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!

Announcement

New Observer editor and CEO, Jocelyn Bell. Photo by Lindsay Palmer

New editor named

by Observer Staff

Promotional Image

Editorials

David Wilson%

Observations

by David Wilson

A perfect send-off

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: My Year of Living Spiritually

by Observer Staff

Anne Bokma left the Dutch Reformed Church as a young adult and eventually became a member of the United Church and then the Unitarian Universalists. Having long explored the "spiritual but not religious" demographic as a writer, she decided to immerse herself in practices — like hiring a soul coach, secular choir-singing and forest bathing — for 12 months to find both enlightenment and entertainment.

Promotional Image

Society

November 2017

Trump country

by David Macfarlane

A northern Alabama county voted almost unanimously for Donald Trump in 2016. One year later, the writer, together with photographer Nigel Dickson, travels there to try to understand why.

Faith

November 2017

Involuntary pilgrim

by David Giuliano

The return of a tumour sets David Giuliano on a path he calls his ‘Camino de Cancer’

Faith

October 2017

A tale of two cancers

by Catherine Gordon

One year after the writer discovered she had breast cancer, her sister in California received the same diagnosis. They both recovered, but their experiences were worlds apart.

Society

November 2017

Trump country

by David Macfarlane

A northern Alabama county voted almost unanimously for Donald Trump in 2016. One year later, the writer, together with photographer Nigel Dickson, travels there to try to understand why.

Faith

November 2017

Involuntary pilgrim

by David Giuliano

The return of a tumour sets David Giuliano on a path he calls his ‘Camino de Cancer’

Faith

November 2017

Grey matter

by Trisha Elliott

Is consciousness just a function of the brain — or something more?

Promotional Image