Photographs belong to a household like shoes, chairs and tables. They show people, places, special moments. But can photographs, whether in albums, crates or boxes, tell us anything new or different? This is the question we are investigating with our online exhibition “(Hi)stories in Images. Jewish Private Photography in the 20th Century”. It is about the act of photographing (when are which photos taken and why?), with the preservation and survival of photographs, and finally with the use of photographs as sources for historians. Despite the “visual turn” in history, i.e. the turning to visual sources such as film and photography, (private) photographs are still rarely used in research compared to letters, diaries and official documents. Against this background, the exhibition should also be seen as an attempt to show that image sources can enrich and broaden our perspective on German-Jewish history.
The images stem almost exclusively from the archives of the Institute for the History of the German Jews (IGdJ) and were reviewed by Sylvia Necker in the context of her research project “German-Jewish Family Albums and the Narration of Identities from Imperial Germany”, which she is working on as part of the AHRC-funded joint project “Photography as Political Practice in National Socialism” at the University of Nottingham.
While the vertically arranged stations present different image sources – from a randomly surviving single photograph to consciously arranged memory albums and icons – the horizontal level selects examples to show possible ways of interpreting and learning.
Working with private photographs as sources is full of surprises. The material is often found in crates and boxes in which there are not only photographs – whether loose or in albums – but also other things like letters, documents and books, especially if the material comes from private sources. Even in archives and museum collections, however, there are records that survive with very little contextual information and are often only poorly indexed. Working with this unusual form of sources holds challenges and great opportunities. The material forms the starting point in the search for the history (and stories) behind it. Often the search remains without result, because contrary to the work with a coherent collection of written sources in an archive, the research often ends in a dead end. Open questions can no longer be answered because the photographers or the persons depicted can no longer be asked and context information is missing. Nevertheless, these sources can also be made to speak, as the first example, individual photographs of the Neustadt family, shows.
In 2018, my colleagues at the IGdJ drew my attention to a large cardboard box in the basement of the institute when I began searching for material in Hamburg as part of my Nottingham research project on “Jewish Family Albums And Photographs 1890-1960.” It contains letters, photos, albums, postcards and an embroidery with the name “Ilse Neustadt” (pictured right). The first time I rummaged, I came across documents that testify to the friendship of two Jewish families in Hamburg and Berlin: the Neustadts and the Frankensteins. Some photos had already been identified and were tagged with yellow Post-its, presumably before being donated to the IGdJ. Other documents are undated and hard to decipher. However, two of the Neustadt family photo albums are interesting for this online exhibition even without more detailed context information.
One of the two photo albums is dedicated to a trip to Italy. Travel albums were a very typical genre among (upper) middle-class families, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. As in the following example of the von der Porten family album, there also are recurring motifs in the case of the Neustadt family. On the one hand, the albums – apparently imitating motifs from contemporary magazines – contain many landscape photographs. The “man in front of car in front of landscape” motif is very common. On the other hand, these albums document visits to travel destinations typical for the educated German middle class of the time: for educational purposes, they visited medieval German cities such as Nuremberg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber or Heidelberg as well as Italian or Greek cities, often preselected by the most precise study of the Baedeker. The Alps are also popular as an object of study for the beauty of the landscape. These motifs can also be found in the Neustadt family album: on the left page one of the photos is labeled “Florence,” bearing the interesting caption “In Florence under palm trees the Baedeker is studied.”
A somewhat earlier album, created in the years around 1905, mainly shows photos of Ilse Neustadt. The letters and postcards found in the box show that as a young woman she attended a horticultural school in Othmarschen in the west of Hamburg. In this case the album might serve as starting point for further research. Could the album be used to tell a partial story of emancipation? Perhaps under the title “Being more than just a daughter?” That would be a typical approach for historians: To use image sources to confirm already existing narratives. But are other narratives possible? At this point I have reached a dead end, and I would have to continue researching in order to link the album, which was created in the German Empire, with the existing written sources and the themes of “Jewish emancipation of women in the German Empire” or “Jewish upper middle-class families in Hamburg.”
