With its impressive trees, atmospheric paths and elaborate tombs, Berlin's Weissensee Jewish cemetery, which was founded in 1880, is considered the most beautiful and largest of its kind in Europe. Many famous people are buried here, like the journalist Theodor Wolff, the writer Stefan Heym, and the founder of the well-known Hertie department store chain, Hermann Tietz.
Berlin's Jewish community has been trying for many years to make sure that the property and its tombs -- some of which are more than 100 years old -- are preserved. In many parts of the cemetery, nature has already taken over.
But now red and white strips of tape hang between the black gravestones and paved paths. Behind the police line, devastation can be seen which was not caused by wind or weather. Gravestones have been ripped out of the earth and boundary pillars lie on the ground -- the cracks where they have been broken are obviously fresh.
It is still unclear how many graves have been desecrated. During the early hours of Tuesday, at least 23 grave stones and 10 pillars were knocked over by unknown vandals, according to police. Then on Wednesday, investigators discovered more devastated graves -- at least 20, according to initial estimates. A police spokesman said the perpetrators probably sneaked into the cemetery a second time to cause the damage.
Investigators have not yet found any slogans or graffiti, and there is still no concrete evidence of an anti-Semitic motive for the desecration. But police are not ruling out a political motive, and officers from the Berlin Office of Criminal Investigation who are responsible for investigating political crimes have now taken over the case.
Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said the "Weissensee outrage" was an "intolerable insult to the memory of the 6 million victims of the Shoah." The desecration was deliberately carried out on the night before Yom Hashoah, the Jewish Holocaust remembrance day, she says. "It looks like the work of people who still have a National Socialist mentality today," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
The desecration was not an isolated incident, Knobloch warns. In the past year, 30 Jewish cemeteries in Germany have been desecrated. Only four of the crimes have been solved. "The Weissensee cemetery in Berlin is not only one of the most important Jewish burial grounds in this country, but is also a monument to German history," she said. "Whoever desecrates this place has the perfidious intention of cutting to the quick all good-willed people in Germany."
This is not the first time the Weissensee Jewish cemetery has been the target of vandals, but the current incident is the worst in almost 10 years: In October 1999, unknown assailants destroyed 103 graves, some irreparably. The perpetrators, according to the newspaper Berliner Zeitung, have still not been found. Most recently, in 2005, vandals desecrated two graves and destroyed several tomb slabs.
The police are now reviewing the existing security measures. According to the Berliner Zeitung, the Jewish community had arranged with the authorities to increase security at the cemetery after the 1999 attack. Since then, there has been a video surveillance system at the cemetery and the wall around the property has been made higher. In addition, police officers and security guards patrol the area at night. But even that is obviously not enough. The security arrangements must now be re-evaluated, a police spokesman told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
The general trend also shows that new approaches are needed. The number of crimes with an anti-Semitic motive in Berlin greatly increased last year. According to police statistics, there were on average four such crimes reported per year during the period 2003 to 2006. In 2007, there were nine incidents. Only 50 percent of the cases have been cleared up over the past five years.