Houses of Life- the Jewish Cemeteries of Europe

Documentary film Proposal by PJ Letofsky and Joachim Jacobs

Houses of Life-
the Jewish Cemeteries of Europe:


Produced by PJ Letofsky and Joachim Jacobs
Directed by PJ Letofsky
Written by Joachim Jacobs

?Houses Of Life? is a beautifully visual, insightful film into the Jewish Cemeteries of Europe- the traditions and history through two millennia, beginning with the catacombs in Rome, and ending with the modern Jewish cemetery in Amsterdam. Each cemetery stands for a period of Jewish history in Europe- the Antiquity era, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Our story visits medieval burial grounds in Worms, Prague, Budapest, Venice, Krakow, Berlin, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, London, and Paris, taking you on a spiritual, soul searching journey through Jewish European history, told by people who know and can tell them best.

Houses of Life- the Jewish Cemeteries of Europe


Jewish cemeteries are called Houses of Life. Some would say this is a euphemistic way to describe a burial place of sorrow and sadness but there is hope and truth in the cemeteries because it is the place where the dead are expecting resurrection and a return to eternal life. Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin calls the cemeteries ?an Archive of Life?. So a BethHaChaim, as a Jewish cemetery is named, becomes a place of hope for a world to come, a world after the Messiah has arrived, a world of peace, justice and eternal living.

In a world in which wandering Jews often faced persecution, pogroms and even massacres- cemeteries became the place from where the ?Olam haba?, the world to come, was expected. This belief resulted in certain rules for the layout of the cemeteries, for graves and for burial. You can find in the Thora, the Jewish bible, a lengthy description of how Abraham purchased a field and cave for the burial of his beloved wife Sara. It had to be a separate place from the cemetery of the locals. Here Abraham himself, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Lea found their rest. The pattern of separate cemeteries for the Hebrews and later Jews was set almost 3.800 years ago. (photo of Prague Cemetery)


Since then cemeteries were laid out wherever Jews went in the world- the habits of burial, the style of the grave markers and of the layout- and later design of the cemeteries changed and developed over the millennia- from country to country, from continent to continent. But specific core rules, like the right to a burial place for eternity, and separate from other people, has always been observed. Within this framework, impressive variations and modifications were possible and reflected the ever changing living conditions of the Jews, from country to country and according to the religion and culture of the surrounding societies. Joachim Jacobs book ?Houses of Life?, traces this history of continuity and change through two millennia of European Jewry, and is the background for our film. Our ?storytellers? describe typical cemeteries from each period, starting with the Roman catacombs and the cemeteries of late antiquity, and on to medieval burial grounds in England, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic. Cemeteries in Poland, Germany, Turkey, The Netherlands and other countries still retain traditions from a then rapidly changing world. The period of Jewish emancipation brought dramatic changes to Jewish cemeteries and burial customs which are studied today in Prague, Berlin, Rome, St. Petersburg and London. The Shoa brought a terrible end to this period of hope and optimism and the cemeteries of Europe after 1945 all reflect this.

The film begins with Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin (Zurich, Switzerland) establishing the history and understanding of Jewish attitude towards life, belief in afterlife, dying, funeral habits, traditions, rites and rules. Each cemetery is explored through stories by knowledgeable and local people, walking through the burial grounds, and visits to their local communities? Jewish living quarters, museums. For example, in Venice we meet an old man who survived the Shoa in hiding in the city?s centuries old Ghetto and is now in charge for its ancient cemetery on the Lido. People like him bring history to life. We include 15 cemeteries that represent the typical traditions of their time, and strongly reflect the living conditions and living quarters of the communities who built these sacred burial places. Berlin Wei?ensee is a very good example for this as it?s layout of squares, venues and streets perfectly reflects the Wilhelminian city of the living. We leave our audience spiritually enriched with an understanding of how Jewish cemeteries were, and are an important legacy and symbol of hope, continuity and change- of persisting and adapting- but most of all a history of life and survival. (photo of Cemetery in St Petersburg, Russia)



Rome: Catacombs Vigna Randnanini, Via Appia
Despite the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the living conditions of Jews in the Roman Empire often had the same legal status as Roman citizens. They enjoyed the same rights to religious worship and were able to go about their daily business. The system of polytheism gave the Jews enough scope to establish themselves as a tolerated minority within the Roman pantheon. There was even a synagogue in Rome which enjoyed patronage by the Emperor.
The dead were laid to rest in catacombs, in accordance with the tradition brought from Israel and in line with local topographical conditions. These catacombs were situated on the metropolis?s arterial roads like the Via Appia. This burial practice was adopted by the Christians, many of whom were initially Jewish.
Venice: Lido Cemetery

