Earlier this month, I flew to Berlin to conduct some research for my next book, Salonnières. Salonnières explores the lives of seven women who hosted literary salons in Europe: Isabella d’Este, Catherine de Vivonne, Marie Geoffrin, Henriette Herz, George Sand, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf.
I was in Berlin to learn more about Henriette Herz. There is very little information available about her in English, even on the Internet. A brief Wikipedia entry tells us she lived in Berlin from 1764 to 1847, and was one of the first women to establish a salon in that city during the Jewish Emancipation.
A generation earlier, the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn kicked off the Jewish Enlightenment when he came out of the ghetto and engaged in regular philosophical discussions with his non-Jewish peers. Herz’s salon continued this tradition; her guests included Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, Mirabeau, and the theologian Schleiermacher, who eventually persuaded Herz to convert to Protestantism. Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter, the novelist and translator Dorothea Schlegel, also attended the salon.
On arriving in Berlin, I had very few leads to guide my research. Apart from the Wikipedia entry, the only useful resource I could find online was a photograph of Herz’s grave with a caption indicating its location.
And so, on a quiet grey morning in Berlin, I found myself standing outside a rather neglected-looking cemetery in lower Kreuzberg with a sign on its front wall — Kirchhof Jerusalem und Neue Kirche — that matched the caption on the online photograph. The gates of the cemetery, however, were securely locked, and there wasn’t another soul in sight. I then remembered it was a public holiday in Berlin, Whitsun Monday.
I had travelled all the way from Australia to find Henriette’s grave, but now all I could do was look through the wrought-iron fence to the wild array of headstones and monuments inside, wondering if hers was amongst them. I made my way around the perimeter of the graveyard, trying to find a way in. Eventually, I came across a side-gate that didn’t appear to be locked. I pushed it open and, after checking there were no police or other authorities around (was it an offence to break into a cemetery in Berlin on a public holiday, I wondered?), I let myself in.
Soon I found myself surrounded by the implacable silence of the dead. Gravestones and memorials for Brechts, Bernsteins, and Fischers in various states of disrepair stared blankly back at me. After about twenty minutes searching, I came across the heavily signposted gravesite of Moses Mendelssohn’s grandson, the composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. This discovery gave me hope that I must be getting close to Henriette.
But she eluded me. I wandered past grave after grave, straining to read the names on the heavily-weathered headstones. I started to wonder if I was even in the right cemetery.
A strange, but surprisingly peaceful, feeling came over me as I traipsed through this seemingly never-ending field of nineteenth-century bourgeois Jews. This feeling was accentuated by the fact I was the only one in the cemetery at that time. All I had for company was the rustle of the trees and an occasional flitting sparrow. At one point a nervous-looking squirrel crossed my path before scurrying away into the undergrowth.
I was just about to call off my search, when I decided to look in one last area. An unruly, heavily-overgrown section in the cemetery’s south-eastern corner that didn’t look at all promising. It had no signage, only a few small headstones, and was almost completely covered by weeds.
Then, behind a large tree, I saw it. Henrietta’s grave, just as it had appeared online, with its headstone and cross rendered in dark, charcoal-grey marble. In front of her grave, rather impudently, lay an empty beer bottle, a indignity I found quite discomfiting given all the trouble I had undergone to come and pay my respects.
Still, at least I could be alone with her now. I felt like a detective who has just solved a major crime, or an archeologist who has unearthed a long-forgotten relic. I sat down before the resting place of the woman I had been imagining for the past two years, where she had been lying, undisturbed, for more than two centuries. There was a small sign at the foot of her grave. It read:
Henriette Herz 5.9.1764 to 22.10.1847. Saloniere. Sie leitete einen berühmten literarischen Salon. Ehefrau des Philosophen und Arztes Marcus Herz.
(Henriette Herz 5.9.1764 to 22.10.1847. Salonnière. She led a famous literary salon. Wife of the philosopher and physician Marcus Herz.
After spending a good hour silently communing with Henriette, I slowly walked back through the cemetery grounds, and on to the noisy, jostling Kreuzberg streets outside.