Legal scholar, politician, and political writer Dr. Gabriel Riesser served as vice president of the Frankfurt National Assembly and the Hamburg City Assembly, he was the first Jewish judge in Germany and author of numerous political writings. Not only was he one of the leading German politicians involved in drafting a constitution during the 1848 revolution, but he also was a champion of the political and civic emancipation of German Jews. During his own lifetime, Riesser was already considered a symbolic figure of Jewish emancipation and Liberal German Jewry.
In order to honor his life’s work and preserve the memory of his achievements, the Hamburg Bar Association and some close friends of Riesser’s funded a representative funerary monument after his death on April 22, 1863. The monument was designed by Albert Rosengarten (1810–1893) in a contemporary, neoclassicist style and was meant to reflect Riesser’s enormous, wide-ranging influence. It was unveiled during a ceremony held at Hamburg’s Jewish Grindel cemetery on October 22, 1865.
Hamburg sculptor Julius Lippelt had originally been chosen to design the monument for Riesser, but he died unexpectedly in 1864. A new draft for the design was submitted by architect Albert Rosengarten, who also oversaw the sculpture and stonemasonry work executed by Cologne sculptor Engelbert Peiffer and stonemason Julius Bromberg.
Even before its unveiling, the monument’s design had become the subject of a controversy within Hamburg’s Jewish community. The monument’s front shows a relief of a half-dressed female figure – presumably an allegory on “truth” – which corresponded perfectly to contemporary tastes in art, but violated halakhic religious law, which prohibits the portrayal of the human figure on headstones, graves, and in synagogues. In order to avoid hurting anyone’s religious feelings and at the same time appreciate the gift of the Hamburg Bar Association as a sign of their recognition, an exemplary compromise was made: the monument was installed backwards, so that the side bearing the relief was not facing Riesser’s grave.
Based on an order issued by the city of Hamburg in 1936, the centrally located Jewish Grindel cemetery was razed completely during the National Socialist period. By June 1937 the remains of those laid to rest there were exhumed and transferred to the Jewish cemetery at Ilandkoppel in Hamburg-Ohlsdorf, along with ca. 450 selected headstones (out of the overall ca. 8,000 stones). The remains were reburied in an anonymous mass grave that had been designed as a memorial grove Ehrenhain by architect Fritz Block. Riesser’s remains and his funerary monument, too, were moved to the so-called Grindel Memorial Cemetery Grindel-Gedenkfriedhof, where Fritz Block carried out a major redesign of the monument: he removed the low wall with its plinth-based corner posts that originally surrounded the monument on three sides, and the gabled roof was replaced by a flat one. The monument was placed in a very prominent location at the front end of the memorial cemetery that Block had conceived as a rectangular, landscaped enclosure, and it was framed by 16 simple and uniform memorial stones commemorating individuals of particular merit from Hamburg’s Jewish community.
Although Block had tried to adapt Riesser’s monument to the plain shapes of the surrounding memorial stones through his simplifying redesign, the monument still towered above the memorial stones and clearly stood out due to its striking design. The Portuguese-Jewish community saw this as evidence of Riesser’s being deliberately ranked higher than Hamburg’s famous rabbis and other spiritual leaders: their simple memorial stones were now literally overshadowed by Riesser’s monument. Moreover, the front side of the monument with its controversial relief was now once again turned towards the cemetery – just as in 1865, this gave rise to a controversy lasting for more than twelve months between the German-Israelite Congregation and the Portuguese-Jewish community that was in charge of the Ohlsdorf cemetery. No compromise was reached this time, however: demands by the Sephardic Portuguese community as well as suggestions by appointed mediators including turning or moving the monument, letting it be covered up by ivy, removing it, covering it up with cloth, etc. in order to satisfy halakhic laws were all rejected by the Liberal community – invoking existing public law. For Hamburg’s Liberal Jews, the monument represented not only an appropriate recognition of Riesser’s outstanding historic significance for the Jews’ position in the 19th and 20th centuries: funded in part by donations from the Hamburg Bar Association, it also testified to the respect and appreciation the Jew Gabriel Riesser enjoyed among the Christian majority society, which became particularly meaningful in times of repression and persecution.
In light of drastically intensifying political repression against German Jews in National Socialist Germany, the debate within the Jewish community about the Riesser monument became less significant after 1938 and eventually ended. The conflict about the monument’s placement and design has never been resolved, and it has kept its prominent place in the memorial grove of the historic Grindel cemetery to this day.
Over time Gabriel Riesser’s funerary monument underwent several restorations and architectural changes. Those made by Fritz Block in 1936 changed the design most radically. The monument had previously undergone restoration in 1905, when the weather-damaged, light-colored marble Corinthian capitals were replaced by less vulnerable bronze copies. At an unknown later date – most likely in the 1940s – these, too, were removed and replaced with provisional, Romanesque stone capitals. Due to an initiative by Prof. Peter Freimark and Irmgard Stein of the Hamburg Institute for the History of the German Jews, the monument was restored completely in 1985 as part of a historic landmark protection project carried out by the Hamburg senate. After the Corinthian capitals and the gabled roof with acroteria were restored, the monument in large part now once again appeared as it had before 1936.
Today, Riesser’s funerary monument is considered one of Hamburg’s most significant monuments. Its particular value as an (art) historical source stems not only from its reference to the extraordinary life and work of Gabriel Riesser and the great appreciation he enjoyed among broad circles among both the Jewish and non-Jewish population, but mainly from the many turns in the history of its conception and reception. The monument’s materiality, aesthetics, and its several redesigns all reflect changing contemporary tastes in art, which were also to a large extent subject to political developments – for example, when National Socialist authorities ordered the removal of the Grindel cemetery in 1937. The monument’s 1985 restoration to its pre-1936 state commissioned by the Hamburg senate also is of particular significance in this context since the monument thus became testimony of a changed understanding of history and a critical culture of remembrance. When analyzing the monument and its neoclassical relief from an art historical point of view, its most striking aspect is the obvious contrast to traditional Jewish grave symbolism that also lay behind the monument’s controversial reception.
The monument tells the story of a conflict within the Jewish community that appears as an internal argument between Hamburg’s Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities at first sight only. For the controversies unfolding around the monument reflect the opposing forces and the deep rift within the German-Jewish population that faced the question of Jewish identity ever more urgently in times of increasing threat, insecurity, marginalization, and persecution. While Riesser’s funerary monument was considered a hopeful symbol of Jewish emancipation and social recognition in a majority Christian society by representatives of Liberal Judaism, conservative movements sought to counter assimilation and the feared loss of Jewish self-assurance and spiritual certainty with a traditional lifestyle and strict adherence to religious law.
The Riesser monument shows in exemplary fashion how a single source can be read on several different levels of interpretation and thus provides access – by using the specific to point to the general – to various biographical, artistic, historical, social, and political discourses.
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Annabelle Lienhart, M.A., studied history and German studies in Hamburg. She has worked as a freelance historian in various editorial and digitalization projects. Since 2016, she is research fellow at the Historical Department of the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Memorial.
Annabelle Lienhart, The Funerary Monument for Dr. Gabriel Riesser at the Jewish Cemetery on Ilandkoppel / Hamburg Ohlsdorf (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, March 22, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-26.en.v1> [October 21, 2021].