These two short letters touch on a number of issues that shaped Jewish life in postwar Hamburg and Berlin, and thus allow us to glimpse into a rich and tumultuous moment in time. Beyond his letter, we only have little information about Heinrich Alexander but we can see him and his concerns as to some extent exemplary for the small number of German Jews who decided to return from their places of exile after 1945. Heinrich Alexander most probably was the former owner of the Berlin-based furniture company “Möbel Alexander” and had lived in Saarbrücker Str. 10 See https://digital.zlb.de/viewer/image/34039536_1931_1932/123/ (last access: April 19, 2018) before his emigration.
Heinrich Alexander was one of the few Jews who chose to return to Germany. Only about 4 percent of circa 278.000 German Jews who had fled the country decided to go back after 1945. In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust most Jews outside Germany looked critically at the reconstruction of Jewish life in Germany. Repeated condemnations of returning to the “blood-soaked German soil,” caused those who wished to return to feel defensive about choosing to go back. Like most returnees, Alexander appears conscious that his choice to return was unusual. He justifies his decision by pointing to external circumstances, and explains that “the climatic circumstances forced [him].”
Alexander remains vague about his country of exile. He mentions having lived in the Middle East and he refers to harsh climatic conditions which suggests that he returned from Palestine / Israel. Especially Jews who left Palestine in order to resettle in Germany faced disapproval from other Jews both in Palestine / Israel as well as in Germany. If Heinrich Alexander indeed returned from Palestine in spring 1948, right around the time the Jewish state was founded, it would not be surprising that he avoided mentioning this in his letter.
According to his letter, Alexander wished to move from Berlin to Hamburg hoping that Hamburg would offer opportunities for his export business. Possibly he also pointed out his experience in export trade in order to receive support for a move to Hamburg. Beyond these economic considerations, he explained without providing much detail that Berlin was “spoiled for [him].” A return to the place in which they had faced discrimination and persecution proved difficult for many Jewish remigrants. For some the return to their former hometowns triggered traumatic memories, and the place could now only serve as a reminder of what they had lost. They preferred to resettle in a new place, even if they decided to live in Germany.
While he does not mention this explicitly, the political developments in Berlin may also have contributed to Alexander’s wish to move to the British occupation zone. According to the address on his letter Alexander lived in the Western part of the city which in fall 1948 was blocked off by the Soviets following a conflict over currency reform between the Eastern and Western Allies. The Western Allies succeeded in providing the West Berlin population with supplies by initiating the airlift. Still, as the one site in Germany where all four occupying forces directly confronted each other, Berlin was a focal point of Cold War tensions and many tried to leave the destroyed and economically isolated city. However, moving from one sector to another proved difficult which explains why Alexander turned to the Jewish congregation in the hope to receive help with his plan.
Probably in order to support his request Alexander briefly refers to his work experiences both during his emigration, and before the war. In his penultimate sentence he declares, without elaboration, “both I and my wife are full-Jews.” After the war surviving German Jews frequently used the Nazi terms of categorization such as “Volljude,” “Halbjude,” “Sternträger” ["full Jew," "half-Jew," "those who wore the star"] to describe themselves. This proved an easy way to convey their experiences in the last decade, and to stress their right to additional food rations. The categorization also reveals the contested nature of Jewishness in the postwar Jewish community. German Jewish leadership in general emphasized a religious definition of Jewishness after the Holocaust, and as a result, congregations turned away people who were of Jewish origin, but who had not registered with a Jewish congregation prior to 1945. Debates ensued, in particular regarding the status of non-Jewish partners and children in so-called “mixed marriages” [Mischehen]. With emphasizing that both he and his wife were “Volljuden” in his letter, Alexander separates himself from Jews who survived in a “mixed-marriage” [Mischehe], and he probably hoped that this would add weight to his request for relocation.
However, the head of the Hamburg Jewish congregation, Harry Goldstein, did not convey that he would be able to help Alexander. Moving from one city to another in occupied Germany was not simple, and as Goldstein stated, Alexander would need a residence permit for Hamburg which was difficult to obtain. Moreover, Goldstein explained that the housing situation was so abysmal that the congregation would at most be able to organize a room with access to a kitchen for Alexander. Indeed, with at least 14 million Germans homeless at the end of the war, and the destruction of much of the prewar housing stock, obtaining a house or apartment in a habitable state proved difficult. The situation was especially dire in big cities. In Hamburg Allied bombs had destroyed over 50 percent of the housing stock. Jews were in a particularly difficult situation. The Nazi had forced them out of their homes; even people who survived in a “mixed-marriage” [Mischehe] usually had to move to a Judenhaus [Jewish house]. After the war their former homes were bombed out or occupied by strangers, and they struggled with finding adequate housing. They received little support from German officials and frequently faced antisemitism when trying to find housing. Consequently many turned to Jewish congregations for support.
The correspondence ends with Goldstein expressing his regret that he could not be of more help. We do not know whether Heinrich Alexander succeeded in moving to Hamburg, remained in Berlin or chose to resettle elsewhere. Yet the two brief letters shed light on some of the myriad difficulties surviving German Jews faced in the aftermath of Second World War, touching on a mix of social, political, economic and personal issues. Like Alexander other Jews struggled with justifying their return to the “country of perpetrators,” faced economic difficulties and lack of housing, and saw themselves confronted with traumatic recollections in their former hometowns.
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Anna Koch, Dr. phil., has received her PhD from the Departments of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and History at New York University in 2015. She currently holds a postdoctoral research fellowship from the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah.
Anna Koch, A Difficult Return: A letter from a Jewish remigrant to the head of the Hamburg Congregation, in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, July 11, 2018. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-207.en.v1> [July 13, 2020].