in the garden

 

Mar 2007 Journal

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Two faces of a German city: Hamburg

Hamburg, the proud Hanseatic city looking out north-west towards Britain and the Atlantic, boasts a liberal, Protestant outlook as far removed in spirit from Catholic Munich, away to the south-east, as it is by geography. But Hamburg's reputation as a bastion of opposition to National Socialism has led it to brush the less savoury aspects of its past between 1933 and 1945 under the carpet, as if its vaunted liberalism absolved it of complicity in the persecution, expulsion and extermination of its Jewish citizens. Of all the major concentration camps in Germany, Neuengamme, outside Hamburg, is, typically enough, probably the least known.

That Nazism in Hamburg could be as inhuman as elsewhere was evident from the regime's earliest days, with the brutal treatment of its opponents that the Communist author Willi Bredel recorded in Die Prüfung, the semi-autobiographical account of his imprisonment in Fuhlsbüttel; where Hamburg's political prisoners were also Jews, as in the case of the murdered Social Democrat Fritz Solmitz, Bredel showed that they were subject to horrifying violence. After 1945, Hamburg chose to pursue the crimes committed in its institutions with notable lethargy: the authorities there showed little interest in prosecuting Willi Dusenschön, the man in charge when Bredel was incarcerated in Fuhlsbüttel, despite the seriousness of the offences for which he bore responsibility.

While Hamburg basked in the myth that Hitler had been unwelcome there, the city's Jews had experienced the contrary only too painfully. In an interview for the AJR's Refugee Voices project, Lily Crewe recalls vividly how she and her father were among the Jews ordered to leave Hamburg's opera house when the Führer arrived, lest their racially inferior presence tarnish the performance. The writer Robert Muller was haunted by the memory of what had befallen the beloved grandmother who brought him up in Hamburg - excluded from the society of her native city, bereft of the protection of the law, and finally ordered to report to the 'Sammelplatz Moorweidenstraße 15', where in December 1941 she became another statistic in the 'Final Solution'.

The indomitable Lucille Eichengreen, who survived Auschwitz and Neuengamme before she was twenty, found herself back in Hamburg, her home city, in autumn 1944. Her description of the appallingly brutal treatment that the Jewish women in her work detail experienced there is to be found in an exceptionally valuable volume on Jewish life in the Grindel district of Hamburg: Eine verschwundene Welt. Jüdisches Leben am Grindel, edited by Ursula Wamser and Wilfried Weinke (zu Klampen Verlag, 2006, ISBN 3-934920-98-5, €34).

Remarkably, the editors have succeeded in recreating the vanished world of Jewish life in the Grindel area, by weaving together documents, photographs, autobiographical accounts by former Jewish citizens of Hamburg, and testimonies by victims of the Nazis, many of whom did not survive. The extraordinary amount of detailed research that has gone into this book is the key to its success, for from the stories, painstakingly reconstructed, of often totally unknown Hamburg Jews emerges the overarching story of the city's Jewish community, from its days of confident ease to its destruction and the scattering of its survivors.

It is a pleasure to record the contributions by Hamburg-born Jews who escaped to Britain. These include Elizabeth Atkinson, née Flörsheim, who came via Holland and Palestine to settle in Cottingham, near Hull; Charlotte Stenham, née Cohn, who, as another Refugee Voices interview proves, still possesses the charm that she displayed as a small girl, biting into an apple in a pre-Hitler advertisement for fruit; and the late Paul Cohn, who spent seven years working in manual drudgery as a Kindertransportee, but rose to become Astor Professor of Mathematics at University College London. This splendid volume also contains, to take but one example, a wealth of detail about Hamburg rabbis who came to Britain: Paul Holzer, Bruno Italiener, and Joseph Carlebach and his son Julius, to whom religion and scholarship in both countries owe so much.
Anthony Grenville

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