“Mother Borchardt” – a Jewish Shipping Company Owner

Rebekka Großmann

Source Description

The source presented here is a 1935 photo essay about the Hamburg shipping company Fairplay and its owner, Lucy Borchardt. It introduces the shipping company's owner as an important member of Hamburg's Jewish community while emphasizing the fact that the well-reputed company Fairplay was headed by a woman. The article is taken from the magazine “Aus alter und neuer Zeit” [“From Times Old and New”], the illustrated supplement to the Israelitisches Familienblatt [Israelite Family Paper] newspaper. The photo's creator is named as Birnbach. Austrian Jewish photographer Rudolf Birnbach (1906-1961) was head of the renowned Berlin photo agency “Weltrundschau.” These photos could therefore either have come from the agency's photo collection or they could have been taken by Birnbach himself. In 1933 Birnbach was forced to sell the agency, and he emigrated from Germany to the U.S. the same year. Therefore it is likely that the photographs were not taken in 1935 when the article was published, but some time before 1933. The photographs illustrating the work of the shipping company and Lucy Borchardt are accompanied by short descriptive texts whose author is not named, however.
  • Rebekka Großmann

The Israelitisches Familienblatt as source material

The Israelitisches Familienblatt [Israelite Family Paper], founded in Hamburg in 1898, was a Jewish weekly newspaper. In light of the various diverging movements within German Jewry and growing antisemitic sentiment, the Familienblatt [Family Paper] sought to act as a common voice that stayed politically neutral. The paper was soon distributed beyond Hamburg, and by 1933 one in every four Jewish families in Germany subscribed to it.

Lucy Borchardt – a Jewish Hamburg woman in the spotlight

The article's headline introduces the reader to its topic – it is about shipping company owner Lucy Borchardt, who is established as a "mother figure" in the text and the accompanying images. The four featured photos and their brief captions portray her in this vein. The photo essay became a popular medium in its own right in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Mainly influenced by a new kind of seeing and photographic vision, which became established under the term “New Objectivity Neue Sachlichkeit, photo essays reinforced the idea of the photograph as a “true” and “neutral” form of portrayal. Like other newspapers, the Israelitisches Familienblatt [Israelite Family Paper] catered to its readers' interest in visual reportage, and in 1924 it began adding the illustrated supplement “Aus alter und neuer Zeit” [“From Times Old and New”] to its usual edition.

The first photo shows Lucy Borchardt at the guardrail of one of her ships, which, the caption informs readers, she is about to show to a visitor. Borchardt's arm rests self-confidently on the guardrail, from which she proudly looks down – not only at the rest of her ship or her shipyard, but also at the photographer and thus at the beholder. Her severe hairstyle and clothing as well as her striking facial features hint at a resolute character.

Born in 1877, Borchardt first became involved in the shipping company in 1915, when she had to fill in as general manager for her husband Richard Borchardt, who had gone to war. He had taken over the company from its founder, Carl Tiedemann, in 1905. "Fairplay" had been the name of the first tugboat Tiedemann had bought for his fledgling company in 1895, and he decided to choose it for his company. It was supposed to create trust, thereby giving the shipping company an advantage on the international market. When her husband died in 1930, Lucy Borchardt became sole director of the well-respected company.

Following Borchardt's introduction in the first photo, the photo to the right of it introduces the reader to the company's fleet. It shows one of its tugboats towing a large steamship that was in distress due to a leak according to the image caption. The difference in size between the two ships and the large steamship's dependence on the small tugboat serve to promote the image of an influential and reputable shipping company. The ship's clearly visible programmatic name, “Fairplay XV,” and the fact that the towing tugboat belonged to a company headed by a Jewish owner are not without a certain irony in a time of daily harassment and threats against the Jewish population. While National Socialist authorities' strict censorship imposed numerous restrictions, ambiguous visual messages were a means to maintain some measure of Jewish self-confidence and to defend against the National Socialist authorities' daily humiliations.

“Mother” Borchardt's Zionism

Lucy Borchardt was not only a well-respected Hamburg citizen, she also actively supported Hamburg's Jews. She joined forces with Naftali Unger from Palestine, who had spent some time in Hamburg, and in 1935 organized the Zionist seafaring hakhsharah. The hakhsharah was a preparatory program that enabled young German Jews to learn a trade and thus qualify for emigration to Palestine. Due to Borchardt's involvement, her shipping company became the location where professional retraining was held. Program graduates received certificates by the Palestine Office for immigration that allowed them to leave Germany. At the same time, two kibbutzim were founded in Palestine that established shipping as an industry in there and were thus able to employ the new immigrants.

Fairplay's hakhsharah work was not without risk since the German Labor Front  Deutsche Arbeitsfront (DAF) organization had officially prohibited hiring Jewish instead of “Aryan” workers. Borchardt managed to circumvent this hiring ban partly due to the many conflicts within the Nazi authorities.

