Presentation by Tobias Rütenik (Weissensee cemetery project)

The complete results of the documentation of the Weissensee cemetery have been published as 115.628 Berliners. The Weißensee Jewish Cemetery – Documentation of the Comprehensive Survey of the Burial Sites. The entire text is provided in German and English. Click here for a downloadable PDF of the full publication.

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Ladies and Gentlemen:

The Jewish Cemetery in Berlin-Weißensee, the third one built in the city was inaugurated in 1880 and belongs with its more than 115.000 burials and 42 hectares of surface to the largest ones in Europe – its size shall be illustrated by the following sequence of pictures.


Surprisingly the cemetery suffered almost no damage during the Third Reich, thus it forms one of the most important and best preserved Jewish monuments in Germany. Due to these outstanding properties there are aims for the inclusion of the cemetery in the UNESCO World Heritage list.

For this purpose, the Department of History of Architecture and Urban Design of the Berlin Institute of Technology, the Berlin State Office for the Preservation of Historic Monuments and the Centrum Judaicum cooperated on a comprehensive project from 2010 to 2012 to document the entirety of the 134 burial fields. It was necessary to develop a special database system to be able to realize a complete inventory. The system that resulted links around 50 separate data entries for each buried person or tomb, creating a very detailed picture of the project site. In this presentation I would like to show you how the documentation system is structured. Further I would like to emphasize how the data material of the comprehensive documentation is suitable for scientific study of the cemetery and the creation of a heritage site strategy.

The complexity of the monument depends not only on its size but also on the abundance of the existing objective sources which are:

  • the cemetery archivalia
  • the gravestones and sepulchral buildings
  • and last but not least the vegetation

Due to the diversity of the mentioned sources it was necessary to work with an interdisciplinary team right from the start. Therefore the documentation of the Weißensee Jewish cemetery is one of the finest examples of the cooperation between several institutions and authorities. The count of all personal data and the description of the tombs were realized by the department of History of Architecture and Urban Design together with the Centrum Judaicum. The responsibility for the inventory of the vegetation and the analysis of garden history was in hands of the department of Ecology of the Berlin Institute of Technology and the garden heritage unit of the Monument Authority.

The documentation of the vegetation will be carried out in a separate project which will last until the end of 2015. Thus in the following I will focus on the two aspects shown on the left.

Naturally, the structure of the documentation is determined by the existing objective sources. On the one hand, we have the cemetery archivalia (for example the register of deaths on the left, or the cemetery plot plan in the middle). On the other hand, there are the tombs on the burial fields that you can see on the right.

The basic modules of the survey structure derived from these sources. These include:

  • Personal and cemetery plot data and
  • Formal properties of the tomb including condition, damage, materials used and inscriptions.

In this respect, the cemetery plot plans play an essential role, as they establish the connection between the personal data from the archives and the precise place of interment on the burial fields.

In the following I would like to explain the basic elements of our database in detail.

One of the main outstanding characteristics of the Jewish cemetery in Weißensee is based on the fact that the written sources of the cemetery archive are almost completely intact, dating from the opening in 1880 to the present day. The archive is structured into different holdings. The cemetery file – on the left hand – consists of systematic index cards, death certificates, exchange of letters and so on. Besides there is the burial register – eight large books – which contain the entirety of the buried persons in table form. The given information includes: names, date of birth, death and funeral, profession, address, place of birth, type of funeral and specifications to the ceremony, the stone erection or the commissioned stone mason, just to mention a few.

A view on the personal data entry form illustrates not only the high number of structured collected information but moreover reflects the division of the archival stock. While the essential personal data from the burial register is summarized in the upper half, the lower part contains additional information from the cemetery file. The box on the upper left provides information to identify and localize a certain cemetery plot.

That aspect, the unambiguous identification and localization of the correspondent tomb on the burial fields formed the second main goal of our documentation project. Due to the annotation of the burial number in the cemetery plot plans the certain tomb could be identified. The entirety of all 80.000 gravestones and sepulchral buildings were documented by a digital photographic picture of both sides.

Finally the shown form connects the personal data from the archive with the corresponding tomb on the burial fields and its images. Solely due to the unambiguous data connection – the core of our system -the statistic interpretability of the versatile data material to persons and tombs is guaranteed as you will see later on. Besides, the detailed network makes it possible to plug in additional data formats for persons and grave descriptions. Any future surveys, remediation plans, photographs and detailed documentations can be linked to the comprehensive inventory to create additional value.

The original cemetery plot plans were scanned as high resolution images. Every single plot was digitalized and linked with its respective data record set. In this manner the entirety of information according to person or tomb can be displayed in a map almost automatically.

But not only the personal data and the identification of the burial formed part of the tasks of our documentation. New in respect to comparable projects is the detailed concept of the systematic collection of tomb properties, like: formal characteristics, material used, condition and inscriptions.

