Jewish Heritage in Berlin
Berlin has always been a melting pot for different cultures and nationalities, and has been home to Jewish people since the 1600s. From the intellectual boom of the enlightenment to the tragic events of the second world war, the Jewish community has experienced the city’s greatest triumphs and darkest moments.
Thanks to its rich history and resilient community, a visit to Berlin offers a chance to understand the full scope of the Jewish experience. Our local expert guides gathered together some of the top sights in the Jewish quarter of Berlin as well as those around the city for your visit.
Top Jewish Heritage Sights to Visit
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
No visit to Berlin would be complete without a visit to The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A chilling reminder of the most disturbing period in Germany’s history, this Jewish memorial in Berlin is one of the most significant commemorative spaces in the city. It is dedicated to the 6 million Jews (as well as other persecuted peoples) who were murdered in cold-blood during the Holocaust, commemorating lives lost not only in Germany, but across Europe.
New York architect Peter Eisenman designed the installation in 1999. It consists of 2711 concrete slabs of different heights, positioned at various levels to create an overall effect that is both peaceful and unsettling. Visitors are free to walk around the installation, offering a chance to explore and reflect at their own pace. The memorial also features an underground museum dedicated to the personal stories of Jewish Berliners.
The memorial itself is free of charge and open 24 hours a day. More information about its linked museum (including ticket information and opening times) can be found here.
Learn more about what you can see from the Third Reich and WWII era in Berlin with our guide.
Old Jewish Cemetery Berlin
Jewish Cemetery at Berlin Mitte – Hamburger Street
Berlin’s original Jewish Cemetery has existed since the late 1600s. After a large number of Jewish settlers were expelled from Vienna, around 50 families were offered the chance to settle in Berlin. A patch of land near Hamburger Strasse was provided as a burial ground. Over the next three centuries thousands of Jewish Berliners were buried here, including famous philosophers, poets and religious figures whose graves can still be visited today, including Moses Mendelssohn among others.
At the end of the 18th century, the graveyard was closed due to new hygiene laws in the city. It later became a park and nature area enjoyed by students of the Jewish boys’ school and residents at the Jewish Old People’s Home. Sadly during the Nazi regime, the former graveyard was desecrated and many graves destroyed.
After the war, the graveyard was returned to the Jewish people and once again became a park and memorial to the historic contribution of Berlin’s Jewish community. Its ancient roots and chequered history make it an essential visit for anyone interested in Jewish History in Germany.
Jewish Museum Berlin by Daniel Libeskind
The Jewish Museum in Berlin is the largest museum dedicated to Jewish culture and history in Europe. The museum building itself contains several spectacular elements which are each well worth a visit. Inside the museum you will find both permanent and special exhibitions focussing on different eras and aspects of Jewish life.
Architecture – “Between The Lines”
Daniel Libeskind’s striking building is a sight to behold in itself. Construction began in 1988 after Libeskind won the architectural competition to design a new exhibition space on the site of the old Jewish Museum (first built, but soon destroyed, in 1938). Even before it opened its doors officially in 2001, visitors flocked to view and walk around the unconventional structure, and now it is one of the most famous buildings in the city.
The building is loosely based on a deconstructed Star of David. Slices of glass zig-zag the concrete exterior, with a maze of almost-windowless corridors within. Just to be inside the space is an emotional experience – it was intentionally designed to provoke feelings of loss, confusion and invisibility. Wherever you stand in the building, you are never far from a sliver of light – even if you can’t see it – symbolising the enduring hope of the Jewish people.
The Holocaust tower
The “Holocaust Tower” is one of the many “voids” or chasms in Libeskind’s architecture. Their role is to offer visitors a sense of the division and hopelessness felt by the world’s Jewish community when facing unimaginable hardships during the Holocaust.
Standing at the bottom of the void and looking up, visitors see the imposing walls tower above on four sides. The chamber is an uneven rectangle: from underneath the walls seem to stretch and distort grotesquely as you move around. The only entrance and exit is a small door at the base of the tower which, once shut, leaves you in near total darkness – except for the tiniest chink where the walls meet the sky.
Managing to create feelings which cannot be evoked through words, the Holocaust Tower is essential viewing and a moving tribute to the millions of Jewish people who lived and died under the Nazi Regime.
