Berlin Jewish Tours: Learn About the City's Rich Jewish History
Berlin suffered greatly during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), so the Leader was eager to see the city's population grow again and its commercial activity increase. Some Viennese Jews played a prominent role in the city's economic redevelopment, which would eventually become the Prussian capital. They earned mercantile participation and held notable positions in the relationship between the state and the city's most significant minority.
Persecution, expulsion, execution, accusations of host desecration, and ritual murder are sadly common themes within the annals of Berlin's Jewish history.
Since the re-establishment of the Berlin Jewish community in 1671, some thrived under improved conditions as Schutzjuden, garnering wealth and social recognition. Others suffered draconian restrictions and exclusions from certain trades, leading to poverty, destitution, or resettlement elsewhere.
Although Berlin never had an official ghetto, Jewish inhabitants without permanent residences were ordered in 1731 to settle in the district north-west of Alexanderplatz known as the Scheunenviertel (the Barn Quarter) by King Frederick William I. This area was established specifically to store hay outside the city walls since it was forbidden to keep flammable materials within city limits. Part of this Scheunenviertel to the east and the Spandauer Vorstadt to the west would come to be recognized as the Jewish quarter of Berlin from the mid-1700s.
Back in the early 1700s, the land just north of the River Spree from present-day Friedrichstraße station to Alexanderplatz sat outside the city of Berlin, beyond the Spandauer Tor, a city gate that led to the settlement of Spandau nearby. Like most areas surrounding Berlin's old boundaries, agriculture played a significant role in the attempts of people living here to remain self-sufficient. Yet, the inhabitants of these hamlets outside the city walls were noticeably poor. When in 1750 King Frederick the Great ordered the expansion of Berlin's central districts to the north of present-day Torstrasse, beyond the river Spree and Monbijou Palace, the Spandauer Vorstadt (the district facing Spandau) would be integrated into the city. Jewish families that had relocated here over the last century also became part of the city
The most symbolic landmark in this area was opened in 1866 – the Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue). It was designed by non-Jewish architect Eduard Knoblauch in a Moorish Southern Spanish style, a significant brick and terracotta structure topped with a series of iconic ribbed domes. The New Synagogue played an important role in the development of Reform Judaism. It is one of the largest synagogues in Europe, with space for around 3,000 people inside, and religious services reflecting the liberal developments in the Jewish community of the time.
Around the corner from the New Synagogue is the former home of the first-ever female Rabbi, Regina Jonas. This leads to Grosse Hamburger Strasse (or the street of tolerance, as it is often referred to by the Berlin tourist office). Other significant sites in the area include a former Jewish boys' school, the site of the city's first Jewish retirement home, and the old Jewish cemetery, where Jewish reformer Moses Mendelssohn was buried.
This area has a large number of bronze Stolpersteine (Stumbling Stones), introduced in 1992. These small plaques commemorate people who once lived in this area and fell victim to Nazi genocidal plans or, in some instances, managed to escape.
After the division of Berlin in 1945, the Spandauer Vorstadt and the Scheunenviertel ended up in East Berlin. Like many other areas in the country, this district fell into a state of disrepair, with crumbling buildings and bombed-out, bullet-ridden facades. Despite this, some remnants of the Cold War period are still visible, and the district has managed to maintain some of its former charm. It is now one of the more desirable areas of the city, located in the central Mitte district, and filled with art galleries, coffee shops, clothing stores, and restaurants. While no longer the city's Jewish quarter, it is home to many young entrepreneurs attempting to make their way here.
As a storytelling guide, I can help you unravel Berlin's complex history. During the 20th century, the city witnessed seven different political systems, including monarchy, anarchy, democracy, dictatorship, foreign occupation, capitalism, and communism, all colliding in one place, creating a set of contradictions. Berlin is packed with juxtapositions and contrasts. One of my specialties is Berlin's Jewish history, including the richness of Jewish life destroyed by the Nazis.