Auguste Friedburg's album is in the IGdJ's archive and, according to the enclosed letter, was donated to the institute by a Hamburg doctor whose parents had been close friends with Friedburg. The letter is not dated and apart from the letter there is only the album in landscape format with roughly A4-sized pages. The letter contains only a few key data of Friedburg's biography, it mentions neither the exact date of birth nor the date of death. Research in the archive of the Yad Vashem memorial revealed that Friedburg was born in Hamburg in 1890 and deported to Theresienstadt on July 19, 1942, where she died the same year. The album itself provides no information about her Jewish origin. It is an album compiled by a radiology nurse who served on the Western front during the First World War. The mere fact that the album still exists today, because Friedburg gave it to her friend, the doctor's mother, shortly before her deportation in 1942, makes it interesting as an object of investigation into Jewish private photography. The photographs are neither “Jewish” nor do we know whether Friedburg defined herself as Jewish. The “rescue” of the album refers to the (subjective) memory value of these photographs and at the same time to Jewish (persecutory) experiences in National Socialism. For this reason, it was selected for a chapter in the online exhibition.
The album of Auguste Friedburg – her initials are on the album cover (on the left) – is a good example for private albums as a source in several respects. Due to the small amount of context information, as researchers we depend on the album itself and its materiality in order to make it usable for research. First of all, when leafing through it, one notices that Auguste Friedburg did not arrange the album chronologically. The captions repeatedly jump back and forth during the war years 1915 to 1918. The prints also vary in quality and size. Friedburg probably exchanged photos or received some from other nurses, doctors, and soldiers and then pasted them in. Especially in soldiers’ albums of the First and Second World War exchanged photos were very common. This also means that, in contrast to most family albums, not one person takes photographs here, but this source has many authors. Moreover, there is another layer of time in this album: many photos showing Friedburg, like the one on the right, are marked with an x using a ballpoint pen, while the captions probably written by Friedburg used ink. The ballpoint pen markings probably date from the time after 1945. It is possible that Friedburg's friend, who received the album shortly before Friedburg's deportation in 1942, drew them in.
In addition to its materiality, the content of the album is also interesting, since it provides insight into the everyday life of a radiology nurse during the First World War. We know nothing about the exact locations where she served or about the technical equipment of the hospitals. However, Friedburg's album contains some photos that show the technical equipment necessary for the X-ray process and offer an additional perspective on the connection between war and technology.
Apart from technical aspects, Friedburg shows her everyday life as nurse in a radiology department and in general practice, which we already know from other albums: for example, from the album page with a picture of a hospital as well as a patient transport (photo above). The album page showing a man with a tattooed upper body is quite unusual. This view of everyday life during wartime, which also shows unusual and surprising things, makes this album a special source. Especially when these photos are unexpectedly presented next to portraits of Friedburg and an official photo showing the conquest of Brest Litovsk according to its caption. The latter photo probably is one of the exchanged photos, because all other photos in the album show the Western front.
In many albums, including this one, soldiers and nurses documented views of the cities to which the war took them. They show the “tourist” aspect of the war. Many of these photos show romantic cityscapes, but also majestic landscapes. A special form of landscape shots are photos of trenches, which often show the landscape in highly aestheticized form and after battle. Similar pictorial compositions also appear in contemporary painting in reaction to the consequences of the First World War. The photos in Friedburg's album, on the other hand, are rather prosaic and documentary by comparison.
The collection from the estate of the von der Porten family is a good example of records surviving in crates and boxes as mentioned in the beginning. In addition to photo albums, letters, speech manuscripts and poems by the family, but above all by Ernst von der Porten, who was born in Hamburg in 1884, have survived. The extensive biographical information available on him is rather rare: Von der Porten came from a family that had lived in Hamburg and Altona since 1630, went to the traditional Hamburg Johanneum grammar school and received his doctorate in medicine from the University of Heidelberg in 1908. Three years later, he opened a practice as a general practitioner in his house at Mittelweg 112 and at the same time conducted research on anesthesia, an field in which he became a specialist recognized throughout Europe. His research and everyday medical life are also reflected in the surviving photo albums, which document a typical educated middle-class life at the same time. It shows vacations with his three daughters Marianne, Irene and Gerda as well as the family’s apartment at Mittelweg 112 near the Grindelviertel, which had been the main residential area of Hamburg's Jews since the early twentieth century and in today’s culture of remembrance is known as Hamburg's “Jewish Quarter.” Among these records, which ideally depict the German-Jewish middle-class milieu in Hamburg, there is a special album dedicated to the youngest daughter, Gerda, which is the subject of this chapter.
