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 Weißensee 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)