At Hamburg’s central prison in Fuhlsbüttel, which had been established in 1879, the German-Israelite congregation in 1891 began to hold prayer services for its Jewish inmates irregularly and mainly on the Jewish high holidays. In 1905, following a successful petition by Hamburg’s chief rabbi, the frequency of these prayer services was increased to two per month in addition to the high holidays. This in turn led to a significant increase in the workload of prison chaplain Butterwege, who not only cared for the inmates of the Fuhlsbüttel prison, but also for those at the pretrial detention facility in the city center. Therefore the German-Israelite congregation on May 19, 1913 submitted a request that the chaplain provided by the congregation be paid by the state.
The congregation argued that the Bundesrat [upper house of the German parliament] as a government organization had already confirmed that religious instruction of prisoners in the laws of their religion was “desirable.” Moreover, while the number of Jewish prisoners was small, it was large enough to justify spiritual counseling; after all, there also was a state-funded Catholic chaplain caring for the minority of Catholic prisoners at the Fuhlsbüttel prison.
The senate commission in charge of judicial administration considered the congregation’s request, which it initially viewed unfavorably. The state government’s main argument was the low number of Jewish prisoners, which ranged between 23 and 28 inmates in the years before the First World War. By comparison the number of Catholic prisoners in 1904 was about 200, and therefore the senate commission considered state-funded pastoral care for this group of inmates justifiable. Despite its initially negative view, the senate commission tasked prison warden Ulrich Brümmer with making inquiries about the handling of pastoral care for Jewish inmates in prisons outside of Hamburg. The warden learned that in most cases the costs for their spiritual care were covered by the respective state. As a result of a letter describing the above-mentioned inquiries, the senate commission changed its position and decided to also cover part of the costs for Jewish pastoral care. The prison warden was then instructed to take up negotiations with the German-Israelite congregation.
These developments resulted in the agreement between the city treasury and the German-Israelite congregation presented here. It states that in exchange for continuing pastoral care the congregation was to receive an annual compensation of 500 Marks. The agreement defines the chaplain’s duties of care as follows: in addition to holding prayer services they also included religious counseling, caring for female prisoners and pretrial detainees, and caring for discharged ex-prisoners. Furthermore, the chaplain was obligated to translate letters written in Hebrew sent to or by prisoners into German. This might indicate that there were Jews of Eastern European origin among the inmates. The agreement is remarkable in many respects. Despite the authorities’ initially negative position and a relatively small number of prisoners, the funding for a Jewish chaplain is granted. Yet the German-Israelite congregation failed to achieve its goal of establishing complete legal equality for their chaplain’s work with that of Catholic or Protestant chaplains; the latter were employed directly by the state, who paid their entire salary. By contrast, the German-Israelite congregation was merely reimbursed for a part of their expenses for the pastoral care of the Fuhlsbüttel prison inmates.
At the same time, the agreement displays features of a modernized justice system that did not merely seek to punish prisoners but aimed at social reintegration. Although this agreement was written before 1919, when the major wave of modernization in the German justice system during the Weimar Republic set in, it already contains elements that were emphasized more strongly in the course of this wave of modernization, such as the goal to reintegrate prisoners into society after they had served their sentence (§3, 5). This highlights the particular position of prison chaplains in Imperial Germany’s antiquated justice system in which the punishment of prisoners was considered the purpose of that punishment rather than reforming them or the possibility of social rehabilitation. Due to their theological background, chaplains were able to use their relative independence to achieve goals beyond the official purpose of imprisonment and to champion the cause of reintegrating ex-convicts into society. While other European nations had already begun to pursue the goal of social rehabilitation in their penal systems due to the spreading of humanist thought and the establishment of incarceration as a means of judicature, there had always been strong opposition to this approach in Prussia. In Imperial Germany the understanding of the “sentence as punishment” continued to prevail. It was only in the course of the liberalization of the German justice system during the Weimar Republic that the state penal system moved away from this view. Meanwhile chaplains had already understood the social rehabilitation of the inmates entrusted to their care as part of their task much earlier than that.
As of January 1914 Jewish prison chaplains were subsidized by the government with 500 Marks annually. This state subsidy continued until 1933 and was only canceled after the National Socialists came to power. Jewish chaplains were able to continue caring for Jewish prisoners until 1936, albeit without a state subsidy.
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Robert Richter, born 2000, graduated from high school (Abitur) at Heilwig-Gymnasium in Hamburg-Alsterdorf, he now studies law at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. In 2016 / 2017 he took part in the “Geschichtswettbewerb des Bundespräsidenten” with a contribution titled “Antisemitism in the penal system? Pastoral care for Jewish prisoners in Hamburg Fühlsbüttel prison" and won a third price.
Robert Richter, State Funding for Jewish Prison Chaplains (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, January 21, 2019. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-247.en.v1> [September 23, 2023].