In addition to medical treatises on Ernst von der Porten's fields of research, the collection also contains private documents such as menu cards for weddings and poems, which were read at family celebrations and which Ernst von der Porten had bound into a volume entitled “Dichtungen für die Familie” [Poetry for the Family] (left). They provide an insight into Hamburg’s liberal middle-class Jewry who had settled in the urban areas of Rotherbaum and Harvestehude since Emancipation and its legal regulation in 1861. Around 1900, about 40 percent of all Hamburg Jews lived in these districts, among them many doctors like von der Porten, lawyers, but also commercial and retail traders, although their businesses were usually located in the north-western part of the Grindelviertel, in the Bundesstraße, Hallerstraße, Rothenbaumchaussee or Moorweidenstraße.
The von der Porten family, like many well-off middle-class families, took summer vacations. North Sea and Baltic resorts were particularly popular with people from Hamburg. The vacation album of the von der Portens containing the Travemünde photos on the right, the lower one of which shows the three daughters Marianne, Irene and Gerda (from left to right) is also very typical in its composition. Especially the top photo is arranged as a family portrait, but it is a bit blurry because it was taken by an amateur. The obligatory family photo taken at the end of the vacation to bid farewell to it appears in many beach vacation albums. In addition to the beach photos, the von der Portens also picture other classical educated middle-class vacation destinations such as Heidelberg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and Nuremberg as well as numerous landscape photos, which are carefully arranged on the album pages. However, for Jews taking a beach vacation “as usual” came to an end by 1935 at the latest. As Frank Bajohr’s research has shown, by the mid-1930s widespread antisemitism in beach resorts had excluded Jewish bathers, even without an official decree.
This album is one of the few objects which bear a dedication. It allows us to reconstruct the purpose, recipient and maker of the album. In addition to two other photo albums and some personal documents like letters, poems and loose photos as well as some published writings by Ernst von der Porten, this album represents a surviving memory of the family. Ernst and Frieda von der Porten, who emigrated to Brussels via Zurich in 1938, fled to France after the German Wehrmacht troops marched into Belgium in May 1940. Ernst von der Porten was interned by the Vichy government, but was transferred to a hospital on September 3, 1940 due to his poor health. After Ernst was released in December, both he and his wife committed suicide on December 13, 1940. The middle daughter Irene had already died in January 1938. The youngest daughter, Marianne, who had been married to a Dutchman since 1940, was arrested in 1943 and interned in the Westerbork transit camp. From there she was deported in September 1944, first to Auschwitz, and a few weeks later to Bergen-Belsen, where she probably died of malnutrition and exhaustion in February 1945. The eldest daughter, Gerda, who went to Zurich in 1933 to study medicine, was the only one of her siblings to survive. She died in Schaan (Liechtenstein) in 1985.
The professional appearance and aesthetics of the interior photographs suggest that these photos were taken by a professional photographer. In addition to the purpose of creating a memory album for the daughter, this album is also in keeping with the tradition of documenting one’s own social status photographically. This type of album was popular among both Jewish and non-Jewish (upper) middle-class families since the late nineteenth century. It is also conceivable, however, that albums commissioned from photographers by Jewish families before their emigration – as was the case in Vienna with photographer Robert Haas – were meant to serve as documentation of one’s property for restitution proceedings or complaints to the transport companies. In the case of the von der Porten family, there is a written record of who carried out the move of their Hamburg furnishings to Brussels. Knowing the end of the story, this reading seems to suggest itself, but to my knowledge, so far none of the albums have been used in legal proceedings after 1945.
