The groundbreaking – a solemn occasion
The significance of the groundbreaking for the politics of remembrance
Rebuilding the Jewish congregation
Official remarks containing personal memories
On November 9, 1958, representatives of the Jewish community, the Central Council of Jews in Germany Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, Hamburg’s city assembly, the regional church and various associations as well as the interested public attended the groundbreaking for the synagogue at Hohe Weide on the corner of Heymannstraße. The Catholic auxiliary bishop was also present. The event, which was covered by the media, took place twenty years after the November pogrom and thirteen years after a Jewish congregation had again been founded in Hamburg. It was one of a number of synagogue and prayer hall openings in various Jewish communities occurring in the following two decades, beginning with the consecration of a synagogue in Dresden in 1950.
In his speech Mayor Brauer emphasizes the fact that the groundbreaking was not only an important event for the Jewish community, but that it was also considered a ceremonial act (of remembrance) for the city of Hamburg. He goes even further in his remarks when he states that “the most painful of all wounds […] is beginning to heal” and that the city was restoring part of its dignity with the erection of this building. Thus Brauer links his central concern of rebuilding the city of Hamburg to the new beginnings of Jewish life. He claims that all advances in the rebuilding of the Jewish community’s organizations had always been supported by the senate. He calls himself "honor bound” to attend the groundbreaking, which he considered the “crowning achievement of all the efforts to rebuild,” since the building of a synagogue could be interpreted as a symbol of newly emerging Jewish life and a step towards the “different Germany” Schöpferisch, ungeduldig und kompromißlos. Bürgermeister a. D. Professor Dr. Herbert Weichmann in ‚Die Welt‘ vom 5. Februar 1973, in: Max Brauer. 3. September 1887–2. Februar 1973. Meldungen, Reden, Nachrufe, publ. by Senat der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg, Senatskanzlei - Staatliche Pressestelle, Uelzen 1973, pp. 17–19, here: p. 17. Max Brauer envisioned. While Brauer spoke as the city’s official representative, he also sought to demonstrate a personal connection to his audience by repeatedly referring to his personal contacts with members of the Jewish community and mentioning his own experience of exile. Brauer also discussed the development of the Jewish congregation prior to 1958. In November 1948 he had attended a ceremony at the provisional synagogue in the Jewish retirement home on Sedanstraße, and the congregation’s recognition as a statutory body occurred during his first term in office.
The beginning of construction on the new synagogue building did indeed signify an important step for the Jewish congregation that had been reestablished in 1945. Until then, they had provisionally used the prayer hall at the residential home Oppenheimer Stift on Kielortallee or the synagogue in the retirement home on Sedanstraße while cultural events were held at the congregation’s facilities on Rothenbaumchaussee. Apart from not having a house of prayer, religious life was also hindered by the fact that the congregation did not have their own rabbi for a long time – a situation that only began to change after the groundbreaking: as of 1960 Hans Isaac Grünwald was in charge of the congregations of Hamburg, Lower Saxony, and Schleswig-Holstein, and in 1962 the congregation was able to employ Dr. Nathan Peter Levinson. He was also in charge of congregations in Schleswig-Holstein and served as Chief Rabbi in Baden. At the groundbreaking, Rabbi Ludwig Salomonowicz opened the ceremony with his speech.
In building a synagogue the congregation found its answer to the question of “to leave or to stay,” ever-present in its early years: the building meant a (cautious) commitment to a long-term future in Hamburg. 25 years later, Werner Nachmann, then chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, called the synagogues built in the postwar period a “daring act.” “ein Wagnis”; Werner Nachmann, quoted in Jüdische Gemeinde in Hamburg, Festschrift zum 25. Jahrestag der Einweihung der Synagoge in Hamburg. 1960–1985, Hamburg 1985, p. 7. Looking back, he interpreted the building of new synagogues as the expression of a new era of Jewish life in the Federal Republic of Germany.
The building of the synagogue also marked the beginning of a new phase for the Jewish congregation in Hamburg. After its membership had decreased until the beginning of the 1950s, it began to grow in the mid-1950s due to the influx of people returning from the camps or exile and migrants from eastern Europe and Iran. In his speech Max Brauer quoted the number of congregation members as 1,390. The restitution of the community library, the opening of a retirement home and a youth center, and the groundbreaking of a Jewish hospital Israelitisches Krankenhaus constituted further important steps for the “rebuilding” and the new organization of community life after 1945. However, the community and its life were barely noticed by Hamburg’s population, and the congregation itself kept a low profile.
The synagogue, designed by architects Wongel & May (and built by a Jewish construction company), was opened on September 4, 1960. Max Brauer attended this occasion as well. The synagogue, which had been financed by compensation payments, provided the congregation not only with appropriate facilities for their prayer services and religious celebrations, but also with a mikveh and space for cultural events and youth work. The congregation had decided on a rather inconspicuous architectural design; the building does not stand out in the streetscape and opens up to the courtyard rather than to the street side. This can be interpreted as an expression of the continued uncertainty regarding the coexistence of Jews and non-Jews and the possibility of the congregation’s plans for the future. Thus the experience of the immediate past is reflected in the synagogue’s architecture.