On 25th September 1386, the government of the Most Serene Republic of Venice allotted to the Jews a piece of land on the Lido. The Lido, a narrow island one kilometer in length, still forms the border between the lagoon and the Adriatic, protecting Venice from maritime storms. This was a further significant step towards consolidating and confirming the Jewish presence in the city. Long before, however, the Jews were allotted the Ghetto as permanent residence. The land granted to the Jews lay on the side of the Lido facing the lagoon and was about two kilometers away from the city. The site was oblong in form and c. 5000m?2? in size. No building for the ritual cleansing of bodies existed, as the Tahara was carried out in the Ghetto. Gondolas took the coffins and mourners from the Ghetto to the cemetery, often attacked by the mob.

Amsterdam: Ouderkerk aan de Amstel Cemetery

The Sephardim of Amsterdam, Jews from the Iberian peninsula who had reconverted to Judaism, 1614, bought a piece of land in Oederkerk on the river Amstel. The first burial took place in that same year. Joseph Senior, infant son of a community leader, received a small gravestone inscribed with a Hebrew poem in which the child tells readers he is the first to be buried in the cemetery. All the dead were to be transported by barge on canals and rivers from the city of Amsterdam and the neighboring towns. In 1616 the cemetery on the Amstel was officially inaugurated. During the following years of the 17?th? century, the cemetery got more and more enlarged. The first metaher (tahara) house was replaced by a new building in 1705. Restored in 1966, this now is one of the oldest and best-preserved tahara houses in Europe.

London: Velho Cemetery on Miles End

Since their expulsion in 1290 a few singular Jews had lived in England and it was only after Oliver Cromwell, in 1656, allowed them into the country again that Jewish communities started to blossom. In 1670 they built the first synagogue since the middle ages in the country. Sephardic Bevis Marks synagogue exists still today almost unchanged. In 1656, the year of Cromwell?s dispensation, a Antonio Carvajal leased a 1.5-hectare plot of land for 900years for the Sephardic Spanish-Portuguese community. The land lay a little way back from Mile End. The fact that the elders of nearby St Katherine Cree allowed the church bells to ring during the burial illustrates the unusually friendly rapport between Jews and Christians in 17?th? century London.

Z?rich: Oberer Friesenberg Cemetery

In 1862 the Jewish community of Z?rich bought a piece of land on the slopes of a mountain, quite outside the city in these days. Only in 1891 a mortuary hall, designed by the architects Alfred Chiodera and Theophil Tschudy was built. Both architects also designed the synagogues in the city centre and in St. Gallen. Similar to the synagogues the architects designed, the mortuary hall is a Moorish style, which looks especially exotic within in the picturesque Swiss countryside. The well preserved and restored hall is one of the best kept examples of its kind. Several refugees from Nazi Germany are buried here, as the famous opera singer Joseph Schmidt.

Berlin: Scholzplatz Cemetery

After the Shoah, only 6,000 people were left of the once blossoming Jewish community in Berlin: in 1933, some 160,000 Jews had lived there. The growing confrontation between East and West led to a need for the Jews of West Berlin to create a new cemetery on West Berlin. In 1953, the year in which Berlin was divided into East and West, an area in Grunewald was acquired. Following the design of the architect Curt Leschnitzer, a simple mourning room, a tahara building and various functional buildings were erected around a forecourt. From there, one passed through a gate to reach a square and the actual grounds themselves. The marked simplicity of these buildings also reflected the reticence that many German Jews of the time felt as they were unsure whether they should display themselves and their religion in such clear architectural terms in the ?land of the murderers?.

