Ida Ehre and Hamburg’s Kammerspiele Theater

Michaela Giesing

Source Description

This 1947 photograph shows a grieving woman whose figure fills out the entire picture. She wears a frock made of burlap, the preferred substitute cloth for theater costumes during the postwar period, which also used to be worn by penitents; her hairstyle meanwhile alludes to ancient times. Her body is tilted sideways, her gaze lowered, yet her extended arms give this figure a quiet strength and create a dynamic in the image where resignation and resistance keep a balance.

This enlarged photo in delicate gray shades, a silver gelatin print measuring 28.7 x 21.5 cm, is signed by its creator, theater photographer Rosemarie Clausen, at the bottom right. The back of the photograph is stamped with her name and address and a note written by an unknown author that reads: “Euripides’ Trojan Women – Werfel / director Ulrich Erfurt.” The remains of a photo mount that had once been used for the picture and a note in Clausen’s handwriting that reads: “exhibition images reproduction only by permission” indicate its original use. Most likely it was part of an exhibition in the lobby of Hamburg’s Kammerspiele  Kammerspiele = intimate theatertheater, which is also supported by the photograph’s provenance. The address given on the stamp allows for an approximate dating; in conjunction with the signature it authenticates this image as a vintage print, made by the photographer shortly after the exposure of the negative during a photo rehearsal in September 1947. The image shows Austrian-German Jewish actress Ida Ehre, who founded the second Kammerspiele theater company in 1945, leading it to become one of the major stages in postwar West Germany. Despite all the challenges arising with currency reform, she led the theater for more than four decades until her death.

  • Michaela Giesing

The refounding of Hamburg’s Kammerspiele

In summer 1945, immediately after Germany’s liberation from National Socialism, Ida Ehre had begun to realize a long-held plan, namely to participate in the building of a more humane world by founding a theater company. Born the daughter of a hazzan in the Moravian town of Přerov on July 9, 1900, Ehre grew up in Vienna and had a remarkable career in the German theater in the 1920s. In 1933 she was banned from performing on stage by the National Socialists. After a failed attempt to emigrate, in the fall of 1939 she and her Catholic husband, Bernhard Heyde, a physician, and their daughter Ruth got stranded in Hamburg. Living in a “privileged mixed marriage” [“privilegierte Mischehe”], Ehre was afforded paltry protection while remaining exposed to discrimination and persecution. In 1943 she was incarcerated for six weeks in the Fuhlsbüttel prison; in February 1945 Ida Ehre received her deportation order. Aided by fellow actress Marianne Wischmann, she was able to go into hiding and survive, however.

Her plan to open a new theater in Hamburg after the end of the war met with support both from British cultural officer John Olden, a native of Vienna, and from the Jewish congregation. The latter leased their former community center on Hartungstraße 9-11 to Ehre. According to her the theater, whose name harked back to the first Hamburger Kammerspiele founded in 1918 by Erich Ziegel at Besenbinderhof, was supposed to “pick things up where the threads had been broken either by censorship or hostility.” On the occasion of its opening, she wrote that theater must contribute to “establish a new order, a new standard of values, a new worldview [] and must only serve one purpose, the purpose of all true art,” namely to “seek the eternal truths and give expression to them” by “portraying human characters and fates.” Ida Ehre, Unser Streben. Hamburger Kammerspiele program notes of December, 10, 1945, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg, Collection Hamburger Theatersammlung, Programmhefte der Hamburger Kammerspiele, 1945 / 46 season.

Thanks to an exquisite ensemble and an innovative program, the theater company quickly earned high regard among both the public and critics. Its members included renowned actresses and actors and well-known directors from Berlin who had previously either conformed to or resisted against the demands of National Socialist propaganda to varying degrees, such as Wolfgang Liebeneiner or Helmut Käutner – but also artists persecuted by the National Socialist regime such as former agitprop actor and survivor of several concentration camps Erwin Geschonneck. In her programming Ida Ehre sought to pick up the tradition of classical modernism; she staged pieces by playwrights who had been ostracized before 1945, including Ferdinand Bruckner or Georg Kaiser, for example. In particular, Hamburg’s theatergoing audience owed her its exposure to international contemporary theater. When her theater premiered Wolfgang Borchert’s play “Draußen vor der Tür” [“The Man Outside”] on November, 21, 1947, Ehre made theater history.

