Design plans for the Jewish retirement home

Alexandra Klei

Source Description

In the mid-1950s, the Jewish congregation in Hamburg, which had been reestablished in 1945, began to think about building a new home for the elderly. At the same time, their plans to build a new synagogue at Hohe Weide became more concrete. In contrast to this new building, for which the congregation announced a competition, it commissioned the architect Hermann Zvi Guttmann from Frankfurt am Main directly for the retirement home. By August 1956 he began working with his client in Hamburg. The plans shown here are probably the first design plans Guttmann completed in October 1956. The set contains the floor plans for each floor, all three views and four cross sections. These drawings reflect the basic ideas and needs of the congregation, perhaps even to a greater extent than the completed building, which had to be adapted during its construction due to financial constraints among other things. Thus the plans provide a basis for a comparison between the originally formulated wishes and ideas and the actual realized building. The way the floors were laid out to correspond to their designated functions in Guttmann’s original design was retained in the realization, as was the decision for a different design of the front and courtyard façades.

The drawings are part of the architect’s estate, which has been kept in the Jewish Museum Berlin archive since the end of 2017. Other documents are held in the Hamburg State Archive.

  • Alexandra Klei

The (building) history of the Jewish retirement home

In 1898, the German-Israelite Congregation of Hamburg Deutsch-Israelitische Gemeinde acquired a building at Schäferkampsallee 29 and opened a nursing home with a synagogue to provide free accommodation and care for destitute people in need. The building was expanded in 1910 and 1935 and was finally able to accommodate 35 people. In 1928, the neighboring houses nos. 25 and 27 were also purchased to establish a training workshop for young people planning to leave for Palestine. A Jewish soup kitchen was also built here. Together with the neighboring properties 25 and 27, house no. 29 was designated a so-called Judenhaus [Jewish house] from the beginning of 1940. Its residents were deported to Riga in December 1942 and to Theresienstadt between July 1942 and June 1943. From May 1945, surviving Jews were able to use the undamaged building no. 29 again before it was sold and demolished in the 1960s.

In June 1957, the municipal authorities granted the Jewish congegration a special permit to build a retirement home on the adjacent lot of house numbers 25/27. The buildings originally located there seem to have been either no longer existent or condemned. Whether these two plots of land already belonged to the congegration (again) before the decision was made to build a new structure cannot be ascertained. However, a final account by the commissioned architect, Hermann Zvi Guttmann, dated June 1959 includes costs for the purchase of the property.

In October 1956, Guttmann presented a cost estimate for the construction of the new retirement home, presumably along with the plans shown here. An architectural contract was signed in August 1957. It included not only the design of the building, but also the interior design.

The foundation stone was laid in late summer 1957. It seems that problems arose in the construction work in spring 1958, which made it difficult to finish the project on time. The congregation tried to hold Guttmann responsible for this, but he pointed out that according to the architect’s contract, he was excluded from both the construction management and the technical and business management of the project. For the congregation, the rapid realization of the building was important because it had to vacate its old building in nearby Sedanstrasse 23, previously used as a retirement home, by March 31 as it had already sold it to the Franciscan Order.

The opening of the new retirement home took place on May 18, 1958. The total construction costs amounted to 692,510.25 DM currency of the time, including the aforementioned purchase price for the property as well as for the outside facilities and stationary operating equipment. According to Guttmann’s final account, the Hamburg social authorities disputed 200,000 DM currency of the time and the Senate Chancellery another 32,700 DM currency of the time. The rest of the sum was raised by the congregation, presumably also from the proceeds of the sale of the Sedanstrasse retirement home.

Around the year 2000, the Jewish congregation came to realize that a necessary remodeling was not easily possible due to the provisions of the building law among other things. It gave up the building and in 2013 entered into a cooperation with Caritas for its Bischof-Ketteler-Haus in the Schnelsen district. Among other things, the agreement included the provision of rooms for four residential groups and kosher meals for Jewish residents. The building designed by Guttmann was sold and remodeled. Its upper floors now contain apartments and the first floor a day care center. These new uses entailed massive changes, including the removal of balconies on the three upper floors. Nevertheless, the basic structure of Guttmann’s building is still visible today.

There is no sign on the building mentioning that it was once built as a Jewish senior citizens’ residence or that various Jewish charitable institutions were located here. However, several Stumbling Stones [Stolpersteine] on the sidewalk remind us that Jews were deported from here.

