Salomo Birnbaum's experiences at Hamburg University

David Birnbaum

Source Description

This letter, dated 12 July, 1983, was written by Salomo / Solomon A. Birnbaum to Peter Freimark in Hamburg. Prof. Dr. Peter Freimark, then Director of the Institute for the History of the German Jews  Institut für die Geschichte der deutschen Juden in Hamburg, was researching the situation in Hamburg University during the National Socialist era. The letter is part of a correspondence discussing Salomo / Solomon A. Birnbaum's memories of his time in Hamburg, and whether he encountered antisemitism.

The letter is held by the Nathan and Solomon Birnbaum Archives, Toronto, Canada. The Archives contain documents, letters and books mainly pertaining to the Jewish thinker and writer Nathan Birnbaum, and his sons: scholar Salomo / Solomon A. Birnbaum, artist Menachem Birnbaum and artist, writer and poet Uriel Birnbaum. The letter is about Salomo / Solomon A. Birnbaum’s experiences when teaching Yiddish at Hamburg University from 1922 to 1933, when Hitler came to power.

Dr. Salomo / Solomon A. Birnbaum was an internationally recognized pioneer in two main fields: Yiddish and Hebrew palaeography. His “Praktische Grammatik der jiddischen Sprache” (1918) [“Practical Grammar of the Yiddish Language”], the first well-organized grammar of Yiddish, was republished four times till 1988. In 1922 he was appointed external lecturer for Yiddish language and literature in Yiddish at Hamburg University, the first university position in Yiddish in Germany. At the University there were at that time two professors, Dr. Conrad Borchling and Dr. Heinrich Meyer-Benfey who were interested in Yiddish, and it was through them that he was appointed lecturer in Yiddish. In May 1933 he fled from the Nazi regime to the Netherlands, and then London, where he became professor of both Hebrew palaeography and Yiddish. Birnbaum’s most significant works are his “Praktische Grammatik”, “The Hebrew Scripts” (1954-1971) and “Yiddish: A Survey and a Grammar” (1979; a 2nd edition was published in 2016).

  • David Birnbaum

Freimark's request to Birnbaum

In an earlier letter to Birnbaum dated May 31, 1983, Peter Freimark wrote that he had been asked to contribute a chapter on the history of Jewish studies to “a wide-ranging study of the history of the University of Hamburg between 1933 and 1945,” which was later published in a chapter titled “Juden an der Hamburger Universität” [“Jews at Hamburg University”] in the anthology “Hochschulalltag im Dritten Reich: Die Hamburger Universität 1933-1945 [“Everyday life in the Third Reich: Hamburg University 1933-1945”]. In his letter he asked Birnbaum to tell him about his time at the University. Freimark did not actually ask about antisemitism, but taking into account the context of the letter, there was probably an implied question whether Birnbaum had experienced it at the University. Freimark specifically asked whether Birnbaum had had any dealings with Walter Windfuhr, “an Evangelical Pastor, who in the 1930’s, and again after 1945, concentrated particularly on Rabbinic Judaism.” Windfuhr played a role in the processing of both Birnbaum’s Habilitation thesis submissions to Hamburg University during the 1920s.

Birnbaum's experiences at Hamburg University

In this letter of July 12, 1983, Birnbaum discusses some of the background to Yiddish studies at the University, and his submission of two Habilitation theses (qualification to become university lecturer) to Hamburg University, which were both rejected.

The first Habilitation thesis in 1926 was titled “Die moderne hebräische Poesie. Form und Inhalt” [“Modern Hebrew Poetry. Form and Content”]. Freimark writes that, of the five members on the University's examination board, three (including the already mentioned Windfuhr) recommended approval, one member, namely Carl Meinhof, complained of the poor “scholarly approach” (“wissenschaftliche[] Arbeitsweise”), and one, Rudolf Strothmann, very strongly objected to it on “ideological grounds” (“weltanschauliche (ideologiekritische) Gründe”). The Committee could not come to an agreement, and Birnbaum had to withdraw his Habilitation “temporarily” (“provisorisch”).

