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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.

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