The story begins in the mid-19th century when the so-called “Pfennigsche Villa,” named after Hamburg merchant Ferdinand Pfennig, who had commissioned the building, was built on Hartungstraße. In 1904 the “Logenheim” society bought the building, and the Henry Jones-Lodge (chaired by Gustav Tuch) moved in after major remodeling. Two other Jewish lodges, the Hamburg Society for Jewish Folklore Hamburgischer Verein für jüdische Volkskunde and the Hamburg Association for Jewish History and Literature Hamburgischer Verein für jüdische Geschichte und Literatur, were among the other organizations finding a home in the building, which soon turned into a center of Jewish life in Hamburg. Due to the Great Depression the building was sold in 1930 to the Hamburg Anthroposophical Building Society Bau-Verein Hamburger Anthroposophen, but Jewish institutions were able to continue to use the space for cultural events. Five years later the Anthroposophical Society Anthroposophische Gesellschaft was banned nationwide by the National Socialist regime and the building was cleared and sealed. Since the property was mortgaged to the Jewish congregation, there was no interested buyer. Eventually the Gestapo offered the congregation the “option to buy” the building.
Thus the Jüdisches Gemeinschaftshaus G.m.b.H. was born on February 1st, 1937. The purchase had become possible due to a large fundraising campaign, the success of which was largely the work of Max Moritz Warburg. A partner in the banking house M. M. Warburg & Co., he was considered one of the most important bankers of his time.
The project was by no means uncontroversial, and it faced various obstacles, as Warburg mentions in his speech. Citing the fact that Jews were increasingly driven out of the country and a supposedly diminished interest in cultural events, its critics mainly took issue with the project’s high cost. They also feared that the establishment of a Jewish community center would become the physical manifestation of the “intellectual ghetto” the community already found itself in. Meanwhile the project’s supporters, who prevailed in the end, particularly emphasized the psychological value. Under the protection of a Jewish institution, they argued, would emerge a social and cultural center that would serve as a “source of moral strength” and do its share to ensure that “Jewish people gather and become grounded, to find inner calm and a higher peace.”
The commission for the building’s extensive remodeling was given to renowned architects Fritz Block, Ernst Hochfeld, and Oscar Gerson. Banker Martin E. Goldschmidt served as executive secretary, and a 14-member advisory board was created under the supervision of attorney Rudolf Samson. In addition to a stage and theater, the building housed a library, a lecture hall, a restaurant, and a ninepin alley in the basement. These facilities were primarily intended for use by the Jewish Cultural Association Jüdischer Kulturbund, the Franz-Rosenzweig Memorial Foundation, and by smaller associations and committees.
In his speech, which received much attention, Warburg called the exclusion of Jews from many professions a heavy burden dampening all joy. Nevertheless it was important to face facts and not be crushed by one’s worries. Warburg went on to say that the establishment of the community center meant the creation of “a place of gathering, of uplift and thus also of affirmation and enjoyment of life.” It was the purpose of community to protect people from being “crushed by the everyday battles of life” and from getting lost “in murky air and unsettled goings-on.” Well aware that members of the Gestapo were present, he nevertheless explicitly pointed out the marginalization and humiliation of the Jewish population. Warburg even went one step further when he called the theater a “source of moral strength,” thus ascribing to the arts the power to create identity and inspire courage: “Whoever feels this truth will become free.” The fact that he underpinned this message with a quote from the “Prelude on Stage” out of “Faust”, thus ignoring the prohibition to perform or quote from Goethe on a Jewish stage, seems to have escaped the censors. Nor did they seem to notice that Warburg’s admonition to observe “the laws of our homeland” was in fact an identification with Germany in the name of all those present while Warburg also asked visitors not to park their cars on Hartungstraße and that they enter and leave the building quietly so they would remain invisible to the center’s non-Jewish neighbors. It took him only three words to describe the German Jews’ situation at the time both accurately and provocatively.
Since its foundation in 1934 the Jewish Cultural Association Jüdischer Kulturbund had become the only place where many of those affected by National Socialist persecution could satisfy their cultural needs thanks to its artistic variety, albeit on a limited scale. While it did serve as a refuge for a community of the marginalized, the Cultural Association Kulturbund untiringly confirmed its will to defy the physical and psychological attrition of its members by engaging with Western arts and culture. In a community such as the Cultural Association Kulturbund it was always possible to communicate on two levels, i. e. to utter words and at the same time express what remained unsaid by other means, thus engaging in a kind of subversive communication about one’s existing circumstances. As in other dictatorships, theater had assumed the role of an outlet.
