Billed as a cemetery park or rural cemetery, at 400 ha Ohlsdorf Cemetery is the largest in the world. As ordinary cemeteries go, it’s the fourth-largest. And if you exclude military cemeteries, it’s the largest, too. To give you an idea of its size, it is home to 320,000 graves, employs 300 people, has 12 cemetery chapels, and 17 km of road. It’s served by two bus lines, the 170 and the 270, with 25 bus stops. It’s big. Very big. Huge, in fact.
And it’s daunting.
Where to start? What to see? Who to visit? We checked in at the main offices, spoke to the lovely people on the desk, picked up a map and went on our way.
Thankfully, we had a car. Had we not, it would have taken two days to do it justice. As it was, even with the car, we didn’t get to see everything on my list, not that I had a list. It’s a post-visit list. For next time.
I was drawn to the war statuary.
This one, for instance, was created by sculptor Hugo Klugt for F. Gustav Leiss, who fell in Russia in 1915. The soldier, obviously bereft, has no gun or other weapon. Instead, he holds a locket of sorts bearing the image of a young woman. It’s the human side of war rather than the heroic one. How many countless millions have taken mementoes with them when they left home to defend their homeland or their ideals? And how many never returned?
Frieda Krause lost her son Julius, a Lieutenant in the early days of WWI. Given that he was born in Lodz, Poland, I suspect he may well have been one of the Poles in the Kaiser’s Army on the frontline in 1914. This makes her choice of inscription a little baffling: Dying for the Fatherland means living forever in people’s memories. Sculptor Roland Engelhard modelled the gravemarker on the dying Achilles.
I’ve long since held that cemeteries are excellent repositories of information; schools of, and in, life. They can teach us so much. This tomb of Ensign Walter Roy was in storage for years and has only been in this spot since 1997. Designed by Arthur Bock, it shows a bare-chested flag bearer laid out in state. In his right hand is a sword; in his left, a flag. The inscription –Seid stolz: ich tragedie fahne: Be proud, I carry the flag – is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s prose poem, The Lay of Loving and Dying of the Cornet Christoph Rilke.
This little prose-poem about a young soldier in the Austro-Turkish war of the early 1660s was written during a single night in 1899, when Rilke was twenty-three. It had a modest success when it first came out. But when it was republished in 1912, in a more popular format, it took Germany by storm, much to the author’s amazement. The first edition was sold out within weeks; there was one new printing after another; soldiers on the front lines during the World War I carried the book in their knapsacks, along with, possibly, the Bible. By 1920 it had sold 200,000 copies — an astounding figure for that time — and by the late ’50s over a million. An intensely romantic meditation on the nature of masculinity, it is the book by which, among German readers, Rilke was primarily known and loved.
Rilke’s fictional ancestor Christoph writes a letter to his mother during the war against the Turks in 1663. ‘My good mother’, he says, ‘be proud: I carry the flag, don’t worry: I carry the flag, love me: I carry the flag.’ He falls in battle the next day.
Alongside the brutality of war, there’s a gentleness of spirit and thought. In sharp contrast with the death and destruction of the battlefield, the poems that stem from such losses are laden with loss and love. The Bove-Rode family (about whom I can find nothing) lost their son in Poland on 4 December 1914. The inscription is a poem, translated as follows:
At the grave in Poland
The last song has ended
The steppe wind sang to you
And gently and softly
Did the snow make your bed for you?
And rocked you into the deepest rest
My comrade, you may dream
Like under the snowy trees
So far and wide
At Christmas time
Your parental home is at peace.
This memorial was also nearly forgotten, languishing for years in a yard in Billstedt. Installed in Ohlsdorf in 1993, and thought to the work of sculptor Richard Kuöhl, the inscription reads (trans.):
One hundred and seventy-eight relatives of construction deputation lost their lives for the fatherland in world wars 1914–1918. This consecrated stone honours their memory.
Perhaps more famous for me, because I grew up with his music, is the grave of Hans Last. I knew him as James. James Last. My aunt loved him. Celebrated in the 1970s as the Party King, he was the essence of Big Band music. He learned his music at various Military Music Schools. He’d go on to compose Fool for Elvis Presley and, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, the commemorative album featured contributions from the likes of Tom Jones and Pavarotti. And remember the soundtrack from Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 with the panpipes piece first by Gheorghe Zamfir in 1977? That was also one of Last’s compositions: The Lonely Shepherd.
My Germans friend was keen to check in on Helmut Schmidt, former German Chancellor. He lived to a lively old age of 96 despite the rumour that he stocked up on 38 000 cigarettes in 2013 when word had it that they might be banned in Europe. A champion decision-maker, he attributed this ability to a strong will…and cigarettes. I hadn’t known that he’d been a member of Hitler Youth but was apparently forced to leave due to his anti-Nazi views. I quite liked him.
This family grave I thought unusual. Space saving. Perhaps ashes rather than bones. No fear of running out of space.
And this one, well, I loved the photo. Presumably, Max and Elsa were Günther’s parents, Vera his wife, and Angelika his daughter. I wonder, too, if that’s the last of the line or if there are other Haus out there.
The touching fingertips of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel in Rome are an old favourite. When I see it in cemeteries, I remember how it’s interpreted as God reading out to Adam to give him the gift of life. It seems a tad incongruent to speak about the gift of life in a cemetery, unless, of course, we’re talking about eternal life. I quite fancy that the Schnorrenbergs, having survived two world wars, knew a little about the gift of life.
Guided tours are available in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.
More in Part II.
For next time
- Walk the 1 km Silent Path beginning at the poets’ corner and ending at the water tower.
- Find the Garden of Women to the northeast.
- Look at the “Revier Blutbuche” (police graves for officers who were killed in the line of duty).