In 1929 Birnbaum submitted an entirely new Habilitation thesis, entitled “Die nordjüdische Kursivschriften. Eine Studie zur hebräischen Buchstabengeschichte” [“Northern-Jewish Cursive Writing. A Study on the History of Hebrew Scripts”], a pioneering study of Hebrew palaeography, which was never published. This work was the first fruit of his scholarship on the subject on which he was later to become an acknowledged world-expert. None of the members of the examination board had any expertise in the field. According to Freimark, six members of the committee strongly recommended approval, while one, Hans Reichelt, very strongly opposed it. Freimark assumed that it was for antisemitic reasons. In the notes to his chapter in “Alltag,” Freimark writes that it became clear that Reichelt was a National Socialist since he was made chancellor of Graz University in 1939. Furthermore, in a letter to Birnbaum dated August 29, 1984 Freimark states that Reichelt, “after his return to Graz  later in 1933, D. B., greatly rejoiced that the Brownshirts were now in power.” (“dass Reichelt nach seiner Rückkehr nach Graz ja auch den neuen braunen Machthabern zugejubelt hat.”) Walter Windfuhr wrote a very ambivalent report. This was all the more surprising, since in 1924 Windfuhr had asked Birnbaum’s permission to attend his lectures and in 1929 asked for his professional help, so he obviously valued Birnbaum’s scholarship. Freimark could not determine why Windfuhr had written such an ambiguous and damaging report. Rainer Hering has since shown that Windfuhr had, starting in 1919, publicly expressed antisemitic views. Again, Birnbaum had to withdraw the Habilitation thesis.

Birnbaum and his colleagues

In his account, Dr. Freimark writes that it is surprising that Birnbaum is not bitter about what happened to him, but “remembers his colleagues with gratitude.” “I did not know any of the names  of the people on the board, D. B. much less their individual comments, opinions or arguments,” Birnbaum wrote on December 18, 1983. So we see that while Birnbaum may have suspected that antisemitism had played a role in these rejections, only Freimark’s investigation on the two Habilitation processes shed light on likely reservations against Birnbaum derived from antisemitic attitudes of some of the board members. Nevertheless, Birnbaum’s tone when writing about his experiences with Windfuhr is highly sarcastic.

In remembering the support from his colleagues, Birnbaum presumably is also referring to the support he received in early 1933 for his proposed Institutum Germano-Judaicum (later Institutum-Ascenezicum) for Yiddish language research and other Ashkenazic studies. 60 scholars, mainly in German or related linguistic fields, whom Birnbaum had chosen specifically because they were not Jewish, gave their support, many of them accompanied by “letters expressing their hearty approval of the idea” even in March 1933, and even though a number of them were convinced Nazis. In 1964 Walter Röll, at that time at the University of Hamburg, invited Birnbaum to lecture again. However, Birnbaum was not able to accept that invitation. It was also Röll who was instrumental in arranging for Birnbaum to be awarded a PhD honoris causa at Trier University in 1986, at the age of 95. The President of Hamburg University sent Birnbaum congratulatory letters in 1971 and 1986, on his 80th and 95th birthdays. After 50 years, the wheel had come full circle.

As Birnbaum stated, in his time at Hamburg University Birnbaum seems to have encountered, so far as he knew at the time, very little antisemitism there. However, National Socialism spread very quickly. As he writes in his letter (p. 3), “there was no longer any place for Jews in Germany.” A letter from Dean Küchler of the Faculty of Philosophy, dated on May 18, 1933 states that Birnbaum’s course for the next semester was cancelled, since no students had signed for it. Birnbaum was at that time already in Rotterdam.

Select Bibliography

Peter Freimark, Juden an der Hamburger Universität, in: Eckart Krause et al. (ed.), Hochschulalltag im Dritten Reich. Die Hamburger Universität 1933-1945, Berlin / Hamburg 1991, pp. 125-147.
Rainer Hering, Sprache und Kultur des Judentums, in: Nationalismus - Walter Windfuhrs Lehrtätigkeit an der Hamburger Universität, in: Zeitschrift des Vereins für Hamburgische Geschichte, 80 (1994), pp. 141-151
Salomo / Solomon A. Birnbaum, Institutum Ascenezicum, in: Erika Timm / Eleazar Birnbaum / David Birnbaum (eds.), Salomo A. Birnbaum: Ein Leben für die Wissenschaft / A Lifetime of Achievement. Vol. 1, Berlin / Boston 2011, pp. 297-304.

Selected English Titles

Salomo / Solomon A. Birnbaum, Institutum Ascenezicum, in: The Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook (XVII) 1972, pp. 243-249.
Christopher Hutton, Linguistics and the Third Reich, London / New York 1999.

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.

About the Author

David Birnbaum has been Director of the Nathan and Solomon Birnbaum Archives, Toronto since 1989, and has published a number of works. He is the youngest son of Salomo Birnbaum. Born in London, England in 1933, he was trained at London University as both an architect and city planner, and practiced both professions in England and in Canada, before assuming Directorship of the Archives.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

David Birnbaum, Salomo Birnbaum's experiences at Hamburg University, in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, August 22, 2018. <> [September 26, 2018].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.