The decisive step on the path to joining the majority society was initiated from the outside. On December 27, 1848 the Frankfurt National Assembly stipulated that all German states had to implement the Basic Rights, which included the emancipation of the Jews. In Hamburg it was enacted on February 23, 1849 when a “Provisional Decree for the Purpose of Introducing Article 16 of the Basic Rights of the German People with Regard to the Israelites” Provisorische Verordnung, behufs Ausführung des § 16 der Grundrechte des deutschen Volks in Bezug auf die Israeliten was passed. Jews were now able to acquire citizenship rights and benefit from the legal, political, and economic advantages that came with them. Since emancipation had been enacted by a discrete law in Hamburg, it could not be repealed there, as it was in all other German states in 1851. Hamburg’s new constitution of 1860 merely made some marginal changes to it.
“The exhilarating feeling of finally having reached, with the liberation from all civic and political obstacles, the goal of their hopes, efforts, and fights of many years has engendered the wish among the local Israelites to immortalize this event by a memorial conceived of in the spirit of our times and befitting the importance of said event.” With these words Coh(e)n opened his article. On the same evening of February 23 a group of merchants, bankers, and academics, among them John R. Warburg, Elkan Joseph Jonas, and Dr. Gotthold Salomon, met in order to celebrate emancipation. To commemorate this event for posterity, they decided to establish a foundation. That same evening, they established the Shilling Association for Free Housing Schillingsverein für Freiwohnungen for the purpose of its initial endowment. Riesser was among the first signatories of this project.
The initiators sought to pick up on an old, republican city-state tradition of civic public spirit by establishing a charitable foundation for free housing in order to emphasize the close ties Hamburg’s Jews felt to their hometown. Yet it was to be different from all other institutions of this kind. For they combined the tradition of Jewish social ethics with their democratic convictions and created an innovative hybrid of a foundation, an association, and a cooperative society. Their leading principles were religious parity, equality across all social classes, and an equal voice for both board and association members on the one hand and residents on the other hand. Since this foundation was conceived of as a “memorial” or a “monument” to emancipation, the initiators planned to first collect donations among Jews before asking the “larger public,” meaning Christian patrons, to join.
The foundation they planned was meant to lead “the destitute classes […] towards a better, more secure, more dignified future” and expand throughout the city in order to provide “entirely rent free apartments to most, maybe all needy residents of Hamburg for the entirety of their lives.” Yet Coh(e)n expressed more far-reaching goals when he expressed his hope “that our example will be emulated outside of this city as well.” The catalyst for the foundation’s mission was “the constant worry among penniless families for shelter and housing.” Caring for families was a high priority in Jewish welfare, and since Jews who had citizenship Bürgerrecht: The right of self-government; the precondition for acquiring civil rights was inherited real property, the swearing of a citizen's oath, and the one-time payment of "Bürgergeld" [citizenship fee]; members of the nobility were excluded from this; until 1814 citizenship was granted exclusively to members of the Lutheran church [see: Helmut Stubbe-da Luz, Bürgerrecht, in: Franklin Kopitzsch / Daniel Tilger (eds.), Hamburg Lexikon, Hamburg 1998), pp. 92f. could now acquire real property, the foundation aimed to build housing for needy families. It was intended for Jewish and Christian families in equal parts since Judaism extended charity to needy non-Jews as well.
Dr. Coh(e)n, the physician, diagnoses the housing shortage as “where the illness is located,” and he intended the foundation not just for the “healing [of] this area” but also for “the healing of the entire body,” hinting at far-reaching goals. In 1848/49 he had repeatedly emphasized the significance of an effective social welfare system for the envisioned democratic society in his speeches as a delegate to Hamburg’s constitutional assembly, the Konstituante. He could not foresee, however, that the housing shortage was to intensify to the point of becoming the core of the social question in Hamburg as a result of urbanization.
The foundation was not financed as usual by capital from a single donor. Instead capital was raised democratically by an association. Coh(e)n speaks of financing the foundation through a “perpetual weekly collection of shillings” among all its members and “a subscription of monetary donations, also perpetual.” This mode of raising capital, both unusual and unforeseeable for such an expensive type of foundation, was based on the intention of a consistent equality of religions and classes. Not only its board members and passive members, but also its residents were supposed to contribute to it. This illustrates an important goal of Jewish welfare, namely not to embarrass the recipients of charity and help them maintain their self-respect. The article’s political tenor becomes evident when Coh(e)n writes that the welfare of the Jews was intertwined with that of “all citizens” and that the “liberation of one class” should be understood as part of solving the great task: “to spread the blessings of an accomplished humanity among all our comrades in civilized states.” All over Europe, the March revolution had given rise to hopes for a civic, democratic social order, which initially failed politically two years later. By contrast, the emancipation of the Jews remained in effect in Hamburg, and the foundation could also be established despite all opposition.
The foundation’s innovative concept met with strong rejection from conservative members of the senate as well as from the General Institute for the Poor Allgemeine Armenanstalt, the semi-governmental facility for poor relief on a citywide level established in 1788 or 1814 that the initiators had consulted. Their plan was vilified as utopian and revolutionary. The internal files of the authorities involved also contain anti-Jewish language. Nevertheless the founders stuck to their plan and also found well-known Christian supporters such as Ferdinand Laeisz and Dr. Johannes Georg Andreas Versmann.
When the first of the foundation’s apartment buildings was ready for occupation in June 1851, a relief bearing the name “Foundation Commemorating the Civic Emancipation of the Israelites” Stiftung zum Andenken an die bürgerliche Gleichstellung der Israeliten was set into the wall above the entrance door. Not only had a “residue of the revolution” been established, as Jacob Toury retrospectively described the foundation, but in the following decades it was also expanded into the largest free housing project in Hamburg, comprising eleven buildings. On the initiative of its then newly elected chairman, John R. Warburg, the foundation’s name was changed 25 years later into “Hometown Foundation of 1876” Vaterstädtische Stiftung vom Jahre 1876. New buildings could be financed thanks to the outstanding willingness to donate among the Jewish middle class even though the number of Jewish residents decreased significantly in the following decades. This also proved that the idea of charity across religious divides had prevailed. Coh(e)n’s hopes for expansion were fulfilled in another way as well since passive members created numerous foundations with similar missions.
In 1849 the goals formulated in Coh(e)n’s “appeal” and the explanations following it might have seemed utopian to most readers as well. History has proved that they were as visionary as they were realistic. The founders eternalized a historically significant moment in the process of emancipation in the form of a modern foundation in which they incorporated both their experiences from Jewish welfare and the idea of a democratic social order for the benefit of all. By focusing on the central social problem of urbanization, the housing shortage, they enriched Hamburg’s tradition of charitable foundations. As the name “Hometown Foundation” Vaterstädtische Stiftung emphasizes, their hometown provided the reference point for this early civic foundation, and it continued to do so across all caesuras until the present day.
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Angela Schwarz, Dr. phil., is research assistant at the Ferdinand Beneke editorial project. Her dissertation was published in 2007, titled: "The History of the Hometown Foundation in Hamburg 1849 to 1945."
Angela Schwarz, The First Civic Foundation in Hamburg – Housing for Jews and Christians (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, August 15, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-32.en.v1> [September 27, 2021].