The Garden of Exile
Moving beyond the building, don’t miss The Garden of Exile. While continuing the themes of light and darkness, unsettling shapes and distortion, the garden feels different from the rest of the museum. Here plants grow over the concrete slabs and light pours in from above. It’s a space not only of reflection, but also of hope for the future.
Events, tickets & tours
If you’d like to visit all three of these areas, you can find out more and buy tickets at the Jewish museum’s website. If you would like a more in-depth understanding of this emotive space, we are also able to offer guided tours of the building and surrounding area as part of our full day Jewish Heritage Walking Tour – or as a tailor-made experience.
Site of the Old Synagogue Berlin
To understand the full chronology of the Jewish community in Berlin, a visit to the site of the Old Synagogue is a must.
The synagogue is no longer standing, so we recommend visiting the site with a local tour guide to get the most out of your visit. A private guide can provide details about the origins of Jewish worship in Berlin, the role and stories of the old synagogue and the changing fates of the community.
We visit the site with a local expert during our private half day Jewish Heritage tour, which also includes many other sights from this article.
Weißensee Jewish Cemetery Berlin
After the Old Jewish cemetery fell out of use, the Weißensee cemetery was built as a larger cemetery for Berlin’s Jewish community, lying further from the centre. Amazingly, the cemetery survived WWII mostly intact, and you can still see many of the beautiful mausoleums and elaborate graves dating back to the 19th Century.
Weißensee is also home to a holocaust memorial statue bearing the names of each of the concentration camps. Alongside the older graves, it offers a poignant reminder of the fate that befell many descendants of those buried here. For those with family ties to Berlin’s Jewish community, the graveyard is particularly interesting to visit on both accounts.
If you’re interested in tracing the history of family or friends from the Jewish community, we specialise in helping you discover your personal history in Berlin. Read more about our heritage tours here.
New Synagogue Berlin
After its construction in 1865, the events of the Kristallnacht and WWII inflicted severe damage on the Synagogue. It faced further neglect under the soviet years that followed, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 restoration work finally began to return the synagogue to its former glory.
Nowadays the synagogue is the place of worship for a thriving community, and visitors from all over the world come to see its spectacular domes and Eastern architecture.
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and Memorial
Sachsenhausen is one of the famous and significant Concentration Camps in Europe, after Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland. While it’s not possible to travel from Berlin to Auschwitz in a day, an excursion from Berlin to Sachenhausen is easily done and provides similar insights into the terrible events of the Holocaust.
The site operated as a “model camp” for the Nazi regime. As such, many of the shocking ideas which were later rolled out to other camps were first implemented here.
Nowadays Sachsenhausen is preserved as a memorial to those who lost their lives here. Visitors can reflect many areas of the camp where Jewish and other political prisoners lived – and died – in appalling conditions. A visit to Sachenhausen is both educational and emotionally affecting; in order to understand the magnitude of events that took place in the Holocaust, it is not to be skipped.
Humboldt Tours Berlin offers private day trips to Sachenhausen concentration camp, which can also be combined with other tours from our suggested itineraries. Our private licensed guides will provide you with the most up to date information and personal histories from the camp, while treating the subject matter with appropriate care and sensitivity. For more information, take a look at our tour here.
Jewish events in and around Berlin
These days Berlin’s Jewish community is once again thriving, with an active calendar of events that are constantly updated. For official “Jewish Berlin” information, check out Visit Berlin’s regularly updated listing of exhibitions, Jewish festivals, religious events and more.
If you would like to see all of the above, as well as additional historical context and moving stories, take a look at our full day and half day private Jewish heritage tours with a local guide. All tours can be customised to suit your interests and needs. Contact us now for more information – we are always happy to discuss your needs.
About Humboldt Tours
Humboldt Tours has 15 years’ experience creating bespoke, private tours for culturally curious guests. Berlin is a source of never-ending inspiration for our team. Our humble, vibrant city is always ready to be explored – with infinite layers of history to peel back, thousands of personal stories to discover.
We create personal journeys through time, allowing you to design your perfect itinerary and tour of Berlin with a local expert. We have special expertise in putting together private tours which delve into the significance and history that Berlin has for you. Whether you have German or Jewish heritage and are looking to trace your roots, or have a special interest in a particular aspect of our city’s past or present, let us create a private tour itinerary which captures your imagination.