Alfred Borchardt (1870–1942) came from a Jewish family in Mecklenburg. Born in Schönberg, he was the oldest of four children by Isaach Isidor Borchardt (1840–1892) and Emma Borchardt née Ascher (1843–1924). Since the mid-1870s, the family lived in Hamburg, where Alfred’s two youngest siblings were born. Borchardt became a merchant in Hamburg, trading in varnishes, paints, and nautical goods. He married Hamburg-born Clara Wittmund (1875–1944), with whom he had three children (Isaac Theodor (1900–1941), Louise (1901–1941), and Hans (1908–1941)). The Borchardt family lived in a four-bedroom apartment in a well-to-do neighborhood on Feldstraße 58, albeit with some support from their families. Alfred’s younger brother Richard was a shipping company owner and since 1926 owner of the Fairplay tug boat company at Hamburg’s port. Until 1933 the Borchardts were successful businessmen who belonged among Hamburg’s respected Jewish middle class families.
Following the National Socialist takeover and the beginning social and economic exclusion of the Jews, Alfred Borchardt’s family, too, had to give up their business and eventually their apartment as well. After several moves, they ended up living in a one-bedroom apartment in one of the city’s so-called Judenhäuser Jewish houses. Alfred Borchardt continued to support his family by giving English lessons to Jews who were preparing for emigration. He was familiar with the English language because he had spent two years in London after graduating high school. The family also received financial support from relatives such as Richard before 1933 and later from their son Theodor, who worked as chief engineer for various Hamburg shipyards.
In late 1938 the marginalization of the Jewish population reached a new pinnacle. On November 28, 1938 a countrywide police decree was published (Reichsgesetzblatt I, p. 1676) which prohibited Jews from “entering certain districts […] or to show themselves in public […] at certain times.” According to the interpretation by Berlin’s Chief of Police of December 3, 1938, this prohibition also applied to theaters, movie theaters, and museums. The Berlin measure may have prompted Hellmuth Becker, head of Hamburg’s district office Gauamt, to request that the legal department of Hamburg’s municipal administration ban Jews from visiting and using museums and academic institutions. Verwaltung für Kunst- und Kulturangelegenheiten an Rechtsamt vom 6.12.1938, StaHH 134 3, Rechtsamt I, 155, printed in: Ina Lorenz / Jörg Berkemann, Die Hamburger Juden im NS-Staat 1933 bis 1938/39, Göttingen 2016, vol. 6, pp. 285-287. Becker indirectly criticizes that such a measure had not yet been taken on a nationwide level by the Reich Minister of Education, which is why he wanted Hamburg to act on its own. The legal department rejected his suggestion, however, arguing that anti-Jewish measures were not decided at the local level but by the Reich government in order to prevent a muddle of local regulations, and it expressed optimism that the confusion with regard to its interpretation would soon be clarified at the Reich level. Rechtsamt an Verwaltung für Kunst- und Kulturangelegenheiten vom 9.12.1838, StaHH 134-3 I Rechstamt I, 155, printed in: Ina Lorenz / Jörg Berkemann, Die Hamburger Juden im NS-Staat 1933 bis 1938/39, Göttingen 2016, vol. 6, pp. 287-288. Whether and when there was a regulation and when it was implemented in Hamburg could not be verified in Hamburg’s administrative records thus far. All that is known is that Jews were eventually prohibited from visiting Hamburg’s museums.
It is impossible to reconstruct why Alfred Borchardt wrote this letter to the Hamburg Historical Museum Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte in December 1941. It is also unclear what Borchardt’s specific relation to this museum was. Maybe to him – as for so many other Hamburg citizens – it represented a central place of identification where he was able to learn about numerous topics related to the city, at least until 1938. Perhaps it was for this reason that Borchardt considered it his duty as a citizen and a “son of the city” to warn of the potential loss of valuable Hamburg artefacts – at a time when the basic values of citizenship had long ceased to apply to Jews in Germany.
The museum responded to the matter as the superior authority, the city’s cultural department, demanded. Since 1941 museum staff had been prohibited from maintaining contacts with Jews. Museum director Otto Lauffer personally ordered the letter to be filed away. Therefore Borchardt did not receive a reply. His letter is the only one of its kind in the archives of the Hamburg Historical Museum Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte from the year 1941. It might also have been one of the last attempts by a Hamburg Jew to fight the Jews’ complete exclusion from the city’s society. Thus Borchardt seems to have seen some room for maneuver for himself as a Jew. It appears that he did not (yet) want to believe the consistency with which the National Socialist system legally discriminated against Jews and eventually carried out their policy of expulsion and extermination. As for so many other Jews socialized during the Wilhelmine period, this radical cultural break apparently went beyond what he could imagine. This might provide an explanation for his hope, formulated as late as December 9, 1941, that the Hamburg Historical Museum Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte and the civil servants working at the museum would respond to his hints regarding collections of Hamburg artefacts owned by Jews. Moreover, Borchardt wrote his letter just three days after the deportation of 753 Jews from Hamburg to Riga. Following earlier transports to Łódź and Minsk, almost half of the roughly 6,000 Jews still living in Hamburg in October 1941 had now been deported to the East.
