One of the best-known events in the centuries-long experience of anti-Jewish exclusion and violence is part of the backstory to the National Socialist genocide: the nationwide pogroms of November 1938 that became known (and infamous) internationally by their contemporary name “(Reichs-)Kristallnacht” (Crystal Night, Nuit de Crystal). These pogroms, which at the time were also referred to as “Reichsscherbenwoche” [Reich Week of Broken Glass] among other names, marked the most prominent event in the National Socialist persecution of Jews prior to the Second World War: Justified by its propaganda as retribution for the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a young Jew, the National Socialist regime ordered attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions all over Germany. In some places the surge of violence already began on November 7, immediately after the assassination became public, before escalating nationwide on the night from November 9 to 10, 1938 and continuing for days in some places. More than 30,000 men were transported to concentration camps, where they were held for weeks or months and mistreated. According to recent calculations, well over a thousand Jews fell victim to this outbreak of violence (this includes several hundred suicides as well as at least 500 dead and murdered subsequently in the Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen camps). The perpetrators, who mostly belonged to various party organizations, destroyed a large share of the sociocultural infrastructure of Jewish life in Germany – especially synagogues, stores, apartments, retirement homes and orphanages, cemeteries and schools. Not only due to the retrospective knowledge of Auschwitz must the November pogroms be considered the most significant turning point for Jewish life in Germany up to this point.
After Germany’s liberation from National Socialism, the treatment of the November pogroms was embedded in more general questions of guilt, prosecution, memory, facing the past, and learning. The initial phase was marked by intense examination of the far-reaching consequences of the still recent “German catastrophe” (Friedrich Meinecke) – at least among intellectuals, journalists, and artists. The following years saw the founding of two German states and the unfolding of the Cold War and were a period of subdued attention to the recent past that seemed to be neglected politically and socially and sometimes even to peter out altogether. In the Federal Republic it was not until the late 1950s that the critical study of the “Third Reich’s” history and crimes slowly began. While this departure primarily affected certain sectors of West German society such as the media, the legal professions, and intellectual and artistic circles, at the turn to the 1980s a broader debate on how to deal with the National Socialist period set in, especially in politics, churches, labor unions, history-minded citizens’ initiatives, and in academia. Questions of commemoration, memory and the politics of history – be it in historical places, with regard to commemoration days, monuments, films or with a view to political conclusions – now increasingly came to overshadow the earlier question of “coming to terms with the past” (meaning denazification, legal prosecution, compensation and restitution). Since then the “culture of remembrance” [Erinnerungskultur] has progressively established itself as a new key term.
After 1945 there were various court cases in which the perpetrators of the pogroms were tried, but in the end thousands of them were never held responsible. Throughout the following decades the “Reichskristallnacht,” a still controversial term due to its seemingly trivializing connotation, was the only event in the history of anti-Jewish Nazi persecution that became a major, albeit informal, political day of remembrance in both the Federal Republic and the GDR (although to a lesser degree). Especially the 50th anniversary of the pogroms in 1988 was commemorated as a special date in thousands of different events held in both West and East Germany. In the last decades a wide-ranging and heterogeneous network of initiatives, organizations, government representatives, locations and traditions has formed, and every year around November 9 / 10 its members ensure that the memory of the November pogroms is kept alive. Even after January 27 was institutionalized as the “Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism” in Germany in 1996 , commemoration of the November pogroms is a permanent, although not formally institutionalized part of the German culture of remembrance and is upheld by a diverse spectrum of both civilian and government actors.
The “Synagogue Monument” by Hamburg artist Margrit Kahl belongs among the above-mentioned, wide-ranging social activities of remembrance held in 1988. It is also an example of attempts made both within the culture of remembrance and the arts to approach this history differently than it had been done in the decades after 1945: critically towards the perpetrators, in solidarity with the victims, actively interested in gestures of remembrance, with more visible results, and more strongly focused on the present. The monument’s dedication was preceded by a slow-moving phase of conceptual discussions, conflict between different interests as well as procrastination by the local authorities, which lasted for almost ten years. After it had been presented to the public by a working group, the Hamburg senate decided in July 1987 to have the project realized. The monument was finally dedicated on November 9, 1988 during a commemoration ceremony. Kahl has described her work – a combination of conceptual art and sculpture – with these words: “1:1 projection of the former synagogue’s vaulted ceiling layout – leveled to the actual ground level.” The artwork, inlaid into the ground, was carried out – as the black and white photograph shows – in polished black granite, which traces the vaulted ceiling and the building’s floor plan in full scale, and in broken dark gray andesite filling the spaces in between.
The square called Joseph-Carlebach-Platz today, which until 1989 was called Bornplatz and is shown here from the perspective of Grindelhof, the street across from the square, was the location of the Jewish congregation’s main synagogue, it was built between 1904 and 1906 and could seat up to 1,000 people. Contrary to many reports, the synagogue, which was the largest in northern Germany, was not destroyed during the surge of anti-Jewish violence in November 1938. In this case the perpetrators defiled the synagogue on the morning of November 10, broke windows, damaged the interior and set fire to it the following night (and again two days later). After the Jewish congregation had to pay for the 37 meters high building’s demolition in 1939 / 1940 and was forced to return the lot to the city, the National Socialist authorities built a multi-story air-raid shelter right next to the former location of the synagogue, which still exists today and is used by Hamburg University. Until 1986 there was an adjoining parking lot.
