The black-and-white photograph shows the façade of the administrative building of the Jewish Congregation in Hamburg (JGH) at Rothenbaumchaussee 38. An unknown photographer took the picture diagonally from the front yard, so that the neighboring building on the left is also visible. In the center of the picture, an approximately two-meter-long Israeli flag is flying on a flagpole that extends from a balcony on the second floor of the building towards the street. According to the note on the back of the photo, it was taken on May 14, 1949, the first anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel.
Harry Goldstein, the first chairman of the Jewish Congregation in Hamburg founded in 1945, sent the picture to Carl Heinz Rosner, who was born in Hamburg in 1929 and had been temporarily under Goldstein’s guardianship after his parents fled Germany. Rosner had survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he had been deported in June 1944, and had emigrated to Sweden after the war and then to Israel in 1948. Today he lives in the USA. The photo is part of his document collection, which is in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The representative building on Rothenbaumchaussee had only recently been returned to the congregation at the time the photo was taken, but it had a longer history as a place of Jewish life. The German-Israelite Congregation of Hamburg (DIG) had bought it in 1916 and established it as the central administrative headquarters. In the following years, it constituted the secular center of the congregation, under whose umbrella the Jewish rite was cultivated in several associations. The offices of the board of directors were located in the rooms of the community center, the board of representatives met here, and the congregation’s archive was located here, in a fireproof room in the basement.
The November pogrom of 1938 abruptly ended this use; the house was demolished by members of the SA or SS, confiscated by the Gestapo and sealed. The congregation administration was not allowed to use the building anymore. Instead, the “Judenreferat” [Jewish Affairs Department] of the Hamburg Gestapo, which had been solely responsible for monitoring the congregation since 1937, wanted to move its own headquarters there. By taking possession of the building and evicting the congregation’s administration, the Gestapo had already symbolically taken power over Hamburg’s Jewish population. In the weeks that followed, they proceeded to smash their congregation structures: they ended the self-administration of the congregation, dissolved its organs and confiscated the archives. From now on, the previous syndic, Dr. Max Plaut, presided over all Jewish organizations in Hamburg and answered to the Jewish Affairs Department with regard to implementing the increasingly strict regulations for the Jewish population.
In September 1939, the Gestapo succeeded in legally acquiring the building, which had remained unused since the pogrom. After extensive renovation work, which had also become necessary as a result of the pogrom, the Gestapo moved into the building in the summer of 1941. The infamous “Judenreferent” Claus Göttsche now resided in the former office of the congregation’s chairman. The Jewish Affairs Department was the central authority in the repression and police persecution of Hamburg’s Jewish population. In addition, it organized the deportations of Hamburg Jews to the ghettos from October 1941 and to the Auschwitz concentration camp in July 1942. The former administrative headquarters of the Jewish congregation had become the organizational site of its own extermination.
After the major deportations in the summer of 1943 had been carried out, the Jewish Affairs Department at Hamburg’s Gestapo headquarters lost its importance and had to cede the prestigious official residence on Rothenbaumchaussee to the Gestapo “Ausländerreferat” [Foreign Nationals Department], which was responsible for monitoring the foreign forced laborers in the city area, whose number amounted to about 400,000 between 1939 and 1945. Despite the wartime shortage of building materials, three prison cells were built in the basement of the house during this period, where the officers of the department interrogated and tortured their victims.
Only a few days after the liberation of Hamburg, Jewish survivors took possession of the vacant building again and from there organized food and accommodation for needy people such as concentration camp survivors from the DP camp Bergen – Carl Heinz Rosner among them. On September 18, 1945, 72 people met at Rothenbaumchaussee 38 to found the Jewish Congregation in Hamburg. Since then, the building, which had hardly sustained any damage in the bombing of Hamburg, once again functioned as a community center. Its renewed use also meant a renewed reinterpretation of the place, as Goldstein noted in retrospect: “Only the most intensive work allowed us to forget how many bitter tears had flowed in this building since November 9, 1938.” Harry Goldstein’s report on the rebuilding of the Jewish congregation, June 1951, reprinted in: Uwe Lohalm (ed.), “Schließlich ist es meine Heimat...“. Harry Goldstein und die Jüdische Gemeinde in Hamburg in persönlichen Dokumenten und Fotos, Hamburg 2002, pp. 60-63, here p. 61. Yet the matter-of-factness with which the congregation repossessed the building is quite remarkable, for in fact the question of its rightful ownership remained entirely unresolved for years to come. Strictly speaking, Goldstein conceded, the congregation’s use of the building was therefore more like a squat, although it could rely on the backing of the British military government: Claims by the Hamburg authorities, who wanted to use the building for other purposes or even demand rent from the congregation, were thus successfully warded off. There was no question for the congregation that it was not only morally but also legally in the right. It regarded the building’s imminent restitution as a mere formality. Against this background, the picture embodies the activity and self-confidence of the young congregation, which was directly linked to the Jewish tradition of this place, dared to make a new start and was not afraid to show a public presence.