The premiere of Euripides’ Trojan Women

The premiere of Euripides’ Trojan Women, this great lament of women and war widows exposed to the violence of the victorious soldiers in destroyed Troy, took place at Hamburg’s Kammerspiele on September 27, 1947. The playwright, Franz Werfel, adhered to the dramatic structure of the original material, yet the language and rhythm of his adaptation, which he finished shortly before the beginning of the First World War, have an expressionist tone. A young author at the time, Werfel sought to interpret this Greek tragedy as the expression of a dawning epochal break and “the infamous atheist Euripides as an early herald of Christianity.” Franz Werfel, Vorbemerkung, in: Euripides, Die Troerinnen. In deutscher Bearbeitung von Franz Werfel, Leipzig 1915, p. 9. Thus his Hecuba, the queen of Troy mourning the fallen sons, violated daughters, and murdered grandchildren, is the precursor of a new religiosity. She resists the urge to commit suicide, and in praying to the one God, “Father, heavenly Father / [], our Father!,” Euripides, Die Troerinnen, p. 123. she finds the strength to go on living. With the words, “Behold, thus I take / my life to heart and carry it to its end!,” Euripides, Die Troerinnen, p.127. she allows herself to be captured by the Greeks.

The relevance of this tragedy for the population of postwar Germany is obvious; Euripides’ Trojan Women offered both the possibility of consolation and identification and as such it was performed in German theaters after the First and Second World Wars. Ida Ehre’s stirring performance of the lead role gave this offering another dimension as well as a personal touch, however. For here was someone who had been persecuted by the Nazi regime and whose mother Berta, née Kohn (1866-1942), and sister Ottilie Kanner (1887-1941) had both been murdered by the National Socialists, taking the survivors’ grief upon herself for her audience. Thus she gave them “empathy for similar pain,” as one audience member attested, “and through it a deep and lasting consolation in an almost bottomless feeling of being lost.” State and University Library Hamburg, Hamburg Theater Collection, Archive Ida Ehre / Hamburg’s Kammerspiele, call number: Ehre 8.9: letter to Ida Ehre by an audience member of October 2, 1947.

Ida Ehre’s performance of this role is highlighted by this photograph, which provides insight into the character’s semantic conception. As an actress, Ehre communicated and interacted with her audience, and through the roles she chose she addressed them and captivated them both in tragic and comic plays. At the same time, the craft of the actress provided her with a broad range of experience, which she could then benefit from as the artistic director of a theater. This portrait refers to one of the great female characters in Greek tragedy, which accompanied Ehre in two different versions from the 1920s until the 1980s. Euripides’ Trojan Women by Franz Werfel, one of the few tragedies performed by the Kammerspiele, was one of its most striking productions, and Hecuba was a role that allowed Ehre to shape her artistic vision and justify her decision to open a theater in defeated-liberated Germany.

The Kammerspiele in the 1950s and 1960s

The pact Ida Ehre had made with her audience carried her and her theater even when she was forced to make dramatic changes both administratively and artistically as a consequence of the currency reform . The program became less ambitious, but Ehre, who in 1952 became one of the co-founders of the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation Gesellschaft für christlich-jüdische Zusammenarbeit, continued her efforts to build bridges through her art. She gave young playwrights and actors the opportunity to prove themselves on her stage and gave theater artists returning from exile including Leo Mittler and Leon Askin the chance for a new beginning. Plays explicitly discussing German-Jewish relations were not part of the Kammerspiele program, however, as it generally wasn’t in West German theater in the 1950s.

This only began to change in the early 1960s when it was no longer possible to avoid facing the National Socialist crimes against the Jewish people. The most significant contribution the Kammerspiele made to this discourse was its 1962 production of the play “Die Mauer” [“The Wall”] adapted for Broadway by Millard Lampell, based on the eponymous novel by John Hersey and translated into German by Hans Sahl. The play portrays people in the Warsaw ghetto and depicts their different behavior in response to increasing violence until they finally join together in resistance. Meanwhile the political theater of the 1960s whose authors sought dramatic strategies to accuse those responsible for these crimes against humanity was far removed from Ida Ehre’s idea of a “theater of humanity.” The latter took the side of the underdog, the outsiders, and those who had missed out by turning the stage over to them.

