The minutes of this meeting represent the earliest documentation of Hamburg's Jewish congregation's new beginning after the collapse of the National Socialist regime. On May 3, 1945, Hamburg was declared an open city and surrendered to the British army. At this point – according to National Socialist criteria – there were eight unmarried “Volljuden” [persons descended from at least three Jewish grandparents], 106 “Volljuden living in a simple mixed marriage,” 525 “Volljuden living in a privileged mixed marriage,” and three foreign Jews left in Hamburg. Most of them still lived in the “Judenhäuser” established by the Gestapo or in the “Jüdische Krankenstation” [Jewish hospital]. There had not been a Jewish congregation for two years. The Gestapo had dissolved it following an order issued on June 10, 1943 by Minister of the Interior Heinrich Himmler.
This document provides detailed information about the motives for the meeting. Josef Gottlieb (born 1883) demanded the “immediate reconstitution” of a Jewish congregation in Hamburg. Another urgent issue was to create “a positive attitude towards Judaism.” Gottlieb specifically urged to demand the restitution of the financial and material assets of the former Jewish Religious Community of Hamburg [Jüdischer Religionsverband in Hamburg e. V.] and to secure them for the newly projected congregation. In addition, he expected the provision of “respectable and suitable” facilities for holding prayer services, for a Jewish library, and for the purposes of teaching and learning. In his view, another pressing matter consisted in the accommodation of Jews returning to Hamburg. Hermann Levy (born 1897) also demanded the creation of a new home for the accommodation of Jewish prisoners who had returned from Theresienstadt “to freedom in Hamburg.” The participants in this meeting were well aware of the difficulty they faced in trying to realize the goals mentioned during this phase which saw the collapse of the National Socialist state and the slow reorientation of all social life.
The twelve persons present at the meeting formed a preliminary working committee. Consulting with three further former congregation members, the committee was tasked with “handling matters concerning a cultural committee, the cemetery, religious services, and a Matzot committee.” The new association was to be named “Jüdische Gemeinde Hamburg [Jewish Congregation in Hamburg].” The minutes are signed with the author's initials, “LE.” Most likely these stand for Martin Levy-Ehrhard (born 1888), who was a former member of the Hamburg congregation.
During the months of May and June 1945 a considerable number of Jews returned from the liberated camps. They came to Hamburg either because it was their home town or because they hoped to find surviving relatives or acquaintances there, but sometimes also because they hoped the city would be the best place from which to leave Germany. The few who had survived in hiding – their number is estimated at about 50 – came out of their hiding places. In the first months following the end of the war, two aid organizations were established in Hamburg. The first, apparently quite active group was the Aid Organization of Jews and Half-Jews [Hilfsgemeinschaft der Juden und Halbjuden]. It was led by attorney Dr. Max Heinemann. In the summer of 1945 a second group named Those from Theresienstadt [Die aus Theresienstadt] was formed. Around the same time, a Central Committee for the Liberated Jews in the British Zone [Zentralkomitee der befreiten Juden in der Britischen Zone] was formed in the Bergen-Belsen camp. It quickly attracted much attention and support from international Jewish organizations such as the British Jewish Committee of Relief and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. All these different actors and their various activities and goals created a confusing situation. In these circumstances it made sense to consider a revival of the former Jewish congregation or to attempt the founding of a new one.
The meeting of July 8, 1945 had been a start. On
July 24 seven of its participants met again.