Nahariya, located in northern Israel eleven kilometers south of the border with Lebanon, was founded in 1934 by Jewish immigrants. By 1939, about one hundred families who had emigrated from Germany had settled in the newly founded city. Among them was Andreas Meyer, born in 1921 in Rheda, who was to make the city known through his colorfully stained “Nahariya glass.” In addition, the new settlement on the coast grew rapidly due to further immigration from Eastern and Central Europe. Meyer photographed the construction of the city, which mainly consisted of agricultural businesses in the first years. After his death in 2016, Meyer's children gave his photo archive to the Jeckes Museum in Tefen, not far from Nahariya. In addition to planning meetings, road construction work, the construction of huts and houses, and everyday life in Nahariya, Meyer also portrays his new, foreign homeland: A landscape in which he photographs Jeckes – Jews who had emigrated from Germany – wandering in the desert in a European suit, as well as the Arab villages surrounding Nahariya. His photographs, a few examples of which we present here, illustrate the desire to document and visually stage the development and pioneering achievements of the many emigrants and Zionists who migrated to the British Mandate of Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s.
The entirely new kind of life in a still foreign, albeit longed-for country was processed very differently by different people. While many of the inhabitants of Nahariya concentrated on building up the settlement, there were also some newcomers who struggled with the stressful climatic and politically uncertain conditions. The photos reflect the assumed contradiction between old and new homeland by the clash of living rooms with “German” furnishings and the habitus of still dressing in a suit – despite the heat in Palestine. Andreas Meyer’s photos also show the difficult arrival in the new country: the dusty streets, the unfamiliar food and the agricultural environment, which had nothing in common with the familiar urban world from which many of the immigrants came. His albums contain photos showing the loading of his removal container in Rheda, its unloading in Nahariya, and the furnishing of his home in his new homeland. Particularly impressive for this life in two still unconnected worlds is the photo of a “Jeckes,” who wanders through the barren landscape near Nahariya wearing a suit and carrying a suitcase. While there is no further contextual information about this photo, it can be read symbolically.
Many albums of Jews from Germany who immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine contain photos that document the “foreign,” the unfamiliar and the new. In 1938 Andreas Meyer created an album in which he recorded his personal impressions. In addition to many landscape shots from the Nahariya and Akko regions and city views of Jerusalem – including Jaffa Gate – and Jericho, Meyer's photos also show his Arab neighbors. In a series from 1948/49, in the midst of the Israeli War of Independence, during which Nahariya was bombed and at times cut off from the outside world, Meyer and Shaja Weiss, also from Nahariya, portray themselves among a group of Druze men. This picture taken with his Arab neighbors is indeed very rare, since most of the photos of this time are marked by a look “at” the unfamiliar people and not by a common perspective “with” them. It is usually an ethnographic view that has been widespread since the emergence of photography in the nineteenth century.
Between 1933 and 1936, about 30 percent of all Jewish emigrants from Germany decided to migrate to Palestine. Nahariya was particularly shaped by this immigration wave of the 1930s, the “Fifth Aliya” or also “German Aliya,” as Klaus Kreppel writes in his history on Nahariya. Immigrants from Germany generally belonged to the middle class and were also accepted by the British authorities because of their financial means. However, they were often no longer able to practice their previous occupations in commerce, trade and industry as well as in the liberal professions. Therefore, the “Central Office for the Settlement of German Jews” established in Palestine in 1933 tried to convince immigrants of the necessity to take up agricultural work. This was especially true for Nahariya, where attempts were made to implement the so-called Soskin Plan in the founding phase between 1934 and 1935. Selig Eugen Soskin, an agronomist and activist of the Zionist movement who immigrated from Russia, together with the settlement planner Joseph Loewy developed the plan of a parceled agricultural settlement with its own irrigation system, which is shown on the left. However, the plan failed due to the climatic conditions.
Meyer documented the first planning phase, which was characterized by a sense of optimism and euphoria. The European clothing seen in the photos stands out: white shirt, black trousers for men. The woman in the picture at the top right wears an elegant white and black dress that seems unexpected in an agricultural setting. The building brigade in the photo below right is dressed in a more rustic style, but Europe is also present here in the clothing style. Meyer's photos show a completely different picture from that promoted by the official picture production in the publications of the Jewish Agency and, after the founding of the state, of the Governmental Press Office, which show workers in khaki trousers and heroic poses, as recently shown in the exhibition “Fashion Statements. Decoding Israeli Dress” at the Israel Museum Jerusalem.