Worms: 'Holy Sand' Cemetery
Worms was an important trading place and seat of a bishop, which attracted Jews to settle in the city. The cemetery must have been created almost together with a pre-crusade synagogue, since the first remaining gravestone of Jacob Ha-bachur dates from 1076. This makes the site, known as the Holy Sands, the oldest preserved medieval Jewish cemetery in Europe.
The cemetery was built just outside the city walls. By choosing such a site the Jews were following the rules of Jewish religious law, halakha. To create the land, the former wall moat had to be filled in. Legend has it that sand from the Holy Land was used for the purpose, hence the cemetery?s name ?Juden Sand ? Jewish Sand?. Some of the oldest Jewish gravestones in Europe are preserved here.
Prague: Old Ghetto Cemetery
The first written mention of Jews in Prague is dated 970 and in 1160 Prague?s Jews found a permanent settlement in the so called Old Town. In the 1430s a piece of land on the western side of the Jewish quarter was acquired by the community for a cemetery. After several extensions the cemetery came to surround parts of the Ghetto, a closeness which was against Halakha. It was so compact that it is no wonder many gravestones bear a quote from Jeremiah (9:21): ?Death is come up into our windows.? There was an entrance, with an impressive gate-house, which was situated next to the Klausen synagogue in the Hampas Gasse. The gatehouse had an orator?s pulpit on the side facing the cemetery from which eulogies could be addressed to the mourners. The gatehouse was home to the earliest and most famous chevra kaddisha (burial society) in Europe.
Istanbul: Hask?y Cemetery

In Constantinople Jews had been living since the former Byzantium became capital of the East Roman Empire in 339 C.E. These Greek Jews were called Romaniotes. After the expulsion of their coreligionists from the Iberian peninsula in 1492 they faced an amazing influx of Sephardim who seeked refuge from prosecution. They were warmly welcomed by Sultan Bayezid II. Near their ancient living quarters the Jews were allowed to purchase ground for a cemetery at Hask?y, high above the Golden Horn, opposite the Old City. The cemetery was surrounded by a wall and there seems to have been a Tahara house. The Sephardic gravestones of the cemetery with their ottoman motifs are amazing examples of Jewish-Muslim intercultural exchange.

Prague: Olsany Cemetery

From 1784, Prague?s Olsany cemetery featured the designs of contemporary English landscape gardens. The site aimed to counter sombre thoughts with beauty. This beginning aestheticization of the Jewish cemetery is a key developmental strand. The park cemetery of Prague?s Olsany with its meandering pathways and planting schemes is therefore an important bridge between the traditional Jewish cemetery and the cemeteries of the time of the Emancipation.

St. Petersburg: Preobrazhenskoe Cemetery

The preobrazhensky cemetery was opened in 1874 as part of a Christian cemetery, 11 km away from the city centre. Without a specially designed system of walkways, the graves lay so low down that in some places the terrain was almost marshy, making grave-digging a very difficult task. To mitigate this, drainage ditches were dug parallel to the paths, which still exist today, creating a system of small picturesque canals. Here and there, small bridges stretch from the paths to the grave areas, reflecting the layout of the city itself with its wide canals lined by palaces. In 1908 a grand new mortuary hall designed by the young Jewish architect Yaacov Gevirtz was opened. With its arcades, forecourt and domed hall, even with its ornaments it strongly reflects classic ottoman mosques.

Thessaloniki: Dimitriou & Karaoli Street Cemetery

Up to the Shoa, the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, mostly Sephardic, was so big, that at some point a third of the city?s population was Jewish, keeping traditions, which they had taken with them from Andalusia in 1492. Their old cemetery lay immediately beyond the Byzantine city wall. Before its destruction by the Germans, it was one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, its appearance resembling in many ways that of the Hask?y cemetery in Istanbul. After the Germans occupied the city, from 1943 on, they deported 50.000 Jews to the camps, where most of them were killed. Only very few managed to return, coming back into a ?City of Ghosts?. The new cemetery opened in 1960 in an industrial area, is one of the cemeteries created after 1945 that is most consistently designed as a monument to Shoah victims, reflecting the absolute centrality of this event for the postwar community. The new graves are arranged virtually concentrically around a monument commemorating the Jews murdered by the Germans.

Amsterdam: Amstelveen Cemetery

This is one of the most ambitious cemetery projects in Europe of the 21?st? century. Opened in 2003 and designed by the architect Jan Jaap Walvisch, the 51 by 362 metres plot is surrounded by canals and according to halakha strictly west-east orientated. A mortuary hall with Tahara is partly built with stone from Jerusalem and its design is based on principles derived from Kabala. This cemetery shows how the rules of halakha are followed by a Liberal community with a strong sense of tradition and of the history of European Jewry, now more than 2000 years long.

