The Jewish Traveler: Hamburg
So many of our foremothers and fathers passed through this city en route to the New World, and a visit here will reveal several of the sounds and sights they experienced.
The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg is often described as the Venice of the north.
Connected to the North Sea 75 miles to the northwest by the broad Elbe River, Hamburg boasts Germany’s largest port. A trip along the Elbe opens onto a vista of freighters large and small, towering cranes and mountains of shipping containers awaiting transport around the world. Hamburg is crisscrossed by innumerable canals and waterways and knit together by more than 2,400 bridges. Its skyline includes Baroque palaces, church spires, modern shopping complexes, old warehouses renovated into cultural venues and post-Modern apartment blocks.
Hamburg has a rich commercial and cultural history stretching back to its medieval origins and, now, in its role as a maritime hub of Europe’s global market. And it is that magnificent seaport that has enticed Jews to Hamburg for centuries.
The first Jews to settle in Hamburg, in the 1580s, were Portuguese traders—Conversos who “passed” as Christians. In 1612, when 125 Sefardim were living in the western part of the town near Neuer Wall and Mönkedamm, the local government granted them official residence permits for five years on the payment of 1,000 marks. By 1663, the Sefardic Jewish population—grown to more than 600—was relocating to the Neustadt area. Employed as shipbuilders, doctors, goldsmiths, bankers and merchants, including sugar, spice and tobacco importers, they established the Bet Israel synagogue (long gone) at what is now Alter Wall 48/49, near the intersection of downtown’s Alter Wall and Mönkedamm.
A second Sefardic community grew up in the fishing village of Altona to the west, which was under Danish rule and more liberal. Ashkenazic Jews also settled in Altona, and by the mid-17th century they were moving into Hamburg, although they lacked official residence permits. Since Jews in 17th-century Hamburg were subject to periodic expulsions, they often moved back and forth between the city and Altona.
By 1697, when the local government once again imposed tighter restrictions on Jews, many of the wealthier Sefardim left for Altona, Ottensen or Amsterdam. In the 18th century, German Jews—with the newly gained rights of residence—engaged in retail trade. Among the new residents were Salomon Heine, famed for pledging his money to rebuild Hamburg after the great fire of 1842; and moneychanger and pawnbroker Gumprich Marcus Warburg. In 1798, Warburg’s two eldest sons founded M.M. Warburg & Company, which grew into the international private banking firm.
By 1800, some 6,400 Jews lived in Hamburg. Landmark events over the next century included the opening at Elbstrasse 122 of the Talmud Tora School for the Poor in 1805 by Mendel Frankfurter, grandfather of the famous Orthodox rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch; the founding of a Reform temple—The New Israelite Temple Society—in 1817; and the building of its first temple at 43/45 Erste Brunnenstrasse. That school and temple are gone, but the Reform congregation’s third building, a striking Modernist edifice built in 1931 at 120 Oberstrasse, survived World War II and is now the Rolf-Liebermann-Studio of North German Radio with a freestanding memorial in front denoting its Jewish past. In 1841, the Israelitische Krankenhaus—the Jewish Hospital—opened at 2 Simon-von-Utrecht-Strasse in the St. Pauli district. Today, the massive block-long building houses local government offices.
By the start of the 20th century, many Jews had moved from the densely crowded Neustadt to the Grindel area (nicknamed “little Jerusalem”). In 1906, that community built an imposing Romanesque synagogue in Bornplatz; it was set afire on Kristallnachtin 1938 and demolished in 1939. The Talmud Tora Realschule opened next door a few years later, at Grindelhof 30 (today the restored building is the headquarters of the Jewish community), and, by the 1930s, the school offered elementary, secondary and adult education to several hundred students.
During the 19th century, Hamburg was a key city in the epic of European migration to the New World. Through its port passed five million emigrants, first from Germany and later from Eastern Europe and Russia, most headed to the United States, but others to Canada, South America or South Africa. At the helm of the Hamburg-American line (HAPAG) was Albert Ballin, the child of lower-middle-class Jews who rose quickly through the ranks. He used cut-rate fares to lure travelers to Hamburg and then proclaimed “my field is the world.”
Hamburg’s Jewish population peaked at 20,000 in 1925, while the city’s overall population topped a million. Like other German cities, its history in the Nazi years is familiar: persecution and emigration, deportation and death.
Covering almost 300 square miles, Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city, with 1.75 million residents. Its official Jewish population is 3,500; but the true figure could be double as many Jews do not join the Jüdische Gemeinde (Jewish Community).
A few German Jews who had emigrated or been interned returned after the war, including banker Eric Warburg, but most did not. At the end of World War II, Jews of East European heritage from Displaced Persons camps came to Hamburg, and in the 1970s they were joined, temporarily, by Iranian Jews in the carpet trade fleeing their homeland. In the 1990s, Russian Jews flooded into Hamburg as into other German cities. They now make up the majority of Jews; some live in historic Jewish neighborhoods but many live in outlying areas where rents are cheaper.