The realized building of the new Jewish retirement home

The building, designed by Guttmann, forms a block, which today is part of a closed perimeter block development. As can be seen on the various floor plans, four full stories and a gabled roof, which accommodated additional residential units with balconies on the courtyard side, were planned from the beginning. For the first floor, Guttmann planned offices for the administration, apartments and a dining hall as well as an apartment for the director. The latter two are arranged in a flat extension, which is connected at right angles to the building’s parallel street level. The next four floors – three full floors and a converted attic facing the courtyard – house the residents’ apartments, as well as a day room, a bathroom and toilets on each floor. The rooms facing the courtyard have balconies. Their uniform size and arrangement indicate that they all serve the same function. On the design plan labeled “street view,” two different window sizes correspond to different uses of the interior space: Behind the larger windows are the day rooms, behind the smaller ones further resident’s apartments. A small passageway leads to the backyard. The design plan, which shows the courtyard-facing façade, shows that the basement here is to be designed as a souterrain, so that, among other things, the janitor’s apartment and the kitchen have sufficient daylight. With the converted attic facing the courtyard, six floors are visible in the courtyard, whereas only four are visible on the street. The view of the small extension indicates that here the design of the windows does not serve to differentiate between the dining room and the apartments. Only the windows of the kitchens in the basement were to be significantly smaller.

In the realized building, the façade facing the street had comparatively large windows almost flush with the outer walls, and the entrance zone was accentuated by small sunrooms on the floors above. Here, a clear deviation from the initial plan becomes apparent: The windows on all four floors were the same size and did not allow any indication of different uses. The common rooms on the three residential floors had been relocated and, due to the large glass facades of the sunrooms, not only received additional light and thus made them a lot more comfortable than in the original plans, especially in winter, but also emphasized the entrance to the building. Thus more attention was given to the entrance in contrast to the first plan. The façade facing the courtyard was more horizontally structured in the realization, as was planned originally: The four floors above the basement and the adjoining floor each had balconies, with the top floor slightly set back.

Inside, there was an administration room and a medical examination room on the first floor, as well as the hall included in the plans. Whether there were considerations to use the dining room as a prayer room, as was possible in other Jewish retirement homes, cannot be deduced from the plan of October 1956 or from later drawings. However, the new synagogue at Hohe Weide was built only about 700 meters away, so that a separate prayer room in the retirement home might have been considered unnecessary.

A special feature of the building was that in the inner courtyard, part of this hall and the small apartment of the home’s director were built on supports and set up around a beech tree that is more than 100 years old, since the tree, which has a diameter of over one meter, was not to be felled. The result was not the right-angled structure that was initially planned, but a slightly curved one that broke up the rigid order of the complex.

The kitchen, which had to observe Jewish ritual, could serve up to 130 people. On each floor there were bathrooms and day rooms. Contrary to the apartments shown in the floor plans, which were only designed as single rooms, the building that was realized also included apartments for married couples, which had a living room and a bedroom.

The new building offered accommodation for 42 people. The fact that the congregation initially assumed that an extension to house no. 29 was possible at any time is illustrated by plans drawn up by Guttmann, which can be found in the Hamburg State Archive.  See Hermann Guttmann, Jüdisches Altersheim und Alterswohnheim, street view connection to the hospital, M1:100; floor plan upper floor connection to the hospital, M 1:100; floor plan first floor connection to the hospital, M 1:100, n.d. Both in: StaHH, signature: Abl. 2012 Karton 130. location M3 51 B 1/5. folder: Neubau Altersheim, Dipl. Ing. Hermann Guttmann. The idea was that by means of a connection, the premises of the former infirmary and nursing home were to be used for the new retirement home. The plans thus also point out that the congregation assumed that the demand would continue to rise. In 1952 the congegration counted 1,044 members, in 1960 the number had grown to 1,369, of whom about half were older than 56 years.
With the demolition of the historic building, these considerations became obsolete.

The documents also contain references to plans to create a large “preparation room” for the weekly slaughter, preparation and storage of meat according to Jewish ritual. In May 1958, Guttmann justified this feature to the authorities by stating that food prepared there could also be supplied to Jews who did not live in the home. This would have given the new building a function that went far beyond its actual use as a home for the elderly and would have simplified life in the city according to the Jewish dietary laws. However, there is no entry for this in the 1956 plans. To what extent this idea was actually implemented, even if only for a short time, I have not yet been able to find out.

Jewish retirement homes in postwar Germany

Jewish homes for the elderly were among the most important congregation institutions after 1945, which initially had to take over primarily social and material tasks for the survivors. As in Hamburg, congregations in some other places, such as Frankfurt am Main, Essen, Bremen and Würzburg, were able to recover the buildings of former Jewish retirement homes relatively quickly. Especially in the early years, these buildings were often the first in which the survivors were able to re-establish prayer rooms, often only sparsely and provisionally furnished.

