, was put to grave there the cemeteries had changed their status from Armenfriedhof (Poor Cemetery) to a burial site of Berlin’s most respected citizens. Originally looked down upon by the well-heeled classes as inappropriate due to regular flooding (Mehringplatz, former Belle-Alliance-Platz, located on the other side of the Hallesches Tor and the city canal, had to be raised to stop the water from destroying both the elegant plaza and the foundations of the buildings erected around it), it soon became a “place to be” in every celebrated Berliner’s afterlife.
And so the burial plots were bought by wealthy citizens or even presented as gifts from the grateful city or organisations. Friedhöfe vor dem Hallesche Thore became the last resting place of such Berlin celebrities as Adalbert Chamiso, the salonniere Henriette Herz, painter Antoine Pesne, the father of modern postal services, Heinrich von Stephan; architects Wenceslaus von Knobelsdorff, Karl Ferdinand Langhans and personal favourite Hermann Blankenstein. Medicine has several renowned representatives, too: among others, great Berlin physicians Graefe, Heim or Westphal.
E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose workplace – the old Kammergericht, now part of Berlin’s Jewish Museum – was in the cemetery’s vicinity, has his grave only fifty metres away from that of one Leopold Wölfling who was born as Archduke Leopold Ferdinand of Austria-Tuscany. The latter went down in history due to two incidents in his adventurous life: as a young naval officer he smashed the face of his cousin, another Habsburg, Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and the victim of the 1914 Sarajevo assassination which allegedly marked the beginning of the First World War. The second historic moment for Archduke Leopold was the day when he chose to give up his title and the privileges it guaranteed in order to become free to marry a young woman he had fallen for but who, rather unfortunately, was a “wanton woman” (or at least was described as such).
The ex-Habsburg died in 1935 in a small flat at the back of the courtyard of Kreuzberg “residential barracks” (Mietshaus) in today’s Mehringdamm.
Overlooked by many, passed by in a hurry, the old cemeteries in the heart of today’s Berlin have many fascinating tales to tell and, believe me, the Mendelssohns are only one, if fascinating, chapter.
You will be able to read more about Berlin´s cemeteries and, among others, about Death in the City in my next book, “Notmsparker’s Berlin Companion Part II”. In the meantime, you might enjoy reading the first one, available at berlinarium.bigcartel.com (at the moment only as a highly portable e-book – albeit, a version compatible with any e-book reader).