A Sephardic synagogue in Altona
Sephardic synagogues - a comparison between Altona and Hamburg
After 1700, Sephardic Jews began to settle permanently in Altona. In 1770, just under 20 families lived here. That year, the Danish King Christian VII permitted their congregation Neve Shalom to build a synagogue and also exempted them from all taxes for this building and for the house of the synagogue servant. The congregation was able to dedicate its new building located at what was then Bäckerstraße 12-14 (today: Hoheschulstrasse) already in the following year, on September 6, 1771. The name of the architect or builder is not known. The wealthy merchant family Mussaphia Fidalgo, who were residents of Altona, is said to have supported the project financially. The finished building was a half-timbered house on a rectangular footprint that was 12.20 meters long and 7.35 meters wide. In the mid-1830s, and again in 1859, major reconstruction and renovation was carried out. In the former, the partitions – the masonry surfaces between the wooden frame structure – were plastered. The difference between these two elements can be clearly seen on the side facade of the model. Additionally, the west facade with the entrance was redesigned. A new wall was created in front of it with four pilasters – partial columns bricked into the wall – which now divided it and gave the building a late classicist appearance on this side. In the model, the break between this façade and the adjoining outer side wall can be clearly seen. Furthermore, it is clearly distinguished from the side wall, which still reproduces the half-timbered structure. The side facing the courtyard, on the other hand, shows a three-axis façade that centrally accommodates the entrance, which has been raised by two steps. It was additionally marked by a Hebrew inscription, not included in the model, and the date 5531 (1771), as well as the aforementioned royal monogram of Christian VII. Above it, two round-arched windows emphasize the entrance door: on the second floor it is high and staggered, in the gable it is flat and plain. According to the model, there were also windows on the left and right: each formed as a pair, they were rectangular in shape with arched panes at the end on the first floor and round-arched on the upper floor. Here they were placed at the level of the upper edge of the floor of the women’s gallery. The end of the façade was formed by a triangular gable, behind which a lower gable roof was hidden. Thus, although the façade was not particularly decorative, it was nevertheless representative. However, due to the location of the building, the view of the façade was reserved only for the immediate residents and members of the congregation.
The interior is said to have been equipped with nine large chandeliers after the synagogue’s dedication. The ceiling was designed as a flat barrel vault. In the course of the above-mentioned renovation work, the interior walls were probably also repainted in 1859. On a latticed gallery running around three sides, supported by four pillars, there were seats for the women. The ascent was possible via a staircase arranged in the east, which had its own entrance. In addition, there may have been a single window opening as a round arch on this side, located above the Torah shrine. Between it and the bimah (Torah lectern), which stood near the entrance to the west, an empty space remained; this is a characteristic of Sephardic synagogues. Another one is the arrangement of the seats for the men, which was located along the longitudinal walls. The furniture, according to various accounts, was late Baroque and elaborately designed.
In 1882, the Portuguese
congregation had to give up the building because it no longer had
enough members to regularly gather ten adult men to conduct
services. It sold it to the High
Israeliten-Gemeinde founded in
1611. The latter made changes to the arrangement of the
bimah and seating to adapt the room to the Ashkenazi rite and to use it as a
winter synagogue from 1887. The smaller interior was
presumably easier to heat than the prayer room of their actual synagogue, which
had been located on what was then
since 1684. The Sephardic
congregation formally dissolved in 1887.
Whether and if so to what extent the interior of the synagogue on Bäckerstraße was vandalized on November 9 and 10, 1938 remains unknown. Presumably, the attackers refrained from setting fire to the building due to its location in a backyard. It survived and had to be sold to the city in 1940, which had it demolished in the same year.
The heyday of Portuguese-Jewish congregations in Altona and Hamburg can be traced to the period between 1660 and 1780; more than 100 years in which they were able to establish themselves successfully as merchants, among other things. In Altona, the first isolated Sephardic families to settle in 1619/20 already enjoyed religious freedom; initially still under the Count of Holstein-Schauenburg, then from 1640 also under Danish rule. The parallel Ashkenazi High German Israelite Congregation Hochdeutsche Israeliten-Gemeinde was probably able to set up a synagogue on Mühlenstraße in the first half of the 17th century, which was possibly also used by the Sephardic Jews.
The situation for Sephardic Jews was more difficult in Hamburg compared to Altona: around 1612, about 150 of them lived there, organized into three congregations using three different prayer rooms, all of which were housed in private apartments. In 1652, they joined together to form the congregation Bet Israel and jointly used the prayer room in the apartment of Rodrigo Pires Brandao on Dreckwall (Alter Wall) – a street that runs parallel to the Alsterfleet in downtown Hamburg. The construction of a synagogue was denied them in the 17th and 18th centuries and could only be realized in the early 1830s. The building, dedicated in 1834, was also located in a backyard, at No. 50 Alter Wall, just a few meters from the congregation’s former prayer room, whose building and land had been forcibly sold a few years earlier. The synagogue, about which only a few details have survived, was destroyed as early as May 1842 in the great fire that engulfed several streets. Subsequently, the congregation used prayer rooms in different houses until it was able to dedicate its new building on Marcusstraße in the neighborhood of an already existing Jewish orphanage on September 6, 1855. This synagogue was again set up in a backyard and was barely visible from the street. Its interior is said to have had an impressive oriental / Moorish decoration with, among other things, floral motifs and ornamental patterns, as well as exceptionally good acoustics. Moreover, unlike the Portuguese synagogue in Altona, the building already incorporated the bipolar Sephardic spatial scheme in its architecture: Two parts of the room were created, each over a square base, with slight differences in size. The western, smaller one, housed the centrally located bimah, the pews for the men along the side walls, and the women’s gallery. The eastern part of the room was covered by a colored glass dome and also accommodated rows of seats along the walls, as well as two rows along the longitudinal axis. The only bench from which one could look directly at the Aron Hakodesh (Torah shrine) was located in the entrance area. The synagogue was the only Sephardic place of worship in Germany after the Portuguese congregation in Altona sold its building. It had to be abandoned in 1935 and was rented to the German-Israelite congregation until the end of 1939, then forcibly sold and destroyed in the 1940s. It is not possible to say with certainty whether it was demolished or destroyed as a result of bombing. The Portuguese congregation established a Sephardic center in a private villa at 37 Innocentiastrasse until 1939; the building subsequently served as a so-called Jewish house Judenhaus. It still exists and serves as a residence today.