The construction of new Jewish retirement homes began in the Federal Republic in the 1950s and thus parallel to the projects for the construction of new synagogues and community centers. The construction of new homes for senior citizens was not necessarily subordinate to the construction of new synagogues: In Hannover, the new retirement home was opened in 1953, while the adjacent community complex with synagogue was not opened until 1963. In Düsseldorf, a retirement home was part of the initial plans for the new community building inaugurated in 1958, but was initially abandoned in favor of a residential building completed in 1961. A home for the elderly could only be opened in 1970. Other congregations integrated the living space for their older members into their community buildings. For example, in the synagogue complex in Bremen, which was opened in 1961, four individual rooms were set up as “retirement homes,” but no additional infrastructure was created for the residents. A comparison clearly shows that the new building in Hamburg included more generous possibilities: the first floor accommodated community rooms, while the floors above had additional semi-public areas. Probably the largest complex of a Jewish retirement home was built in Frankfurt am Main between 1961 and 1977, and at its inauguration it included an old people’s home with 126 rooms, a nursing home for 30 people, 108 apartments for the elderly and nursing staff, a rehabilitation center, medical, economic and common rooms, and a synagogue belonging to the complex.

The great importance of the retirement homes points to several aspects of Jewish postwar history: First, new buildings had to be erected because the existing capacities in the restituted buildings were no longer sufficient and / or these could not be easily adapted to modern standards for structural or financial reasons. Second, many congregations also had a high percentage of older members who were unable to emigrate to another country after the Shoah to build a new life there. Others returned to Germany to spend the last years of their lives there. Particularly in the first decades after 1945, the congregations made sure that the homes were exclusively available to Jews, especially so that they were spared encounters with Nazi perpetrators or profiteers. Sometimes there were debates within the congregations as to whether non-Jewish spouses were allowed to move into the homes. In addition, the facilities were to provide an easily accessible infrastructure with a view to kosher food and prayer services.

Neither the building history of the retirement homes nor their significance for the newly constituted Jewish congregations have been studied in detail to date. Such aspects of Jewish postwar history continue to represent blank spots in research and public perception.

Select Bibliography

Alexandra Klei, Jüdisches Bauen in Nachkriegsdeutschland. Der Architekt Hermann Zvi Guttmann, Berlin 2017.
Frank Kürschner-Pelkmann, Jüdisches Leben in Hamburg. Ein Stadtführer, Hamburg 1997.
Mary Lindemann, Israelitisches Krankenhaus, in: Institut für Geschichte der deutschen Juden (ed.), Das Jüdische Hamburg. Ein historisches Nachschlagewerk, Göttingen 2006, pp. 126–127, online:
Ina Lorenz, Jüdische Gemeinde (1945–1989), in: Institut für Geschichte der deutschen Juden (ed.), Das Jüdische Hamburg. Ein historisches Nachschlagewerk, Göttingen 2006, pp. 135–138, online:üdische-gemeinde-1945-1989.
Moritz Piehler, Neues jüdisches Seniorenheim. Jüdische Gemeinde kooperiert mit der Caritas, in: Jüdische Allgemeine Wochenzeitung, 6.6.2013.
N. N., Das Werk fortsetzen. Das neuerbaute Altersheim im Hamburg, in: Allgemeine Wochenzeitung der Juden in Deutschland, o. D [presumably May 1958].

Selected English Titles

Susanne Cohen-Weisz, Jewish Life in Austria and Germany since 1945. Identity and Communal Reconstruction, New York 2016.
Jay Howard Geller / Michael Meng (eds.), Rebuilding Jewish life in Germany, London 2020.

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About the Author

Alexandra Klei studied architecture. Her dissertation at BTU Cottbus was about the relation between architecture and remembrance with a focus on the KZ memorial sites Buchenwald and Neuengamme. She is Research Assistant at the Institute for the History of German Jews in Hamburg where she works within the research project "Jewish Constructing" after 1945. Furthermore her research work is dedicated to the re-construction of the White City Tel Aviv, places of remembrance, architecture after 1945 and (post-)Holocaust-landscapes. Her book about the life an work of architect Hermann Zvi Guttmann was awarded with the Paul Arnsberg prize in 2016. She is also member of the editorial staff of the online-journal Medaon. Magazine für jüdisches Leben in Forschung und Bildung and curator for the werkraum bild und sinn e.V.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Alexandra Klei, Design plans for the Jewish retirement home (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, June 14, 2021. <> [July 19, 2024].

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