Just days before the photograph was taken, on May 12, 1949, the British military government passed a law on the basis of which property expropriated by the National Socialists could be restituted. The Jewish congregation immediately registered its claim. In fact, however, the process of restitution was to prove far more complicated than they anticipated. In contrast to the vast majority of restitution proceedings, the disputes in the case of congregation property revolved less around the question of whether there was a claim to restitution. In most cases there was no question that the sales under National Socialist rule had been unlawful expropriations. What was in dispute was who was entitled to reclaim these assets. In Hamburg, for example, the Jewish Congregation in Hamburg not only saw itself in the tradition of the DIG, but it also saw itself legally as its successor (and thus as its heir). Although the British military government had granted the Jewish Congregation a “functional succession” since 1946 and had also recognized it as a corporation under public law in October 1948, it was not initially regarded as the clear legal successor to the prewar congregation.
This legal uncertainty became a tangible problem in the dispute with the so-called “Jewish successor organizations”, which were founded from 1948 onwards by American and international Jewish organizations in all Western occupation zones. The task of these trustees was to reclaim looted property from Jewish persons who had been murdered and had left no heirs. The usual procedure, according to which property without heirs passed to the state, seemed out of the question for moral reasons, since it would have meant that the Federal Republic would have profited indirectly from the extermination of Jewish life by the Nazi state. In addition, however, the successor organizations also claimed sole access to the former property of Jewish organizations and congregations whose legal succession, as in Hamburg, was often not recognized. In the case of Rothenbaumchaussee 38, the restitution application of the Jewish Congregation of Hamburg was simply not processed further; instead, the city of Hamburg negotiated restitution with the JTC on behalf of the Gestapo as the former owner.
In the context of restitution, however, the JTC acted as a competitor rather than an ally of the newly founded German congregations. This was only superficially a legal conflict. In fact, the restitution debate was an important arena for the central inner-Jewish conflict of the postwar period: Should Jews return to the “land of the perpetrators” even though the State of Israel provided a secure home for the Jewish people? The fact that postwar communities like the one in Hamburg wanted to continue their long tradition and take the risk of reconstruction was met with incomprehension and rejection by Jewish representatives abroad. Thus, at its first postwar meeting in 1948, the World Jewish Congress underlined in a resolution the will of the Jewish people “to never again settle on the bloodstained soil of Germany.” World Jewish Congress, Resolutions Adopted by the Second Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress, Montreux, Switzerland, June 27th-July 6th 1948, London 1948, p. 7, quoted in Jay Howard Geller, Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany. 1945-1953, Cambridge 2005, p. 62. The successor organizations, financed from abroad, felt bound by this policy and categorically denied the new congregations’ claim to the former congregations’ property. Instead, they maintained that the rightful heir to this property was the Jewish people as a collective. In practice, this meant that the JTC demanded the return of large amounts of property expropriated during the Nazi era, but then primarily sought to sell it in order to use the proceeds to finance the building of Israel. In many cases – such as that of the Bornplatz synagogue – it even waived restitution in exchange for compensation.
For the Hamburg congregation, it was therefore more of a threat than a reassurance when the JTC was awarded Rothenbaumchaussee 38 in 1953, as they now had to reckon with being evicted from their community center once again. Yet it was of existential importance to the fledgling congregation: as an economic asset, as a meeting place and workplace, psychologically and socially as a point of reference in the city and as a symbol of its own tradition, location and affiliation. Eventually, the JTC decided to grant the congregations the property that was indispensable for the active performance of their work. Since the Jewish Congregation in Hamburg had proven its need in this case through its many years of use, it was in fact given back the building, although the negotiations were to drag on until 1960. With the establishment as owner, the possibility arose for the congregation to rent out the building, of which it immediately made use. It has not been resident at Rothenbaumchaussee 38 since 1960.
At the time the photo was taken, the complex and dynamic conflicts over restitution had barely begun, but the fundamental conflict between Israel and the new congregations in the diaspora had already become apparent. Through the visible sympathy and recognition for the founding of the Israeli state, the picture makes it clear that those Jews who decided to make a new start in Germany often also felt a close connection to Israel. The newly founded German congregations themselves, however, were denied understanding and recognition from the Israeli side for a long time.
The eventful history of use from the congregation’s administration to the Gestapo makes the building a significant site of Jewish history under National Socialism in Hamburg. Additionally, the history of the building is representative for the handling of the real property of Jewish congregations that they had lost in the “Third Reich.” After 1945, negotiations about the restitution and distribution of this property formed a central arena of the conflicts about the new beginning of Jewish life in Germany.
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Hendrik Althoff, M. A., is a research fellow at the Department of History at the University of Hamburg and is currently researching the treatment of Jewish Communities’ real estate in National Socialism and the post-war period.
Hendrik Althoff, Rothenbaumchaussee 38: The Treatment of Jewish Property in the Postwar Period (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, December 13, 2021. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-285.en.v1> [September 23, 2023].