In actuality Borchardt’s letter did not have any effect at all. He might not even have been aware that museum staff were prohibited from contact with Jews. Borchardt did know about the deportation of Jews from Hamburg to the East, however – in his letter he actually uses the term “evacuate,” one of the regime’s official descriptions for these campaigns. He also knew that the owners of most of those collections of Hamburg artefacts he refers to in his letter were forced to sell them far below market value. Perhaps he also knew that left behind private property was confiscated by the authorities after the owner’s deportation, if not earlier. This practice not only applied to Jewish collectors in Hamburg, but was the rule all over Germany. These illegal acts were legalized by countless decrees and laws passed by the National Socialists. Borchardt’s concern that significant Hamburg artefacts might be lost was indeed justified. Since October 1938 museums were prohibited from accepting donations of artworks or money from Jews. Bit by bit, beginning in 1938, Jews were forced to surrender all precious metals in their possession. Many collections of objects related to Hamburg included valuable arts and crafts objects made from precious metals. Perhaps Borchardt was aware that Hamburg – like all other communities in Germany – was obliged to surrender all precious metals to a central collections agency, where they were then repurposed for wartime use. Moreover, he had certainly heard about the numerous auctions where artworks and artefacts owned by Jews were sold at bargain prices – and many Hamburg citizens and almost all German museums officially took part. The state explicitly promoted this by means of subsidies or allocating special funds. A telling example of this is a letter by the Hamburg cultural department in which Karl Kaufmann, head of the NSDAP district of Hamburg Gauleiter and Reich governor Reichsstatthalter, issued the order to “buy art objects and antiquities at Jewish auctions that fall within your collection’s area of interest.” The treasury was to “make special funds available for this purpose.” Hamburger Kulturverwaltung (Stadtamtmann Lohmann) to the Landeskulturwalter on 12/5/1941, in: Asschenfeldt/Matthes, Quellen, p. 193. The exact amount of these funds and their specific use by Hamburg’s museums remain unknown. Borchardt could not have known about this measure. For these reasons alone, the head of the Hamburg Historical Museum Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte would have dismissed his letter with regard to the securing of Hamburg artefacts.
It seems that Borchardt did not realize the overall seriousness of the situation for Jews in Germany in its full extent, and especially the consequences it would have. It is documented that he came into conflict with National Socialist law in 1940 when he wrote a letter to the German consulate in Amsterdam without using the obligatory (as of January 1, 1939) male middle name “Israel” and his identification card number. He was originally sentenced to a fine of fifty Reichsmark, which he was able to reduce to 25 Reichsmark after appealing, pleading ignorance.
It is unknown whether Borchardt ever considered leaving Hamburg for a safe country. He did not. After the deportations of Jews were resumed on July 15, 1942, he and his wife Clara were among the group deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Shortly afterwards, the property left behind by the Borchardt family was auctioned off by Hamburg’s Schopmann & son auction house. The proceeds from the auction totaled 942 Reichsmark; the amount was transferred to Hamburg’s revenue authority on October 15, 1942.
Alfred Borchardt died at Theresienstadt on December 16, 1942; his wife was murdered in the camp on March 19, 1944. Their children died even before them: Isaac Theodor died on June 8, 1941 in Hamburg, Louise (married name: Wartelski) died on September 30, 1941 in Warsaw, and Hans died in November 1941 in Minsk. Alfred Borchardt’s letter belongs among a small number of lesser known documents from the period of the National Socialists’ greatest expansion of power that illustrate dramatically how a citizen of the Jewish faith sought, despite the greatest danger to his own person, to at least try to find some wiggle room in the given “framework” of National Socialist law at the local level. He did not succeed, yet his letter stands symbolically for the efforts of German Jews to effect changes in their local situation.
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Olaf Matthes, Dr. phil., is curator in charge at the Hamburg Historical Museum, he is responsible for the photographic collection and the archives. His research interests are Hamburg's local history in the 19th and 20th century, the history of museums and sciences, and the history of collecting and patronage.
Christina Ewald, M.A. is doctoral candidate at the Department for History at Hamburg University and research associate at the Hamburg Historical Museum. Her research interests are Hamburg's local history in the 19th and 20th century as well as everyday history.
Olaf Matthes, Christina Ewald, The Banning of Jews from Visiting Museums (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, August 02, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-200.en.v1> [February 29, 2024].