Ecumenical Altars of Remembrance in Berlin

Prof. Tessa Hofman

by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach – Special to the Mirror Spectator
BERLIN — It was a bitter cold day in mid-February, with a strong wind that chilled to the bone. As we walked from the bus stop and entered the Luisenkirchhof III cemetery through the huge gate, I thought about the women and children being deported from their homes in Ottoman Empire over a hundred years ago, and what immense suffering they must have faced as they wound their way through inclement weather, on their march toward death.


Sites of the genocide

My guide and companion, Prof. Tessa Hofmann, was as warmly bundled up as I was, so we could go on walking up to the central chapel and beyond, with no fear of freezing. On the other side of the chapel, the path continued until we reached a façade of massive altars, which stretched out to the left and right in front of us. The three altars in the middle stood solemn and dignified, each with a cross of a different kind placed in the arch. The first altar on the left with its graceful khachkar must be the house of the Armenians; the next had a cross with arms of equal length to designate the house of the Greeks from Asia Minor, Pontos and Eastern Thrace; and the third displayed the cross of the Aramaens, Assyrians and Chaldeans.

Placed between the first and second altars is a huge plaque with the names of these Christian communities, and the inscription: “Commemorate the victims of the Ottoman genocide 1912-1922.” On the lateral wings of each of the Altars of Remembrance are ‘icons of annihilation,’ scenes from the genocide. The design of the memorial was inspired by the principle of Christian medieval sacral architecture: “Unity in diversity.” And the cross, in its several variations, stands as the universal Christian symbol of hope and resurrection.

House of the Greeks

On the ground in front of the ecumenical memorial are stone plates, inscribed with the names of the main places of origin of the victims. Sixty-eight such stone plates are planned, seven of which have been completed and bear the names of Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Edirne, Nusaybin, Smyrna, Trabzon and Van. According to what communities lived there, the names are inscribed in Armenian, Greek and/or Aramaen. In the interstices between the larger plates are smaller, rounded stones, which may bear the name of an individual or family. Descendants of the survivors are contributing funds to honor their ancestors.

This memorial, the only one of its kind in the world, is intended to be an inclusive place for mourning, learning and reconciliation. A large, glass enclosed information board is to be erected along the pathway, to provide visitors with background information, texts and maps, on the genocide.

Tessa Hofmann has good reason to be proud of this memorial. It was largely through her efforts and those of her colleagues in the Förderverein für eine Ökumenischen Gedenstätte für Genozidopfer im Osmanischen Reich (FÖGG) e.V. that the memorial came into being. And it is no accident that she should have been among the founders; Hofmann is one of the earliest genocide researchers in Germany to have published scientific studies on the Armenian genocide. The author of numerous books and a professor, she has campaigned for genocide recognition, as chairwoman of the human rights organization, “Working Group Recognition – Against Genocide, for International Understanding” (AGA).

After looking into various possible sites and discussing the project with the relevant authorities, this location was chosen. In May 2012, the administration of the Protestant Luisenkirchhof III granted the FÖGG three former tombs for their permanent use and maintenance. Thanks to contributions of the state of Berlin (Land) and the German Foundation for Protection of Historical Monuments (Deutsche Stiftung Denkmalschutz), the altars were professionally restored. Financial donations by private persons made possible the transformation into a memorial.
House of the Armenians

Were there political difficulties in establishing such a memorial in Berlin? I could imagine protests emanating from Turkish quarters. To be sure, they had tried to intervene, but too late. The FÖGG organizers were wise to operate in total discretion until the arrangement received official sanction from the authorities. They also took special care in formulating the name of the memorial, for example, in the designation “Ottoman genocide.”

What Is the FÖGG?
The association that is responsible for building the memorial grew out of an idea born at a scientific conference at the Berlin Technical University in 2002, on the theme of the genocide of Christians in the late Ottoman Empire. As explained on its website (, an organizing committee called “Speak with one voice!” was founded, and in 2008 it embraced the idea of an ecumenical place of mourning in Germany’s capital. The then-mayor of the district of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, Monika Thiemen, lent her support, as did the Commemorative Plaque Commission of the same district. This reflects the historical ties of the Charlottenburg district to the communities involved; two Armenian communities of Berlin and one of the four Syrian orthodox communities have been located there for decades.

In November 2011 the founding members of the organizing committee joined with other representatives of the Armenian, Greek and Syrian Orthodox (Aramaen) communities to establish the FÖGG, which was officially recognized in early 2012 as a charitable association. Politically unaffiliated, the FÖGG is however engaged in human rights, especially the prevention of genocide. Its statute specifies that its aim is to promote art and culture, and the Luisenkirchhof memorial is its main project. The memorial site is to provide a place for members of these communities to gather for commemorations and requiem services. In fact, as Hofmann explained to me, every year such events take place: on April 24th for the Armenians, on June 15th for the Syrians and September 14th for the Greeks.

Now the FÖGG is raising funds for a virtual memorial site on the Internet, which is already under construction. It will provide documentation on the contribution Christian communities made to their local or regional culture, and how they were destroyed. For more information on the initiative and how to contribute, see