The third photo, which is particularly prominent because of its placement in the center of the page and its round framing, shows Borchardt in conversation with a stoker. For the first time, we see not only Lucy Borchardt's head, but her entire, matronly figure including her proud, straight posture. As in the first and last picture, she is shown in profile; she never looks directly at the camera, which suggests a certain aloofness that in turn conveys a particular activity and dignity. The stoker looks up from his work at Borchardt; his relaxed posture and trusting gaze at her indicate a good relationship between him and his employer. The similarities between this photo and general labor and industrial photography of the 1920s and 1930s in Germany are striking. For example, the distinct, geometric forms of the engines that the stoker operates and knows intimately take up just as much space as the two figures. The photo seems posed; obviously great importance is placed on the proportions within the image, the persons' gaze and postures, and the interaction between people and machines.

Lucy Borchardt's “children”

In the fourth and last photo, which is also the largest, Borchardt is shown on the left surrounded by a circle of seven sailors. The fact that everyone's faces appear friendly, interested, and almost amused suggests a casual conversation. The image caption stresses Borchardt's maternal role by referring to "her" sailors. Her natural interaction with the young men once again emphasizes her maternal character, which not only seems to underline her position as supervisor of the company's staff, but might also be a reference to her support of the Zionist youth movement, whose mission was to turn Jewish youths into "new" Jews. In addition to sending young trainees to Palestine, Borchardt also helped the newly founded Atid Navigation Company in Haifa, co-founded by her son Jens, to buy two ships. This is another reason for Borchardt's characterization as “the mother of Jewish seafaring.” Jens Borchardt had emigrated from Germany to Palestine in 1934. In addition to the numerous hints at Borchardt's role as a mother, the text also proudly stresses the fact that the Fairplay shipping company was run by a woman and that Borchardt was “as far as we know the world's only female shipping company owner” (p. 7). In an article appearing in the illustrated supplement of the Israelitisches Familienblatt  Israelite Family Paper, her role within Hamburg's Jewish life naturally had to be mentioned. It points out that she was a “well-known and respected personality” (p. 7) in the Jewish community. Sources regarding her activity in the congregation do not confirm this statement, however. According to them, Borchardt was "not very close" Ina Lorenz, Seefahrts-Hachschara in Hamburg (1935-1938). Lucy Borchardt: „Die einzige jüdische Reederin der Welt“, in: Hans Wilhelm Eckardt (ed.), Bewahren und Berichten. Festschrift für Hans Dieter Loose zum 60. Geburtstag, Hamburg 1997, p. 450. to the Jewish community and more interested in Zionism than in local Jewish life.

Overall it is obvious that the author of this article sought to avoid any political or partisan perspective and was eager to present a positive portrait of a woman of whom Hamburg's Jews and all readers of the Israelitisches Familienblatt [Israelite Family Paper] could be proud – in a time dominated by National Socialist official intimidation through everyday acts of antisemitism. At least until 1938, both the Israelitisches Familienblatt [Israelite Family Paper] and Borchardt's shipping company “Fairplay” were manifestations of a self-confident German Jewry. In 1938 the shipping company was “Aryanized,” which also made a continuation of the seafaring hakhsharah impossible. Lucy Borchardt and her second son, Kurt, were able to leave Germany for London. Before 1938 the shipping company had been given permission to move three of its ships abroad. The remaining company assets were confiscated. In London, Lucy and Kurt Borchardt again founded a "Fairplay" shipping company with the three ships they had left. Although her property was restituted to her after the war, Lucy Borchardt never returned to Hamburg and instead remained director of the company's British branch. She died in London in 1969.

Select Bibliography

Diethart Kerbs, Die Epoche der Bildagenturen. Zur Geschiche der Pressefotografie in Berlin von 1900 bis 1933, in: Diethart Kerbs / Walter Uka / Brigitte Walz-Richter (eds.), Die Gleichschaltung der Bilder. Zur Geschichte der Pressefotografie 1930–1936. Berlin 1983, pp. 32–73.
Klaus Honnef / Frank Weyers, Und sie haben Deutschland verlassen... müssen. Fotografen und ihre Bilder, 1928–1997, Bonn 1997.
Maren Krüger, Das „Israelitische Familienblatt“ und die Nova-Druckerei, in: Berliner Geschichtswerkstatt e. V. (ed.), Juden in Kreuzberg. Fundstücke, Fragmente, Erinnerungen..., Berlin 1991, pp. 363–370.
Ina Lorenz, Seefahrts-Hachschara in Hamburg (1935-1938). Lucy Borchardt: „Die einzige jüdische Reederin der Welt“, in: Hans Wilhelm Eckardt (ed.), Bewahren und Berichten. Festschrift für Hans Dieter Loose zum 60. Geburtstag, Hamburg 1997, pp. 445–472.
Hans Jürgen Witthöft, Fairplay. Dafür steht der Name. Chronik einer deutschen Schleppreederei, Hamburg 2008.

Selected English Titles

Daniel Magilow, The Photography of Crisis. The Photo Essays of Weimar Germany, University Park 2012.

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

Rebekka Großmann, M. A., is currently writing her PhD thesis about “The Mobility of Images. Photography and Nationality in Palestine between 1920 and 1950”. Among her research interests are: the history of Jewish thought in the 20th century, Jewish politics, the history of Jewish nationalism, history of film and visual culture, and European intellectual history.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Rebekka Großmann, “Mother Borchardt” – a Jewish Shipping Company Owner (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, January 09, 2018. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-168.en.v1> [July 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.