Meyer documented the arduous everyday agricultural life in countless photos – as can be seen on the right – which failed to achieve the yield envisaged by the Soskin Plan. Soon the inhabitants invested increasingly in skilled crafts enterprises and expanded the trade with agricultural products in order not to be dependent solely on production.
Only a few of Meyer’s photos speak the language of the previously mentioned official image production of the Jewish Agency in the 1930s, which wanted to establish the image of the cheerfully tanned settlers defying climatic conditions, especially since most of his photos look documentary and not posed. One exception is the photo on the left, in which a group of workers poses in front of a tractor in the field. The group of men, four of whom are very young, presents itself as a hands-on collective. The insignia of their work, such as the hammer and other tools, are placed in the foreground of the picture; the arms placed around each other demonstrate the cohesion of the group. Even though it is in the background, the tractor is still very prominent in the image’s iconography as a symbol of having moved beyond cultivation of the fields with horse-drawn ploughs. The fact that the tractor driver in a cap is not entirely visible, even though he is in the middle of the picture in perspective, makes the picture more of a snapshot than a choreographed postcard motif.
Hamburg was one of very few Jewish communities in Germany to include a Persian Jewish community, consisting of about 150 Jewish families who had come from Iran to Hamburg after 1945. A large number of the Persian families were active in the Oriental rug trade in the Speicherstadt. These merchants were also great promoters of religious life within the Jewish community. The re-establishment of the community, the construction of a synagogues at Hohen Weide in the Eimsbüttel district, and the social and cultural life in the community's facilities are documented in the private photographs of the Persian Jewish community, which is currently the subject of a research project at the IGdJ. They need to be understood as part of a larger photographic tradition, which developed in the postwar decades in the important German Jewish community centers in Berlin, Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg, as members of the community as well as hired photographers recorded community life – Purim festivals, birthdays, Shabbat celebrations, high holidays and committee work. In addition to examples from the Persian-Jewish community of Hamburg, this chapter also shows photographs from the Vienna community that Margit Dobronyi took privately over decades. Both examples provide insight into a Jewish life after 1945 that was invisible for a long time, and they represent a rare expression of a pictorial memory largely unknown to non-Jewish society.
Six photos from private collections give an insight into the community life of Persian Jews in Hamburg. While research on Jewish communities in Germany has mainly relied on written sources so far, these photos provide different insights. Even without further contextual information about who is shown in the photos, we learn something about how this community held celebrations, for example from the color photo of the children celebrating Purim or the wedding parties (both in black and white). Specific features that go beyond the community, such as the analysis of fashion, could be an approach to telling other stories and reflecting on the relationship between the community and non-Jewish urban society. The Jewish Museum in Berlin now systematically collects private photographs of Berlin communities after 1945, as does the Jewish Museum in Vienna. At the same time, the limitations and the dilemma of interpreting photos as historical sources based on their materiality and visual information alone become evident. In order to explain the importance of the members of the Persian Jewish community and their contribution to the Hamburg’s economic life, additional contextual information and sources are required.
In 2004, the Jewish Museum Vienna acquired the archive of the photographer Margit Dobronyi, which contains more than 200,000 negatives. Margit Dobronyi started as an amateur after 1945 to document private and official celebrations in Vienna’s Jewish community. Her friendly imperative “Ein Foto, bitte!” [A photo, please!] was notorious, and over the decades has led to the documentation of a wide variety of aspects of Jewish life. Dobronyi photographed weddings, bar mitzvah celebrations, private and community organized Purim celebrations as well as community activities such as lectures, classes at the Talmud Torah School and charity events. The photos from Hamburg and Vienna are quite similar, but there is still a lack of research that approaches these sources from a perspective within the Jewish communities after 1945 using a visual history approach.
The final chapter of the exhibition deals with the intersection of private photography and the public sphere in the culture of remembrance and differs markedly in its materiality from the previous chapters. It features private digital photographs, but these were produced for public display on platforms such as Instagram and others, and not for an album that only a few friends see. And this chapter deals with the relationship between historical and contemporary digital photographs.