Construction of the air-raid shelter (on the far right of the image) had divided Bornplatz square in two. Its southwestern section was renamed Allende-Platz by the Eimsbüttel district authorities in 1983 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Chilean president’s death. The other section, called Bornplatz until then, was renamed Joseph-Carlebach-Platz on request by the Jewish congregation in 1989, one year after the memorial space had been dedicated. It now commemorates Hamburg’s last chief rabbi, who in 1941 was deported to the Jungfernhof concentration camp near Riga, where he, his wife and three daughters were murdered a year later.
Margrit Kahl’s memorial artwork in a public space refers to the three historical layers this place contains: to the once most significant northern German synagogue, which was an architectural symbol for the self-confidence and equality of Hamburg’s Jews – and thus to a special chapter in Jewish and German-Jewish history; to the violence carried out and legitimized by the state which led to destruction, murder and expulsion in this as in many other places; and finally, to the city of Hamburg’s late efforts at remembrance as well as those of its committed citizens to create a democratic place of remembrance as a symbol of permanent visualization in this historic place that was changed from a scene of life to a crime scene.
As an expression of new aesthetic-artistic conceptions of remembering the National Socialist persecution of Jews, the synagogue monument belongs among the second phase of such conceptions in the Federal Republic. While memorial stones and plaques were the rule up and down the country during the first phase that still employed almost exclusively traditional forms, Kahl’s monument illustrates a tendency emerging since the 1980s which goes beyond traditional forms and virtually intervenes socially and spatially. As is usual for such retrospective distinctions of phases, developments overlap: on the one hand, there was and continues to be a continuity of traditional forms – Hamburg, for example, has realized an extensive program of memorial plaques since the 1980s; on the other hand, the new formal language was especially informed by an increased awareness, grown out of the generational change and public controversies such as the “Historikerstreit” [historians’ dispute] of 1986 / 87, of the radical nature as well as the singularity of violent Nazi crimes, which therefore had to be expressed by other forms appropriate to the new perspective on the period of National Socialism. “The monument to the former synagogue renders the building it commemorates experienceable once again to a degree; it is present and absent at the same time.”
The dedication of the synagogue monument represented an important step in the process of reclaiming and reviving this once important center of Jewish life in Hamburg’s Grindel quarter. With the reopening of the directly adjacent Joseph-Carlebach-School, which had been closed in 1942, including the accommodation of the Jewish congregation’s administrative office in the school building in 2002 as well as the opening of Jewish cafés and businesses, Jewish life returned to the Grindel. Margrit Kahl’s “Synagogue Monument” provides a kind of historic reading aid by visualizing the location and history of the congregation’s former center and thus the sad backstory to this most recent revitalization in a particularly concrete way.
“It will depend on the viewer whether they experience and perceive this place as a horror vacui or a genius loci” – thus Margrit Kahl’s response to the question how her monument might be interpreted and received. The unobtrusive pavement mosaic, sometimes called “Hamburg’s most inconspicuous monument,” is an “almost monochrome, subtle and abstracting work which entirely avoids pathos.”
The multiple meanings of this place including the history of its reception have led to its becoming the central location in the city of Hamburg where the National Socialist policy of persecution and extermination is remembered. The work of remembering is upheld annually by various organizations in vigils and other events. The pavement mosaic, which is two-dimensional only on its surface, vividly symbolizes key aspects of Jewish, German, and Hamburg history: the groundswell of National Socialist violence, the crimes and the losses, and finally the difficult and slow reclaiming of this epoch by a critical culture of remembrance.
What had been destroyed, had perished and was lost because of the National Socialist tyranny is shown to later generations through the means of a modern, commissioned piece of conceptual art that impressively reflects this historic watershed moment. The historic gap (in more than one sense) remains visible and in fact can be walked in; it was not made to disappear by a reconstruction or a new building (a new synagogue for Hamburg’s Jewish congregation was built at Hohe Weide between 1958 and 1960), thus allowing multiple ways of experiencing and interpreting it. Meanwhile the fact that the Joseph Carlebach School adjoining the monument and the area of Joseph-Carlebach Platz where the monument is located have to be guarded by the police force around the clock is part of a complex historical-political situation that is by no means self-explanatory.
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Harald Schmid, Dr. phil., born 1964, political scientist and historian, is research assistant for the Bürgerstiftung Schleswig-Holsteinische Gedenkstätten and editor of the Jahrbuch für Politik und Geschichte. His research interests include: regional contemporary history, commemorative culture and history of politics (especially the reception of Nationalsocialism), memorial sites and political extremism.
Harald Schmid, The November Pogroms and the Culture of Remembrance – the “Synagogue Monument” by Margrit Kahl (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, January 24, 2019. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-116.en.v1> [September 23, 2023].