New productions of the Trojan Women

For this reason conflicts arose during a new staging of the Trojan Women, which was performed in 1970 on the occasion of the Kammerspiele’s 25th anniversary, again using Werfel’s version of the play. While the setting had only been indicated vaguely in the 1947 production, the director of the new staging, Joachim Fontheim, wanted to set the play in the recent past and have concentration camp watch towers set up on stage. What had been implicitly communicated in the 1947 performances through the protagonist’s biography and thus attested to Ehre’s offer to participate in the supposed new beginning was now to be transformed into confrontation and accusation. Yet this was not what Ehre had in mind. She rejected this kind of explicit violence and reminded the director that “in Euripides and Werfel [] this violence is made clear through language, meaning that which is most human. It comes from human beings and not from their instruments.” State and University Library Hamburg, Hamburg Theater Collection, Archive Ida Ehre / Hamburg’s Kammerspiele, call number: HaKa III: letter by Ida Ehre to Joachim Fontheim, October 23, 1970 [typescript copy] Meanwhile her third performance of Hecuba or Hecabe, as she was called in the 1983 staging in accordance with the Greek original, was to be a great triumph. Titled “Der Untergang” [“Downfall”], Walter Jens had written a radically pacifist adaptation of the Greek tragedy that he dedicated to Ehre.

The 1980s were also the period when Ida Ehre became more publicly active as a critical voice both warning against forgetting Nazi atrocities and remembering their victims. Her autobiography titled “Gott hat einen größeren Kopf, mein Kind” [“God Has a Bigger Head, My Child”](1985), documented the life of this courageous woman who was not willing to forget, but to forgive. She put her trust in the power of spoken verse as a means to touch her contemporaries and perhaps even effect catharsis one last time when she read Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” before the German parliament on November 10, 1988 to commemorate those murdered by the Nazi regime. By contrast, her farewell theater performance was that of Mrs. Wilberforce in a stage adaptation of the black comedy “The Ladykillers.” Ida Ehre died on February 16, 1989  For obituaries see the Ida Ehre collection of the Leo Baeck Institute, online available under:, having been awarded the highest artistic and political honors bestowed by both the city state of Hamburg and the Federal Republic of Germany: in 1983 she was decorated with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit and in 1985 she was the first woman to become honorary citizen of the city of Hamburg  See also the article „Liebeserklärung an eine alte Dame“ written by Helmut Schmidt on occasion of the honorary citizenship within the Ida Ehre collection of the Leo Baeck Institute, online availbale under:

Select Bibliography

Anna Brenken, Ehre, Ida, in: Institut für die Geschichte der deutschen Juden (ed.), Das jüdische Hamburg. Ein historisches Nachschlagewerk, Göttingen 2006, pp. 63-64.
Anna Brenken, Ida Ehre, Hamburg 2002.
Ulrich Tukur / Ulrich Waller (eds.), Nichts als Theater. Die Geschichte der Hamburger Kammerspiele, Hamburg 2003.
Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler, Die Bearbeitung der Troerinnen des Euripides durch Franz Werfel. Zur Polarität von Tragödie und expressionistischem Märtyrerdrama, in: Michael Schwidtal / Václav Bok (eds.), Jugend in Böhmen. Franz Werfel und die tschechische Kultur – eine literarische Spurensuche, Wien 2001, pp. 71-84.
Barbara Müller-Wesemann, „Mit der Freude zieht der Schmerz treulich durch die Zeiten.“ Die jüdische Kulturgeschichte des Hauses Hartungstraße 9-11, in: Arno Herzig (ed.), Die Juden in Hamburg 1590 bis 1990. Wissenschaftliche Beiträge der Universität Hamburg zur Ausstellung „Vierhundert Jahre Juden in Hamburg“, Hamburg 1991, pp. 323-332.

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.

About the Author

Dr. phil., scholar for theatre, she works at University Hamburg at the Department-Library Language, Literature and Media.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Michaela Giesing, Ida Ehre and Hamburg’s Kammerspiele Theater (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, October 16, 2017. <> [May 19, 2024].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.