Historical photographs of the Bornplatz Synagogue, destroyed in 1938 during the November pogroms, have been established as a cipher for “Jewish Life in Hamburg” or rather as an icon for the history of Jews in the city. Precisely because the square now renamed Joseph-Carlebach-Platz – to some extent, this was the topographical culmination of the Grindelviertel being coded as a “Jewish quarter” – remained empty in 1988 due to the design of artist Margit Kahl, historical photographs now fulfill the task of visualizing and iconizing Jewish life worlds. In addition to historical photographs, however, the aforementioned contemporary digital photographs from private sources which are circulated on digital platforms such as Twitter and Instagram are gaining more and more importance, since they show the many layers of both dealing with the Nazi past and the redesign of the square. The frequent documentation of today's Joseph-Carlebach-Platz can be interpreted as a replacement for the destroyed Bornplatz and increasingly overlays the historical “photo layer.” The fact that the official memorial site, the “Platz der jüdischen Deportierten” [Place of the Deported Jews] near the Dammtor, did not make it into the private and public visual memory of the city of Hamburg makes it even more interesting.
As in all German cities, the commemoration of the victims of National Socialist crimes in Hamburg was not without controversy. It was only in 1953 and after bitterly fought discussions that associations of survivors of the Neuengamme concentration camp who fought for the memory of those murdered there were able to erect the first small memorial site and mount a memorial plaque on the former camp site in Neuengamme, which developed into a larger ensemble of memorial sites in the following decades. The remembrance of Hamburg’s Jewish history and its places in the city, on the other hand, did not begin until the 1980s as a result of local research into the “Jewish” Grindelviertel. Until then, only a rather hidden plaque commemorated the synagogue that had been destroyed in 1938. In 1943, a bunker had been erected on the site and after 1945 it was used as office space by the university. The plaque depicted here has existed since 1988 and was part of the remodeling measures that transformed the site, which had previously been used as a parking lot, into a memorial site. With it came the renaming to Joseph-Carlebach-Platz, named after the influential Hamburg Rabbi Carlebach, who was deported to Riga with his family and murdered there in 1942.
Planning for the redesign of the square began in the mid-1980s. Finally, the design by sculptor Margit Kahl that translated the vaulted ceiling of the destroyed Bornplatz Synagogue into a floor mosaic was selected for realization. Hardly discernible as such when standing on the square, Kahl's design nevertheless impressively manages to make the void visible and perceptible. The monument by Ulrich Rückriem on the “Platz der jüdischen Deportierten” [Place of the Deported Jews] erected five years earlier works in a similarly abstract manner. In 1941, the site served as a central “collection point” for deportations before Hamburg’s Jews were taken to the Hannoverscher Bahnhof Railway Station in the port area. The works of Kahl and Rückriem did not go uncriticized. According to the critics, their abstract appearance prevents emotional identification with the victims. In the meantime, these forms have become part of an aestheticization of commemoration, which has replaced the older, more plastic forms such as railway cars at most memorial sites.
Since 2004, an additional commemorative plaque has been added to Joseph-Carlebach-Platz. Erected by a private initiative, it also symbolizes increasing competition and the coexistence of urban and private commemoration in urban space. In contrast to the work by Margit Kahl commissioned by the city of Hamburg, the stela in the form of an advertising board (donated by an advertising company) uses concrete forms: black-and-white photographs show the shape of the historical site. Interior and exterior photographs make the destroyed synagogue imaginable again, while Kahl focuses on the very memory of the void. The photos are supplemented by an explanatory text. Interestingly enough, all existing commemorative plaques are only in German, which does not make orientation any easier for visitors from abroad.
In 2018, the 11th grade of the Joseph Carlebach School located in the building of the former Talmud-Torah-Realschule in the immediate vicinity of the former Bornplatz synagogue, together with two other school projects, won the Margot-Friedländer-Prize. As part of their project “Nur gemeinsam geht ERINNERN - BEGEGNEN – RESPEKTIEREN” (“REMEMBERING – ENCOUNTERING – RESPECT only happens together”), the students developed an app which, among other things, allows users to walk through the Bornplatz synagogue by means of a digital visualization. It can be called up with a QR code, which is placed next to the existing commemorative plaques at Joseph-Carlebach-Platz, and forms another layer of memory that is stored on the square. It is one of the few examples of a design by younger people, who are not exactly overrepresented in the urban culture of remembrance with their new ideas.