In the 1960s, a period marked by successful rebuilding and economic recovery in Hamburg, public remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust, which had still been present in the 1940s, hardly played a role at all. Apart from the memorial stone for the Jewish victims of National Socialism and the urn containing the ashes of victims from the Auschwitz concentration camp, both at the Ohlsdorf cemetery, there was no public remembrance – except for a memorial day on November 9 held every five years. Up to this point, the memorial located “out” at the Ohlsdorf cemetery mentioned by Brauer was the only sign of remembrance of Jewish victims visible in the public space. In picking this date for the groundbreaking, the Jewish congregation thus had not only chosen a symbolic day, they also inscribed themselves into the locally established culture of remembrance, which resulted in Brauer’s feeling “honor bound” to attend. The Jewish community – or some of its individual members – actively sought to shape the politics of remembrance and to embed the commemoration of Jewish victims in the collective memory. For example, the chairman of the Jewish congregation, Harry Goldstein, was strongly involved in the compilation of the first publication commemorating Hamburg’s Jewish victims of National Socialism Hambuger Gedenkbuch für die jüdischen Opfer des Nationalsozialismus published in 1965.
Remembrance and coming to terms with the National Socialist past are central motifs in Brauer’s remarks. At the same time, he links the fate of the Jewish minority to that of the majority when he claims the destruction of the synagogues had also damaged the churches: “what is done to one is also inflicted on the other.” He does not name specific acts or perpetrators, instead adhering to the customary tone of the time by speaking of “the years of terror and darkness” and a painful wound that needed to heal. In contrast to this “demonizing interpretation” Peter Reichel, “Das Gedächtnis der Stadt, Hamburg im Umgang mit seiner nationalsozialistischen Vergangenheit. Zur Einführung,” in Peter Reichel (ed.), Das Gedächtnis der Stadt. Hamburg im Umgang mit seiner nationalsozialistischen Vergangenheit, Schriftenreihe der Hamburgischen Kulturstiftung 6, Hamburg 1997, p. 16. of the National Socialist period, Erich Lüth, then spokesman of the Hamburg senate, in a lecture given to the Academy of the Protestant Church Evangelische Akademie in Loccum in 1957 emphasized the guilt the majority society had brought upon itself: “We, the majority of the German Christians, humanists, and democrats emasculated by a brutal minority did not stand up for our Jewish brother, and only in hidden individual cases did we take care of persecuted friends. The great revolt of heart and consciousness, the storm from the pulpits did not take place despite some solitary acts of bravery.” “Deutschland und die Juden nach 1945,” lecture given by Erich Lüth to the Evangelische Akademie in Loccum, September 19, 1957, publ. by Aktion Friede mit Israel, Hamburg, n. d., p. 4.
In his speech Brauer extensively discusses the time before 1933, which he describes as a phase of “flourishing communit[ies],” choosing a similar phrasing as the previous speaker, Salomonowicz. He outlines the achievements of well-known male Jewish personalities in the fields of politics, business, and scholarship such as Leo Lippmann, Max Warburg or Ernst Cassirer, whom he honors as “respected and good citizens of our city.” Thus he makes reference to the image of peaceful coexistence during the phase of the Weimar Republic, and he once again points out the good relations between the Jewish community and the city. By using the phrase “our city” he intentionally creates a community (of remembrance) that is meant to keep the memory of the murder of Hamburg’s Jews alive and prevent the suppression of past events by the majority society. In addition to these prominent personalities, Brauer also commemorates the “simple citizens,” as he calls them, and he remembers former Chief Rabbi Joseph Carlebach, another prominent figure in the Jewish community, as representative for Hamburg’s murdered Jews.
Finally, Brauer extends a greeting to the “saved ones,” thus also addressing Hamburg’s former Jewish citizens now living in exile. In this context he refers to his own experience of political exile and again to the contacts with Hamburg’s Jews he made in several countries. An actual invitation to visit the city was not extended to Hamburg’s former Jewish inhabitants during Brauer’s tenure, however. A first tentative attempt at establishing contact was not made until a few years later, when the Gedenkbuch was published (1965) and Herbert Weichmann was mayor. A program inviting Jews to visit their former hometown was not established until the early 1980s.
Max Brauer’s speech reflects several themes typical of the remembrance culture of the late 1950s and the 1960s. Max Brauer’s personal experience as a persecuted Social Democrat who had to leave his hometown in 1933 may have made him sensitive to certain issues. In any case, on the occasion of the groundbreaking, they allowed him to repeatedly refer to personal memories and experience and thus create a feeling of connection. Overall his remarks adhere to the contemporary convention, however, which can be summarized as “healing wounds – showing dignity,” Kirsten Heinsohn, “Wunden schließen. Das jüdische Hamburg im Wiederaufbau,” in Forschungsstelle für Zeitgeschichte (ed.), 19 Tage Hamburg. Ereignisse und Entwicklungen der Stadtgeschichte seit den fünfziger Jahren, Munich / Hamburg 2012, pp. 63–78, here: p. 76. and avoiding opening old wounds at all cost. Rather than naming those responsible, he focused on a conciliatory perspective for a new future. The occasion for this speech illustrates that 15 years after the founding of a new Jewish congregation, the synagogue set a mark – albeit an architecturally inconspicuous one – for Jewish life in Hamburg.
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Anna Menny, Dr. phil., born 1982, is research assistant at the Institute for the history of German Jews (IGdJ) and responsible for the coordination of the online source-edition "Key-documents on German-Jewish History". She studied history, poltical science and media culture at the University Hamburg and worked as research assistant in the project "Christians, Moors and Jews - commemorative culture and identity policy in the Iberian modern period" at the Department for Jewish History and Culture of Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. Her PhD is about "Spain and Sepharad. About the official treatment of Judaism during Francoism and democracy."
Anna Menny, Between Remembrance and a New Beginning – the Groundbreaking of the Synagogue at Hohe Weide on November 9, 1958 (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, August 21, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-188.en.v1> [April 01, 2023].