Europe's largest Jewish cemetery has become a wilderness of crumbling mausoleums

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The cemetery, in the eastern district of Weissensee, has deteriorated so badly that it would take about $48 million to restore many of the 115,000 graves and elaborate tombs, most of which predate World War II, said Albert Meyer, chairman of the Berlin Jewish community.

"This is the last chance. Nature is reclaiming the site; much of it looks like a jungle. If we don't do anything now, we won't be able to save it," said Meyer, adding that many tombs already were almost beyond repair.

As a result, Berlin's Jewish community is looking to the German government for its rescue. And, Meyer plans to propose that Weissensee be put forward as a candidate for UNESCO's list of world heritage sites, a move that virtually would guarantee future funding by the German government.

The city of Berlin has said it is too broke to pay for the restoration. But Mayor Klaus Wowereit said he would support Meyer's appeal for federal funds and for UNESCO recognition.

"This is not just a problem for the Jewish community," Meyer said. "It's a problem for Germany as a whole. The graveyard reflects a history of Jewish life in Germany that no longer exists."

Historians agree that the site, opened in 1880, is a national treasure because the musicians, scientists, poets and business people buried there show how integrated and important Jews were in German society before the Nazis wiped them out.

There were more than 173,000 Jews living in Berlin in the early 1930s before Hitler came to power. By 1941, 100,000 had managed to flee; most of the rest were deported and murdered in the Holocaust. Just over 1,000 managed to survive underground in Berlin, and 12,000 live in Berlin today.

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