We take a walk in Hamburg that vividly brings to life the Jewish experience
It begins to drizzle as historian Marco Kuhnert arrives for our walking tour through Hamburg’s former Jewish Colony. Much to our disappointment, our pens, books and cameras have to be hurriedly put away before the downpour starts. Now, we are armed only with our minds.
We begin outside the office of Abgeordnetenwatch in Mittelweg and walk towards Grindelviertel, just over a kilometre away; passing by what Marco calls a ‘rich’ part of the city. Hamburg was a city of merchants and it was they who, more often than not, held the real power in the state, especially between 1870 and 1920. “Your right to vote was connected to your income and the taxes you paid, and so the merchants were the ones you would find in areas like these,” he explains.
He goes on to explain that Hamburg was always a city state with no castles even if, ironically, its symbol is a white castle on a red background. “There were some castles in the Nazi era,” he says, “but you wouldn’t find any of those in old Hamburg.”
We’re now close to Hamburg University and we are told that very few Jewish symbols still remain in the city. Some 2,000 Jews still live in Hamburg today but families who lived in the Nazi period either emigrated or were killed. “The old side of town and the new look like they belong to different worlds. And they are situated on either side of the university,” says Marco.
We walk through a leafy avenue where building styles (some from the 70s, some 80s and others much earlier) vary on either side. The rain has given way by now, and we’re back wielding our cameras. Marco stops at the entrance of a two-storey white building, once a successful Jewish hospital but later confiscated by the Nazis. “The doctors were told they would be allowed to treat only Nazis and so they lost out on a lot of patients and were forced to sell the building.”
It was a rather hard time for the Jewish population then, with the Nazis decreeing that they would only be allowed to rent or live in Jewish houses. “The Jews who were left could only stay in the 79 houses. At one point, thousands of people were living in them,” says Marco.
As we look at the plaque beside the hospital gate, Marco tells us how elderly couples who were deported would try committing suicide. Those who failed would come to this hospital and doctors didn’t know whether to save them and allow them to be deported or let them die, because either way had the same ending. In 1942, the hospital was closed and all the doctors and nurses deported.
We arrive at the Hamburg University next. On the outer wall of the sociology department, which stands on what was once a thriving Jewish living quarter, is a vivid mural that describes a normal day at the quarter, with people peeping out of windows, women walking along with road with baskets in hand, men in traditional attire going about their work, supermarkets, street signs and so on. Only, they all appear like reflections in a cracked mirror; shattered and in shards. It also has a poem by Nelly Sachs in the middle, about comfort and solace after destruction.
A ten-minute walk from here and we head out to a large open space. This is the site of the Old Synagogue, on Joseph Carlebach Platz. The largest synagogue in northern Germany before November 1938, it was set on fire and demolished. No new synagogue has been built on the site. The Platz is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Joseph Carlebach, the last Chief Rabbi, until he and his family were deported to the Junfernhof Concentration Camp in 1941.
By 1939, only two Jewish schools were still open and three years later, they were also closed. We end our tour opposite one of them, which recently reopened its premises. Marco points to the handmade memorial stones that dot roads all over Germany. There are about 25,000 of them spread across 600 cities in Europe. “They’re called stumbling stones,” he says, “They were made by hand in memory of all the Jews killed, and each one signifies that this person lived in this area or a building nearby.”