Despite the different legal requirements and the time gap of almost 80 years between the dedications of the Bäckerstraße synagogue and the Marcusstraße synagogue, it is striking that both were built in a backyard location. On the one hand, this was not unusual, in fact it was true of many new synagogue buildings that were built in Germany until 1933. Until emancipation, this was partly due to legal restrictions, but was also intended to provide protection from antisemitic attacks. Buildings located along the streets often took on other functions of congregation life and its administration. However, since attention and research has focused primarily on the synagogues themselves, perceptions often underrepresent which uses the communities chose in the immediate vicinity of their synagogues and in which buildings. These congregation buildings often survived long after 1945 and were subsequently given other functions. Overall, such a building structure ensured less visibility of Jewish existence in urban spaces and remained a solution even after synagogue buildings became more splendid, conspicuous, and present in public with increasing assimilation. One of the best-known examples of this is the Rykestraße synagogue in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, which was dedicated in 1904 in a backyard and today seats 1,200. The first synagogue in Hamburg to be visible from the street, the Kohlhöfen synagogue of the Ashkenazi congregatiom, was built between 1857 and 1859; it was the predecessor of the Bornplatz synagogue dedicated in 1906.
More than 1,400 synagogues and prayer rooms were looted and partially or completely destroyed during the so-called November pogroms of 1938 in Germany and Austria by an antisemitic mob, including, among others, numerous members of the SA [literally “Storm Detachment”]. Sometimes the plots were cleared immediately afterwards, sometimes the ruins remained present in the townscape until the 1950s. In many other places, however, especially in rural areas, synagogues survived. They were converted and often rebuilt in the process. In the mid-1980s, they once again became the focus of public attention. In addition to numerous publications, the buildings or their remains were often given new functions as places of learning, museums and / or monuments and thus also gained a changed visibility in villages or urban areas. Unlike the mere placement of a commemorative or information plaque, the visualization of an actual building allows statements to be made about the size, division and arrangement of interior spaces, as well as relationships with the neighborhood. Nevertheless, due to the complete destruction of the large synagogues in most cities, the loss of their historical Jewish heritage remains and in some cases it is visible to this day as an actual void in the urban landscape. In the mid-1990s, a new approach developed: the Digital Design Department at Darmstadt Technical University reconstructed synagogues destroyed by the Nazis virtually. On the one hand, this was intended to make the loss visible, but also to provide a representative overview of the destroyed synagogal architecture. With the help of these reconstructions, it became possible to provide the public with spatial impressions of both the buildings themselves and their urban presence. So far, the project has focused mainly on destroyed synagogues in larger cities. In the future, the destroyed buildings will also be made “walkable” as part of a virtual reality experience.
For a synagogue like the one on Bäckerstraße in Hamburg, methods for generating 3D models and virtual reconstructions mean possibilities for conveying new approaches to history by making visible a building that has left no traces on site and is therefore not integrated into the urban landscape of memory. In the models, the information that is still available is gathered and translated into an image that allows for expanded notions of the space in its proportions, arrangements, and designs. At the same time, all these procedures leave no doubt that the immense loss and brutality of an attempted erasure have left voids in urban space as well. Unlike reconstructions of architecture itself, the medium remains present in 3D models. Whereas architectural reconstructions can create the impression of apparent continuity for the viewer, possibly obscuring historical ruptures, digital reconstructions are inscribed with the void by making an absent building – in this case the historic synagogue on Bäckerstraße – virtually tangible (without interfering with the urban landscape).
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Alexandra Klei studied architecture. Her dissertation at BTU Cottbus was about the relation between architecture and remembrance with a focus on the KZ memorial sites Buchenwald and Neuengamme. She is Research Assistant at the Institute for the History of German Jews in Hamburg where she works within the research project "Jewish Constructing" after 1945. Furthermore her research work is dedicated to the re-construction of the White City Tel Aviv, places of remembrance, architecture after 1945 and (post-)Holocaust-landscapes. Her book about the life an work of architect Hermann Zvi Guttmann was awarded with the Paul Arnsberg prize in 2016. She is also member of the editorial staff of the online-journal Medaon. Magazine für jüdisches Leben in Forschung und Bildung and curator for the werkraum bild und sinn e.V.
Alexandra Klei, Local Remembrance. The Sephardic Synagogue on Altona’s Bäckerstraße (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, January 18, 2021. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-274.en.v1> [April 01, 2023].