The situation had changed slightly, for this was the first time that two
representatives of the Jewish Committee for
Relief from London were in attendance. Meanwhile the circle of Jews
interested in the foundation of a congregation had grown to about 170. Harry Goldstein chaired the
meeting. He was to become the congregation's first chairman and served in
this capacity for many years. Goldstein and lawyer Dr. Ludwig
Loeffler (born 1906) were supposed to
form an executive board. Loeffler rejected this
idea and instead suggested the formation of an executive committee, in which he
would later participate. Loeffler's involvement
turned out to be a fortunate choice. In September
Loeffler was reinstated as a civil
servant in Hamburg's city government. In 1946 the
senate appointed him
head of the office for Wiedergutmachung [restitution and compensation]. Thus the newly formed
close contact with the city government through Loeffler. Two more sessions followed in July and August 1945. Meanwhile attempts
to unite with the Aid Organization of Jews and
Half-Jews [Hilfsgemeinschaft für Juden und
Halbjuden] and the Relief Organization for Those Affected
by the Nuremberg Laws [Notgemeinschaft der durch die Nürnberger Gesetze
Betroffenen] failed. The interests of
these groups still differed too widely. The executive committee focused on
preparing a formal founding assembly and to take the first steps towards
organizing the congregation.
The participants in the meeting of August 8, 1945 made an important preliminary decision regarding the character of the future congregation and the question whether it should define itself as religious or rather religiously indifferent. In the previously existing “Hamburg system” three different religious associations had been able to organize themselves independently. The preliminary working group decided to divert from tradition and to reorganize the new congregation exclusively as a so-called uniform congregation observing the rules of Jewish religious law. The reasons leading to this very fundamental decision cannot be gathered directly from the sources. It is safe to assume that in light of the small number of congregation members expected in the summer of 1945 the main priority was to avoid any split among the community. The expectations of foreign aid organizations who intended to support a true Jewish congregation, too, may have weighed into the decision. At any rate, when the formal founding assembly took place on August 18, 1945, the question had been decided. A board consisting of five members was elected, and Harry Goldstein served as its chairman for ten years. An advisory board in which many of the “founding fathers” were represented was also elected. Among the future tasks of the congregation were matters of worship, funerals, welfare, education, and self-administration including financial autonomy and asset management. However, matters of worship were not entrusted to the board but to a designated commission. Bearing in mind the circumstances of the time, this might be understood as a modified version of the “Hamburg system.” A first draft of its by-laws dating from October 1945 states that “all Jewish persons with permanent residence in Hamburg” who did not belong to another religion could become congregation members. This opened up membership to Jewish partners living in a “mixed marriage” as well. By contrast, the final by-laws passed in 1946 explicitly emphasized the necessity to judge eligibility for membership based on Jewish religious law and profession of the Jewish faith. The important question of the appointment and function of a full-time rabbi remained unanswered, as did the question about a synagogue and its care. The congregation's tireless efforts to permanently establish a rabbi in Hamburg remained unsuccessful for many years. During the weekly prayer service they had to make do with a prayer leader, who was later replaced by a cantor. On September 6, 1945 the congregation celebrated the opening of the synagogue at Kielortallee.
Ever since its new establishment, the Jewish congregation found itself in an unstable situation. It was confronted with a high rate of emigration among its members as well as with the criticism voiced by Zionists against Jews who, “after Auschwitz,” felt they could still live in Germany, the “country of murderers.” Meanwhile the British occupation authority was extremely hesitant to grant legal and formal recognition to the reorganized congregation. It feared restitution claims in the event that the congregation should be given formal legal status. It was not until August 1948 that the military government informed Hamburg's legal office that it had no reservations against the congregation's acknowledgment as a statutory body. This gave way to the city assembly's decision of October 13, 1948, taken without prior debate, to pass a bill granting the Jewish congregation in Hamburg the status of a corporate body under public law. In the following years, the congregation's membership of about 1,200 stabilized. The question of whether to “leave or stay” that had prevailed during its early years had thus been essentially decided.
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Ina Lorenz, Prof. Dr. phil., works after her retirement as research assistant at the Institute for the History of the German Jews (IGdJ). The focus of her work is German-Jewish history in the 19th and 20th century, especially in Northern Germany, she published several source editions on the Jewish congregations of Hamburg, Altona and Wandsbek from the 17th to 20th century and also worked on the social and congregational history of the Jews in Hamburg.
Ina Lorenz, The Founding of a new Jewish Congregation in Hamburg (1945). The Twelve “Founding Fathers.” (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, July 05, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-66.en.v1> [July 27, 2017].