Memberless Synagogue Buries Secrets in Jewish Berlin Graveyard

A 142-year-old cemetery has been closed 'for security reasons' but no one seems to know why.

Ugly graffiti is spattered all over the walls of the cemetery of Adass Yisroel, an Orthodox congregation in East Berlin that is one of the city's oldest synagogues. Through the spider webs on the gate one can find a sign informing the visitors that the site is closed "for security reasons" and that photography is prohibited.

The 142-year-old cemetery, where some of German Jewry's well-known families are buried, is located on a quiet street in the Weissensee district in east Berlin. It contains some 3,000 graves, which are off limits to visitors.

Neither officials from the Berlin municipality nor the Adass Yisroel congregation were able to explain why the cemetery is closed or why it is deemed "not secure." As a matter of fact, the whole Adass Yisroel congregation is a mystery.

For the last few decades it has been headed by Israeli-born Mario Offenberg, who reportedly helped restore the synagogue. But in March, Offenberg was accused of swindling the state in the wake of a court case between the congregation and the state.

The congregation's request to continue receiving state benefits was rejected after Adass Yisroel refused to disclose information about its activities, or submit account books or the names of its members, in order to prove it was run properly. The congregation claimed to have 1,000 members. But the Berlin authorities told the court that "it was doubtful that the congregation is actually functioning as a community."

Stefan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council for Jews in Germany, says that "several members of the congregation were surprised to hear they were members, and other members had long since passed away."

Adass Yisroel was ordered to return 140,000 euros since it failed to report how the funding it received was used. During the court case it was revealed that part of the money financed business class seats for Offenberg and his wife to fly to Spain, and another chunk was used to purchase numerous vehicles for unclear purposes. At the same time, the community couldn't afford to pay electricity and water bills, and sold some of its property.

"The Berlin Senate assumes that Offenberg sold off part of the real estate and pocketed the money," Kramer says. "The Adass Yisroel community never had 1,000 members as it claimed," continues Kramer. "I believe they barely had a minyan. Everybody knew it was a family affair."

It is a sad chapter in the history of a once proud institution.

According to its website, in German and Hebrew, the community was founded in 1869, after splitting off from the mainstream Jewish community over religious disagreements; Adass Yisroel wished to adhere to a more strict code of religious life in response to the assimilation of German Jewry. Throughout the years it established independent institutions, including a synagogue, a rabbinical school, a school and hospital, part of which still operate independently of the Jewish community.

The cemetery at Weissensee opened in 1880, after the death of a 95-year-old community member. "Regulations and customs which had hitherto been preserved according to tradition were undergoing a subtle change," says the congregation's website. "For instance, at funerals expensively-made coffins were increasingly being used instead of the simple, metal-free aronot (wooden coffins ). Likewise, large, ostentatious gravestones were allowed, as well as the opening of the cemetery on the Shabbat and Jewish religious holidays to visitors."

Many well known Jews were buried at the cemetery throughout the years, including the Rosenberg, Goldschmidt and Samouri families, Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer - founder of the synagogue - and his sons, Rabbi Abraham Berliner and many of the Rosenbluth family, of which former minister, Pinchas Rosen was a descendant. Several members of the Schocken family - owners of Haaretz and the Schocken Publishing house - are also buried there, including Isaac Schocken, father of the businessman and philanthropist Salman Shocken, who purchased Haaretz in the 1930s. The Nobel prize-winning writer Shai Agnon wrote the words engraved on Schocken's grave, which was designed by well known German-Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn.

Thousands of the community members were murdered during the Holocaust, but the main damage to the cemetery was done during the years of the Communist regime, when many of the gravestones were plundered. Only in the 1980s did community members begin rehabilitating the congregation, including the cemetery. It was restored with the help of students and German army volunteers.

But Adass Yisroel does not grant permits to visit the cemetery - or return phone calls or emails. Once, several months ago, an Adass Yisroel member who called himself "Levy," answered an email inquiring about a possible visit. Levy wrote that the site was closed to visitors for security reasons and that visits are only possible when escorted by community representatives. In response to a request to photograph the cemetery, Levy demanded payment, without mentioning rates.

Even the Berlin municipal office in charge of such sites had no explanation. "Unfortunately, we do not know why the cemetery is closed," an administrator of the Berlin Monument Authority told Haaretz.

The future of Adass Yisroel is murky. Officials at the central Berlin Congregation believe that for purely historical reasons, the Senate will not wish to be the one to close down the small Jewish congregation. Off the record, Offenberg has accused the Senate of targeting his group due to anti- Semitism. But he refused to respond to Haaretz's questions.