The Jüdische Gemeinde (Grindelhof 30; 011-49-40-440-9440;www.jghh.org) moved its headquarters in 2007 to the Talmud Tora Realschule. Also on the premises are the Ronald Lauder kindergarten, a day school, language classes, a Jewish-living program for students, young professionals and families, events for senior citizens and the larger community and a Russian library. The Gemeinde also publishes a magazine.
When visiting the building, bring along a passport; security is tight. In the foyer, hundreds of pieces of broken glass hang from the ceiling, commemorating children killed in the Holocaust; underfoot is the original floor with its Magen David design. Outside, embedded in the ground, are 18 brass Stolpersteine (stumbling stone;www.sjac.org.ukwww.stolpersteine-ham burg.de), recalling teachers and employees of the school who perished in the Holocaust.
The Gemeinde’s synagogue (34 Hohe Weide), built in 1960, is a plain, nondescript building behind locked gates with a simple sanctuary featuring Persian carpets. To attend the Orthodox services, call ahead.
Chabad Lubawitsch has an outpost in the Grindel area (36-40 Rentzel Street; 49-40-4142-4190; www.chabadhamburg.de). Programming here focuses on children’s and youth activities. Chabad’s small kosher grocery store, Lechaim, is open two hours a day.
There is a Reform congregation, Liberale Jüdische Gemeinde Hamburg (49-40-3208-6677; www.davistern.de), with 300 members. Because the congregants hold Shabbat services in the former Jewish Hospital’s synagogue, now a meeting room of the local government, they must bring their own Torah, a gift of the American Jewish Committee. On non-weekend holidays, when government employees are working, they rent space elsewhere.
Hop on public transportation to visit the various sites associated with Jewish history—they are dispersed throughout the city. Hamburg pays tribute downtown to its city fathers at the monumental 19th-century sandstone Rathaus (Town Hall); its ornate façade features 20 statues of the kaiser and a 368-foot clock tower overlooks a massive market square. Step into the columned entrance and look for the medallions—portrait reliefs carved into the columns—honoring prominent citizens, among them seven Jews, including Salomon Heine, composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Albert Ballin.
Outside, at the Mönckebergstrasse edge of the Rathaus square, stands a statue commemorating 19th-century romantic poet Heinrich Heine, who lived with his banker uncle Salomon for a period of time and whose famous Germany: A Winter’s Tale was published in 1844 after a later visit to Hamburg. Erected in 1982, the statue replaces an earlier one that once stood in Hamburg’s Stadtpark but had been demolished and then melted down by the Nazis. The original statue’s destruction in 1933 and Nazi book burnings are recalled in relief on the statue’s base.
The Museum for Hamburg History (Holstenwall 24; 49-40-4281-3223-80; www.hamburgmuseum.de) has a small permanent exhibit on Jewish life in Hamburg, from the arrival of the Sefardim in the 1580s to the present. On display are a re-creation of the living room of a Jewish family in 1908; photographs from years past, including ones of students at the Talmud Tora; portraits of famous citizens; and models of some destroyed synagogues.
Walk around the block to Millerntordamm to reach the Millerntor gate, which in the 17th and 18th centuries was where Jews, such as those who lived in neighboring Altona, were permitted to enter or leave the city. It’s just a short walk south from here to Landungsbrücken on the Elbe River in the St. Pauli district, where you can board sightseeing boats for one-hour tours of the harbor.
Within walking distance of the famed Hamburg fish market in Altona (Grosse Elbstrasse 137; www.fischmarkt-hamburg.de) is the historic Jüdischer Friedhof cemetery on Königstrasse, in use from 1611 to 1869. Guided tours are available from Der Museumsdienst Hamburg (49-40-428-1310; www.museumsdienst-hamburg.de). Of the carved marble headstones that remain, note the differences in Sefardic and Ashkenazic designs: Sefardim typically placed gravestones flat on the ground, while Ashkenazim stood them up.
The area north of downtown, where the Gemeinde is located, pulses with the life of the University of Hamburg. Set into the ground at the nearby Joseph-Carlebach-Platz—the former Bornplatz, renamed to honor Chief Rabbi Joseph Carlebach who served from 1936 until his deportation to Riga—is a stark granite mosaic by artist Margrit Kahl. This flat memorial traces the complex lines of the vaulted ceiling of the great Bornplatz synagogue that dominated the landscape before it was destroyed.
In 1901, the HAPAG company, under Albert Ballin, opened an emigration town to house the surging tide of pilgrims awaiting transport to the destinations in the New World. Connected to Hamburg by its own railroad, BallinStadt, south of the Elbe River on Veddel Island (49-49-3197-9160; www.ballinstadt.de), was a self-contained village of red-brick dormitories, dining halls with a kosher canteen, stores, church, synagogue and hospital that served up to 5,000 emigrants at a time—many of them Jews. One original hall and two reconstructed ones opened in July 2007 as a museum to chronicle Hamburg’s history as the port of dreams.
