The reunion of the descendants of Moses Mendelssohn held in Berlin in 2007

In the course of opening an exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie in 2006, André Schmitz, then head of the Berlin Senate Chancellery, met with representatives of the Stiftung Preussische Seehandlung foundation and the historical association Geschichtsforum Jägerstrasse e.V. to discuss the project of refurbishing the Mendelssohn graves in the Jewish cemetery on Schönhauser Allee. At the meeting, he inquired whether the refurbishment of these graves might not be an opportune occasion to invite the descendants of Moses Mendelssohn, now scattered all over the world, to attend a reunion in Berlin. The Berlin Senate’s Department for Culture thus began drawing up lists of invitees in cooperation with the Geschichtsforum Jägerstrasse and with support from the Mendelssohn-Gesellschaft.

Plans called for roughly 350 invitations to be sent out, with an expected acceptance rate of 50 to 100 participants. As it turned out, about 250 individuals from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Sweden, Costa Rica, France, England, and the USA actually registered for the Berlin gathering in the summer of 2007. Travel and lodging costs were borne by the participants themselves. The program in Berlin was developed by the Senate Department for Culture in collaboration with the Geschichtsforum Jägerstrasse, whereby most of the financing came from sponsors.

On Friday, October 12th, 2007, the invitees gathered for an opening reception at Berlin’s city hall, the Rotes Rathaus. This marked the first time that all the branches of the family had been reunited since 1799, when the divorced Dorothea Veit, née Mendelssohn, left Berlin for good following her rupture with the family. The evening’s program consisted of chamber music by the family’s three professional composers, Fanny Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and Arnold Mendelssohn. During the reception, most of the guests were able to get to know numerous relatives they had never met before.

On Saturday, the guests assembled in the Mendelssohn Remise, located in the former head office of the Mendelssohn Bank on Jägerstrasse near Gendarmenmarkt square. Over a third of them signed an appeal to establish a foundation, the Stiftung Mendelssohn Forum Berlin, to ensure the future upkeep of the Mendelssohn Remise as a place of public remembrance. The guests were then treated to a performance of a fragmentary musical comedy which Felix Mendelssohn had written as a twelve-year-old to satirize the daily office life of his father and uncle at the Mendelssohn Bank. This was followed by a big group photo on the staircase of the Schauspielhaus on Gendarmenmarkt. That evening, the group attended a performance of the Three Penny Opera at the Berliner Ensemble, a prominent theater that once employed two of the banking family’s sixth-generation descendants, namely the director Francesco von Mendelssohn and the actress Eleonora von Mendelssohn.

On Sunday morning, the visitors were given a tour of the historic “Mendelssohn locations” throughout Berlin. Several buses and drivers were made available by the municipal transport authority of the city, BVG. At the Jewish cemetery on Schönhauser Allee, the guests paid their respects at the restored graves of the banking patriarch Joseph Mendelssohn, his wife Henriette, his son Alexander and his wife Marianne, while Rabbi Andreas Nachama recited prayers. By the time of the farewell reception at the Centrum Judaicum on Oranienburger Strasse, it was clear that the participants had established contacts and friendships – both with one another as well as with the Geschichtsforum and Mendelssohn-Gesellschaft – which they would maintain and deepen going forward. A detailed account of the family reunion can be found in a publication issued by the Berlin Senate Chancellery Treffen der Mendelssohns 2007 in Berlin.

Following the reunion, many family members took the opportunity to share their oral family lore with the historians of the participating organizations, while also entrusting family mementos as loaned exhibits to the Remise. Subsequently, it became possible to purchase some of these objects and documents (with financing provided by several institutions). Another achievement of the reunion was to raise public awareness of the “Mendelssohn Family.” Two years later, the Geschichtsforum Jägerstrasse and the Mendelssohn-Gesellschaft were merged under the latter organization’s name.