Alter St. Matthäus Kirkhof

Brendan Nash explores the many fascinating stories of Schöneberg’s Alter St. Matthäus Kirkhof…

Gravestones of the Brothers Grimm. Photo by Brendan Nash.

As cemeteries go, Alter St. Matthäus Kirkhof, which straddles the border of Schöneberg and Kreuzberg near Yorkstrasse, has more than its fair share of tales to tell: legendary story-tellers of a long-gone era rub shoulders with those whose own story may have changed the course of history in 1944.

Established in 1854 by the protestant parish of St Matthäus, the cemetery proved so popular it was expanded eastwards in 1863, and again westwards in 1886 and 1884. So affluent was the parish that by 1909, the original wooden chapel on the site had been replaced by the Baroque and Italian Renaissance-style building that exists today.

In 1938, part of the northern section of the cemetery was demolished to make way for the large scale north-south axis planned by Albert Speer and the major re-development of the city. Graves were levelled or removed, with some stones re-erected in other cemeteries. Many more graves were to be destroyed in the war that was soon to follow, and the cemetery fell into disrepair over the following decades.

20th July 1944 Memorial. Image by Brendan Nash.

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a new awareness began to emerge as to the cultural significance of the graveyard, and extensive restoration and conservation work began. The parish of St Matthäus was dissolved in 2001 and the site taken under the administration of the parish of the Zwölf-Apostel. Many of the abandoned or disused graves were placed under new ownership and the cemetery continues to be a favoured final resting place.

At the top of the hill and to the right, are some of Alter St-Matthäus’ most famous residents, the fairytale publishing brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, along with their two sons. The simple row of four black granite columns is not so easy to find amongst the other more grandiose memorials to bankers and leaders of industry that surround it, but the simplicity contrasts elegantly with the complexity of some of the stories they loved to share, as well as the full lives they led,

Directly behind these lies a plot now owned by the Denkmal PositHIV Association. It was originally built by sculptor Rudolf Pohle in 1875 for the Streichenberg family and acquired by the AIDS charity in 2000. The plot serves as a memorial for those who died of the disease and had no-one to take care of their wishes, or those with a desire to not impose themselves on others. Restored mainly with lottery funding, the plot is maintained and cared for by volunteers and is open to all religious denominations.

It is by no means an anonymous memorial: on World AIDS Day each year, the names of those interred that year are added to the marble plaques. The first burial took place in 2003 and as of 2021 there are now over a hundred names on the memorial. The inscription reads “This gravesite is a memorial to all those who have died of the consequences of AIDS. It is a place of reflection and of coming together”

The organisation Kreuz und Queer have identified the names of numerous gay men and lesbians buried in 75 different graves across Alter St-Matthäus. The names of same-sex couples on grave stones are a common sight here, none more so than those of Napoleon Seyfarth, his partner Schlomo Schlotto and their cat Felix.

Napoleon Seyfarth – photo by Brendan Nash

Their substantial plot is up against the far left hand wall of the cemetery and consists of three grey marble slabs. Napoleon was a very well-known and well-liked figure in Berlin’s gay community, and died after a long illness in 2000, aged just 47.

What is curious about Schlomo’s stone is that there is only a birth date on it: Schlomo is still very much alive and well. It must be strange going about your everyday life knowing that a grave with your name on it is already in place. Nothing, however, is known about little Felix.

Further back down the hill is a memorial stone to five military men whose bodies were interred here for only the briefest of time. Had the plans of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators succeeded on the 20th July 1944, the course of history would have changed dramatically.

It was a simple plan—assassinate Hitler by planting a bomb in his secret forest headquarters. The plot, as we know, failed and von Stauffenberg together with the others were shot by firing squad in the courtyard of the Bendler Block on the morning of the 21st July.

Their bodies were initially dragged to Alter St-Matthäus and roughly buried. Not content with this, Himmler ordered the bodies exhumed and burnt, leaving no trace. Thankfully, the actions and commitment of these men is substantially remembered, both here and at the Memorial to German Resistance, on the renamed Stauffenbergstraße.

Heading back up the hill, stories from 65 years ago come face to face with those of the here and now. It would take a very hard heart indeed not to be moved by the Garten der Sternenkinder, the Garden of The Star Children.

Garten der Sternenkinder. Image by Brendan Nash.

Created in 2011, this is a space for the little ones who didn’t make it. Tiny memorials, some bearing the same date for their birth and death, and many created by the child’s older siblings, are set out in a star shape around a central tree. Amongst the pomp and grandiosity of some of the memorials in this graveyard, these small stories are as important as any others and a deeply affecting experience.

One of the most surprising aspects of Alter St-Matthäus-Kirkhof is the presence of a thriving cafe-bar and nursery, Cafe Finovo. It was opened six years ago by entertainer and Aids activist Bernd Boßmann and his business partner Nicole Hoffman. In addition to its everyday fare of coffee, cake and soup, it offers spaces for historical society meetings, group workshops and funerals. Regular walking tours of the graveyard and surrounding area start and finish here.

Sitting outside on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the cemetery feels like an oasis of calm, despite being within earshot of the football-terrace-like noise of the nearby Turkish market. It remains one of my favourite places in the city.

This location also features in our Three Peaks Challenge article, which you can read here.