At the BallinStadt Family Research Center, consult HAPAG passenger lists via computer workstations to get details about passengers who embarked between 1850 and 1934: birthplace, place of residence, occupation, destination and other family members. The digitized archive of five million names is free onsite (also available for a fee at www.ancestry.com).
The Hamburger Kunsthalle (main art museum, 49-40-4281-31200;www. hamburger-kunsthalle.de) has a room of paintings by the Jewish artist Max Liebermann (there’s also an elegant basement café bearing his name) as well as works by Max Beckmann and the lesser-known 19th-century painter Hans von Marées, whose mother was Jewish.
At the nearby arts and crafts museum—the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (49-40-4281-3427-32; www.mkg-hamburg.de)—explore the Paris Room, bearing the Art Nouveau collection of museum founder Justus Brinckmann. Keep an eye out for works by the Hamburg Secession (1919-1933), among whom were Jewish artists Anita Rée, Alma del Blanco and Gretchen Wohlwill.
Sixty miles south of Hamburg is the Bergen-Belsen Memorial (49-50-514-7590; www.bergen-belsen.de). While the images of corpses and emaciated survivors have been seared into our memories, the history of the camp at Bergen-Belsen is deeper.
The visitors center documents the prisoners of war camp, where 40,000 Soviet POWs died in 1942 after having been transported there from the Eastern front in open railcars and interned without cover. Also documented at the center are the 1943-1945 Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, including its notorious history as a death camp where tens of thousands, including Anne Frank, perished. After liberation and as late as 1950, Bergen-Belsen served as a Displaced Persons camp.
Plan on spending several hours so that you can explore the railway ramp where internees debarked, the excavations of former barracks, the sites of the former SS camp, delousing station, the tent camp of August-November 1944 that held more than 8,000 girls and women from Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as several memorials erected on the premises.
The picturesque town of Celle, with its hundreds of half-timbered houses and magnificent Ducal palace, is near Bergen-Belsen and is a great place to spend the night. The synagogue at Im Kreise 23-24 (49-58-1971-2584), which dates from around 1740, has been restored and houses small exhibits about the Jewish community’s history.
For an alternative side trip, consider the World Heritage port city of Lübeck, 40 miles northeast of Hamburg. Lübeck is famous for its redbrick Gothic architecture, Holsten Gate dating to 1477, enclosed town square, historic alleyways, marzipan and unique red wine known as Rotspon. The birthplace of novelist Thomas Mann, whose wife was Jewish, Lübeck has a small Jewish population that has been growing with the influx of Russian Jews. Stop by the red-brick synagogue at St.Annen-Strasse 13 in the Old Town. And treat yourself to coffee and marzipan at the Café Niederegger at Breite Strasse 89 with its upstairs marzipan museum.
Pharmacist Oscar Troplowitz bought the Beiersdorf pharmaceutical laboratory in Hamburg in 1890 and expanded it into a modern pharmaceutical and cosmetics group, whose brands include Nivea.
Curious George has delighted children since his first book appeared in 1941. His creators were Jews: Hans Augusto Rey, who grew up near the Hagenbeck Zoo, and his wife, Margarete Elisabeth Waldstein Rey, also a Hamburg native. By the time of George’s genesis they lived in Paris and later fled to the United States, a journey recounted in the book The Journey That Saved Curious George: The Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden (Houghton Mifflin).
The Memoirs of Glueckel of Hameln (Schocken), which dates from 1690, is a unique chronicle written by a widowed German Jew, a businesswoman and mother of 14, who lived in Altona and Hamburg and traveled around Germany.
Business journalist Ron Chernow creates a riveting portrait of the German Jewish banking family in The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family (Vintage).
Monique Charlesworth’s The Children’s War (Anchor) interweaves the Holocaust story of half-Jewish Ilse Blumenthal, a teenager who flees the Nazis in Paris, Marseilles and Cannes, with that of teenager Nicolai of Hamburg, where Ilse’s Aryan mother, Lore, is the family’s nursemaid.
Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (Everyman’s Library), which follows the decline of a north German mercantile family, is set in Lübeck but also has scenes in Hamburg.
In addition to Chabad, the department store Galeria Kaufhof (Mönckebergstrasse 3; www.galeria-kaufhof.de) stocks a small amount of kosher food. To arrange for kosher meals brought to a hotel, contact Catering Zach (49-178-519-3384). Café Leonar (Grindelhof 59;www.cafeleonar.de) near the Gemeinde building offers Jewish cultural programming, sells books and serves Jewish-style dishes.
For a luxurious downtown hotel, head for the Hotel Atlantic Kempinski overlooking Lake Alster (An der Alster 72-79;www.kempinski.atlantic.de), which opened in 1909 as the “Grand Hotel” for passengers with bookings on luxury ocean liners.
If you continue on to Celle after Bergen-Belsen, try the Fürstenhof hotel (Hannoversche Strasse 55/56; www.fuerstenhof-celle.com), located in a 17th-century Baroque palace.
Hamburg’s harbor was the gateway for so many turn-of-the-century Jews on their way to new lives. Come to this port city to learn about their time here and about the Jewish community that was flourishing then—and now.