As far as it concerns the description of the tomb, two different systems were applied parallelly. First a certain type or subtype of the gravestone or sepulchral architecture was determined. Several subtypes are displayed at the right edge to give an example. The organization chart at the left defines the correspondent criteria.

But to ensure a more detailed distinction of formal properties each subtype was furthermore divided into certain horizontal sections, to attach specific characteristics. For instance the section “top end” – zone number 4 in the picture – can be characterized by several arch forms, like the selected examples shown on the left. The procedure of the description of the other zones works in a similar way.

But not only formal properties were recorded in the course of the documentation. An important part of the collected data is formed by the determination of the materials, the condition or stability and damages. Especially in connection with the gathered data on vegetation, in future it will be possible to balance between the values of monument and nature heritage. In that respect, please note particularly the picture on the right.

Although it was not possible to transcribe all inscriptions entirely, due to the great number of tombstones, the used language could be determined, the legibility estimated and the placing registered. If, in the future, there are plans to record the inscription texts entirely, the data on localization and identification would allow the targeting of specific tombs. This would significantly reduce the time and effort needed for a detailed documentation.

Comparable to the record of personal data, a structured entry form was also designed for the description of tomb properties. Each input box is combined with a defined vocabulary to prevent inaccurate data entries and to guarantee the plausibility of the information in all parts of the database.

Due to the limited time of my speech I only will be able to deliver a limited insight into the possibilities of analysis and the illustration of the immense potentials of the multidisciplinary data set.

The shown map represents the 500 most important places of birth of the buried persons in Weißensee. You can easily realize, that the majority did not originate from Berlin or its hinterland but was born in the nowadays polish territory – one reason to intensify the cooperation between Berlin and its East and Southeast European neighbours on that matter.

Another analysis which is exclusively based on the data from the archive is the automatic mapping of the date of burial. Thus it is visible not only how the cemetery was occupied in general from the entrance at the left hand to the northeast at the right. We can further distinguish between different kinds of burial field, that means if reservations for futurous burials were possible or if the occupancy occurred in a strict sequence.

Finally the long known decline of Hebrew inscriptions can be proved by statistics. The displayed chart shows, that shortly after the opening of the cemetery almost the half of the tombstones contained at least one inscription in Hebrew letters. However that number declined up to almost “zero” at the beginning of the 1920s.

But we can also recognize a slight renaissance of the Hebrew language during the 30s, due to statistic analysis of the gathered material.

The now displayed chart shows the fashion of materiality of a certain gravestone subtype – namely the so called tablet. You can see that early tablets which were erected before World War I consist of Silesian Marble or Saxon Sandstone – marked with blue and yellow – while younger ones were made of Scandinavian dark hard rock or even artificial stone in the 40s – black and purple. The late popularity of that traditional gravestone subtype made of a modern material represents ones more the mentioned renaissance of religious values in the late 20s and during the Third Reich.

Also the heritage conservation issues can be automatically displayed by means of the linked digital plans. In the picture you can see the mapping of stability and condition of the building stock. Yellow means low risk, red means immediate endangerment and dark purple represents those gravestones or sepulchral buildings which already have been collapsed. Those results serve as a firm basis and give arguments to calculate an accurate long-term financial afford. Further conservation and rehabilitation activities can be planned and executed in a target-orientated way.

The last example shall illustrate the wide range of possibilities of differentiation of specific cases.

The here displayed so called “slanted markers” form not the most numerous but still a distinctive group of gravestones which was popular mainly between 1890 and 1914. The 7.500 slanted markers appear on some burial fields pretty rarely – like on O2 – on others they are commonly used – like on R2.

Especially the separate installed inscription boards of the slanted markers are unfixed or already fallen in 60 percent of all cases. By means of the linked cemetery map the diverse kinds of damage can be determined and localized exactly to execute respective repair.

At the end of my speech I want to mention, that the Department of History of Architecture and Urban Design of the Berlin Institute of Technology cooperates with several German institutions in a project funded by the German Ministry of Science and Education which deals with databases supporting the documentation of Jewish cemeteries. The project is called ”spatial relationships” and its aim is the development of a technical infrastructure which can serve to combine and analyze all Jewish cemetery documentation data in Germany.

One of the main goals is the development of a topographic visualizer, which can provide to the researchers an automatic mapping tool in a common internet browser without knowledge and use of specialized mapping software.

As you could see, we are well prepared to support any documentation project of Jewish cemeteries around the world. In that respect I hope in future we will cooperate somehow or other and I thank you for your attention.


6 thoughts on “Presentation by Tobias Rütenik (Weissensee cemetery project)

  1. You mention that high-resolution scans of the original plot maps of each section were made as an initial step of your process. Are those high-resolution scans available anywhere online?
    Many thanks,

  2. Where can I obtain the database used for this research so that I, too, may discover my relatives.

  3. Pingback: Full results of the Weissensee cemetery documentation published | Jewish Heritage Europe

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