A look at the program put together by the Jewish Cultural Association Jüdischer Kulturbund confirms this assessment. One example was Richard Beer-Hofmann’s drama “Jaakobs Traum” [“Yaakov’s Dream”], which makes reference to the Old Testament and tells the story of the chosen people of Israel. In September 1935 – simultaneous with the passing of the Nuremberg Laws – it opened the Cultural Association's Kulturbund theater season. Hamburg’s Jewish audience could hardly have been confronted with the topics of Jewish identity and Jewish fate in a more striking and visionary way. The fact that this theatrical provocation was barely noted by the censors does not diminish its significance as a public act of revolt and a comment on political reality. Another example was dancer and choreographer Erika Milee, whose choric dance performance, “Der Sieg der Makkabäer” [“The Victory of the Maccabees”], went far beyond the historical dimension to become a timeless symbol of revolt against any form of repression. The fact that a classical drama such as “Hamlet” expressed the mood of both artists and audience is documented by the extensive press coverage prior to and after its performance. The staging of this Shakespeare play in particular showed that the artistic self-image of those in charge of the Cultural Association Kulturbund, who refused to omit the central soliloquy, “To be, or not to be,” was able to prevail against the intellectual blindness of Berlin censors. The plays of comedic playwright Franz Molnar, too, criticized the contemporary circumstances forced upon the Jews. The great success of Willy Hagen’s programs demonstrates to what extent this cabaret artist became the voice of his large audience despite repeated censorship.
In January 1939 National Socialist authorities withdrew the Cultural Association Kulturbund Hamburg’s status as an independent association. The institution itself, including the community center, continued to exist, however. Now a branch of the national organization Jewish Cultural Association in Germany Jüdischer Kulturbund in Deutschland based in Berlin, the center hosted guest performances by the Berlin theater ensemble, chamber concerts, variety shows, and especially film screenings. On September 11, 1941 the Jewish Cultural Association in Germany Jüdischer Kulturbund in Deutschland was dissolved by the Gestapo and its assets liquidated. A few weeks later the community center on Hartungstraße was turned into an office for provisions and supplies for the beginning deportations. On July 11, 1942 it became a collection point for one of the transports from Hamburg to Auschwitz. After the Allied bombings and the partial destruction of the city’s theaters in 1943 the building became the makeshift home of the Thalia Theater, and nine months later it became the location of the “Ufa-Kammerspiele” as part of the total mobilization.
On May 10, 1945 the building was confiscated by the British military government. The Army Welfare Service established a cabaret in it, but in July of the same year Hamburg’s cultural authority filed a request that the building be made available for staging Kammerspiele intimate theater. This initiative was launched by Jewish actress Ida Ehre who, with major support from British theater officer John Olden, was looking for a venue to stage plays about “human problems and global problems”. The request was granted and Ida Ehre became the leaseholder of the Jüdisches Gemeinschaftshaus G.m.b.H. On December 10, 1945 the Hamburger Kammerspiele theater opened with a performance of Robert Ardrey’s play “Leuchtfeuer” Beacon. Ida Ehre’s “theater of humanity” Theater der Menschlichkeit, which was meant to be dedicated to international reconciliation, almost literally quoted the hope expressed by Max Moritz Warburg in his 1938 inaugural speech at the Jewish community center: the program notes of December 1945 state that theater must “serve only one purpose, the purpose of all true art: to seek the eternal truths and give expression to them.”
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Barbara Müller-Wesemann, Dr. phil, was until 2009 research assistant at the Zentrum für Theaterforschung and lecturer at the institute for german language and literature studies II of the university of Hamburg. She was the co-founder of the festival for new directors Die Wüste lebt (1996-2002) and was drafting the Körber Studio Junge Regie, which she is co-organising since 2003.
Barbara Müller-Wesemann, Self-Assertion and Spiritual Resistance. The History of the Jewish Community Center in Hamburg (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, June 08, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-136.en.v1> [April 21, 2021].