Frankfurt: Battonstrasse Cemetery

A first Jewish cemetery is mentioned in an entry dating from 1180 in Frankfurt?s city archives, with reference to a tax for a garden outside the gates where one finds the Jewish cemetery. It is generally thought that in 1270 the Jews created the second cemetery, still standing today, in accordance with halakhic rules, on garden and pasture land outside the fortifications, to the east of the city. The city was expanded in 1333 and since this time, the cemetery has lain within the fortified zone. This remained the burial place for Frankfurt?s Jews for more than 500 years. A Tahara house built in 1575 was one of the earliest in Europe. The founding father of the Rothschild banking dynasty, Meyer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), is buried here.

Berlin: Grosse Hamburger Strasse Cemetery

Jews had been living in Berlin since the 13th century. After earlier expulsions they were readmitted to the then capital of Prussia. Jews from Vienna founded the new community in 1670 and bought a plot outside the city walls on the street leading to Hamburg. The cemetery was surrounded by a wall and according to Aschkenazi tradition standing gravestones were arranged in long rows with narrow paths in between. The most famous person to be buried here is the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). The friend of Lessing, who was in correspondence for a long time with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, was the leading figure of the ?haskala? or Jewish Enlightenment.

Paris: Pere Lachaise

A circle that had started with multi-faith cemeteries of the early Middle Ages closed in 1804 in Napoleonic Paris, when once again a multi-faith cemetery was built: the P?re-Lachaise. For the first time in Europe, the emancipated, equal Jews were assigned a separate section, initially separated by a wall. The architect Alexandre-Th?odore Brongniar issued strict specifications in his draft of the design, which only partly were followed. As well as an elaborate gateway with entrance and side rooms, he also wanted to split the section precisely in two using a tree-lined avenue. At the outer edges, along the wall, he envisaged the erection of identically shaped family graves. Brongniart?s design is certainly the first one to be drawn up for a Jewish cemetery by a non-Jew, and the design described could not be more different from the Jews? traditional cemeteries.

Berlin: Weissensee Cemetery

Opened in 1880 after a design competition, the huge size of forty hectares made it vital that the cemetery be developed in a systematic and aesthetically pleasing fashion. Because of this size, which made graves hard to locate, it was undesirable to develop the site more or less at random. It was, moreover, essential to utilize every inch of the expensive land as effectively as possible. This required a complex system of major and minor avenues, squares, and a network of minor paths. Hugo Licht?s award-winning design provided all these elements and reflected the avenues, streets and squares of Wilhelminian Berlin. The ?house of life?, for millennia, was a place whose key component was the individual grave, now became the city of the dead, the necropolis, its form a faithful reflection of the city of the living with its class-system.

Budapest: Salg?tarj?ni Utca Cemetery

In 1874 the cemetery on Salg?tarj?ni Utca was opened as part of a municipal cemetery. While still being part of this large cemetery complex, the Jewish cemetery remained demarcated from the non-Jewish one by a separating wall and had a separate entrance. The wall was intended to satisfy the ritual requirement for the cemetery?s structural isolation. Two historical trends become manifest through the construction: on the one hand, the Jews of Budapest had ?arrived? as equal citizens in the heart of Hungarian society. Consequently, the new Jewish cemetery was created in the context of the municipal cemetery. At the same time, however, with its separate entrance and wall, the efforts to live by the traditional expectations of a Jewish cemetery are still evident, and with it the attempt to retain a certain level of religious and cultural identity. One of the most famous Jewish architects of the early 20?th? century, B?la Lajta, designed a mock medieval Hungarian castle like entrance building and a neo-mesopotamian tahara house ? unique in the history of Jewish cemeteries,

The Team

Joachim G. Jacobs

Writer/ Producer

Born in 1960 in D?sseldorf, Joachim studied landscape architecture from 1980 in the Rhineland and Berlin earning his PHD at Technical University Berlin on ?Bauhaus and Landscape Planning?. From 1992 he freelanced as a landscape architect (Dr. Jacobs & H?binger) specialising in garden restoration. Commissions included Federal and several State Governments of Germany as well as other private and public institutions including Restoration of the grounds of Erich Mendelsohn?s Einstein Tower in Potsdam, the House of Lords in Berlin and in 1999 a strip of the Berlin Wall. Joachim has worked on cemetery projects for Jewish communities in East Germany and Berlin including Richard Neutra?s Luckenwalde Forest Cemetery (1921). In addition to his Landscape Architecture work, he is on the board of a Synagogue, and writes for numerous publications in books and journals. In 2008 I published ?Houses of Life ? Jewish Cemeteries of Europe?. Joachim spends his time between London and Berlin. (photo PJ Letofsky and Joachim Jacobs)

