UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds
Courtesy of Britzka Film

In Heaven, Underground

Award-winning doc tells the story of Holocaust survivors and Europe’s largest active Jewish burial ground

By Patricia Clarke

In Heaven, Underground
Directed by Britta Wauer
Britzka Film


A man from Miami is standing at the grave of his grandmother, weeping. Grandfather died at Auschwitz, he tells her. So did your eldest son. Your youngest was killed on the Russian front. “Why did I stay alive?” he sobs. “What did I do?”

His story is part of the documentary In Heaven, Underground — an award winner at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival — about the Jewish Cemetery at Weissensee, the largest active Jewish burial ground in Europe. But the cemetery is only a frame for the stories of its inhabitants, living and dead, and of the resilient human spirit in the face of evil. Every stone, says the resident rabbi, is a piece of world history, and stories are hidden beneath them.

More than 115,000 people have been buried here in the last 130 years. A card index file details the location of every grave. Some have simple headstones; others sit in huge art deco family mausoleums. According to the rabbi, these displays of wealth do not stem from Judaism but rather from “the human urge to show that my parents were more popular than yours.”

The film mixes stories of Holocaust survivors and those who work at the cemetery with street scenes of pre-war Berlin and photographs of families, laughing young girls and stolid elderly couples who would soon be on the death trains to concentration camps.

Funerals still take place at Weissensee. The bodies are prepared according to Jewish custom: wrapped in white and laid in wood coffins built on site. The rabbi sees Jewish rituals as helpful in structuring grief. “At funerals you can do more for people than at weddings, where everyone is happy anyway,” he says.

Do Jews believe in a heaven? The title of the film invokes the question. The rabbi is equivocal in his answer. Both Jews and Christians, he says, believe that after death, the soul lives on in another dimension. “Beyond that, it’s vague.”

Patricia Clarke is a writer in Toronto.


Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image

Editorials

David Wilson%

Observations

by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image

Society

July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots

World

June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.

Justice

June 2017

Undocumented

by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.

World

June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.

Society

April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart

Society

March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image