Joachim G. Jacobs: Writer/ Producer

PJ Letofsky

Director/ Producer

PJ Letofsky is a Director, Producer specializing in Art and Culture documentaries with an International reach. His current film, ?Neutra - Survival Through Design? on the Austrian American Architect Richard Neutra, debuted in Berlin, and Palm Springs Modernism Week in February 2019. He directed Tarkovsky: Time Within Time, based on the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky?s Diary, and was filmed in Moscow, Rome, and Paris, premiering in Sao Paulo in 2015. His first film, Polly?s GlobalWalk, on his sisters? 5 year walk around the world for Breast Cancer, premiered for the Mayo Clinic, and was broadcast on PBS in 2010. PJ was born and raised in Minneapolis and studied piano and photography from age 6. He started his career with his Minneapolis cable show TV Party (43 episodes) covering the local arts scene. A seasoned pianist singer songwriter, PJ had his rock bands on the road for 12 years before moving into film. He studied at UCLA and has been Directing, Producing, and editing for over 20 years.

PJ Letofsky: Director/ Producer

Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin

Rabbi at Z?rich Oberer Friesenberg Cemetery

Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin was born in Jerusalem in 1936. In
1960 he earned a BA at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
(Bible and Jewish History), and in 1964 was Ordained a Rabbi
at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion,
Cincinnati (USA). From 1981-1996 he was Rabbi with Har El
congregation in Jerusalem, founded by his father Shalom
Ben-Chorin. He was Rabbi of the community Or Chadash in
Zurich from 1997-2007, and from 2009-2015 Rabbi of the
Jewish community in Berlin (liberal rite). Rabbi Ben Chorin has
fought in three Israeli tank-armored wars and engages in
Jewish-Christian, Israeli-Palestinian, and German-Jewish
dialogue. Since July 2015 he has been Rabbi of the Jewish
communities St. Gallen and Konstanz, Switzerland. He is
married to Adina Ben-Chorin and has two children and five grandchildren.

Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin: Z?rich Oberer Friesenberg Cemetery

Rabbi Jonah Sievers

Rabbi- Director Weissensee Cemetery

Rabbi Jonah Sievers: Berlin Weissensee Cemetery

J?rgen Moors

Cinematographer/ Camera

Cinematographer/ Camera- J?rgen Moors
Born in Vienna Austria, Jurgen has been a freelance
filmmaker, cameraman, director, film production
manager, location manager, producer and editor. He
has worked on more than 200 documentary film
projects for international clients and TV stations
from all over the world. Since 2006, Jurgen has
specialized in aerial shots with helicopters and
drones. :
Music Composer- Kubilay U

Jurgen Moors: Cinematographer

Kubilay Uner_ColumbiaCollegeChicago_040119

Kubilay Uner

Music Composer

Music Composer- Kubilay Uner
Sound Design/ Mix- Joe Milner

Kubilay Uner: Composer

Serhat Ertuna

Serhat Ertuna

Photographer, Assistant to Joachim Jacobs

Serhat Ertuna: Photographer, Assistant to Joachim Jacobs

Other Featured Interview Experts? (so far)?:
Michael Brocke, Salomon Ludwig-Steinheim Institut
Sharman Kadish, Jewish Heritage UK
Rudolf Klein, Szent-Isztvan-Universit?t, Fachbereich Architektur und Bauwesen Budapest
Vlastimila Ham??kov?/Petr Justa, J?disches Museum Prag
Michael Studemund-Hal?vy, Institut f?r die Geschichte der Deutschen Juden, Hamburg
G?rard Nahon, ?cole Pratique des Hautes ?tudes, Section des Sciences Religieuses, Sorbonne, Paris

Links to Cemetery Websites
Amsterdam? ?
Berlin? ?
Budapest? ?
?Istanbul? ?
Krakow? ?
St. Petersburg ?
Prague? ?
Rome ? ?
Venice? ?

?Houses of Life- the Jewish Cemeteries of Europe? by Joachim Jacobs:
The Book ?on Amazon

Marc Chagall’s ‘Gate to the Cemetery’










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