Social Democrat, Cooperative Member, and Jew. Joseph Berkowitz Kohn’s Activism in Late 19th Century Hamburg

Sebastian Voigt

Source Description

Joseph Berkowitz Kohn’s “memoirs” give an account of the eventful life of a Jew born in the Polish town of Leczyca in 1841 who participated in various struggles for emancipation in his homeland. In 1863 Berkowitz Kohn was forced to flee Poland and went to Hamburg, where he set up his own business as a merchant. Beginning in the mid-1870s, he became active in the Social Democratic Party and especially in cooperatives. He became a well-respected personality within Hamburg’s labor movement. Joseph Berkowitz Kohn died in Hamburg in 1905. This short excerpt from the text, which is about 100 pages long, is based on the diary he kept during the last three decades of his life for his ten children and their descendants. Originally not intended for publication, his notes were copied on a type writer by his daughter Sophie. This typescript was given to the Museum der Arbeit in Hamburg, presumably by Inge Henker, a distant relative of Berkowitz Kohn. In 2006 Ulrich Bauche and Gertrud Pickhahn published an annotated edition of his memoirs based on this version. Gertrud Pickhan / Ulrich Bauche (eds.), Joseph Berkowitz Kohn, Erinnerungen. Ein Leben als polnischer Freiheitskämpfer und hamburgischer Sozialdemokrat, 1841–1905, Hamburg et al. 2006.
  • Sebastian Voigt

Caught between Judaism and the Polish fight for independence

Berkowitz Kohn begins his autobiographical text with a detailed description of his birth place, the Polish town of Leczyca, in which Jews represented slightly more than half of the population in the mid-19th century. He stemmed from a family of merchants. The ethnic diversity of his home town informed his intellectual and political interests, which were to revolve around policies toward minorities, social solidarity, and national emancipation. In addition, the importance of education in Berkowitz Kohn’s family environment strongly influenced his further path in life. For example, he recounts receiving an atlas of the world as a Bar Mitzvah gift and thereupon became determined to see the world for himself.

In addition to his native Yiddish, he learned Hebrew as well as the language(s) of his environment and the major European nations. According to his own account, he first wrote his journal in Hebrew before writing passages in French, Polish, and finally in German. As a young adult, he extensively studied the three partitions of Poland since the end of the 18th century, which had led to the complete disappearance of any sovereign Polish national state. During meetings of secret patriotic associations, he passed on his knowledge as a basis for Polish national patriotism. He also took part in the next armed revolt against Tsarist Russia in 1863/64. Frequent scenes of fraternization between Poles and Jews could not hide the wide-spread, Catholic-inspired Antisemitism Berkowitz Kohn had been confronted with since his childhood. After the revolt was brutally put down by Russian troops, Berkowitz Kohn decided to flee. He first traveled to Bydgoszcz  Bromberg via Gdansk  Danzig and Toruń  Thorn. An acquaintance of his father’s advised him to go to Hamburg, not least because one of Berkowitz Kohn’s cousins lived there. He eventually arrived in Hamburg on April 20, 1864.

Escape to Hamburg. Life as a merchant

At the time of his arrival, Hamburg experienced an economic boom. The population had increased to more than 250,000 inhabitants, roughly four percent among them of Jewish origin. The Jewish congregation numbered about 12,500 members and had the authority to independently decide on residence permits for (mostly eastern European) migrants. Two of its members, whom he does not mention by name, vouched for Berkowitz Kohn. Finding employment proved difficult for him, however. For a time, he had to make a living selling lottery tickets, like his cousin. It was his cousin, too, who showed Berkowitz Kohn Hamburg’s various facets and neighborhoods when he first came to the city. He was simultaneously fascinated by its vibrant life and disgusted by the vices previously unknown to him, such as prostitution. He witnessed great poverty in the working class neighborhoods his work often took him to, which awakened his interest in social issues. Selling lottery tickets was generally tedious and did not pay well, so that Berkowitz Kohn soon gave it up and instead decided to learn a skilled trade. He began training as an umbrella maker.

He eventually gave up his plan to emigrate to the United States of America. He did change professions and found employment in his landlord’s dry goods store. A short time later he started his own leather goods store, which prospered yet also meant hard work from early morning until late at night. As an independent merchant, he did receive both a Hamburg trade license and the status of citizen, however. This is how he commented on it: “Me, a Hamburg citizen!? Oh, forgive me, my dear homeland, my frivolous behavior, excuse the hounded wanderer who yearns for peace and seems to get by without that most sacred sense of duty of the recent past, excuse your orphaned son if he wants to rest in a foreign fold and wants to pick flowers on foreign meadows in order to make wreaths to commemorate you.” (p. 98)

Feeling torn between Poland and Hamburg

This quote combines many aspects of Berkowitz Kohn’s difficult and eventful life. Torn between different countries, forced to flee, and constantly reminded of his origin, he eventually chose Hamburg as his adopted home. He later found his political home in Social Democracy, whose socialist universalism provided him, the “haunted wanderer,” with a solid and simultaneously cosmopolitan anchor. Initially, he was plagued by a bad conscience towards Poland, his “dear homeland,” which he left due to his yearning “for peace”. To make up for this renunciation and in order to uphold the memory of his place of birth, he became active in Polish exile associations.

A short time later, Berkowitz Kohn married Auguste Gabrielsen, who came from an orthodox family. Having temporarily been estranged from Hamburg’s Jewish congregation, he was now brought into closer contact with the community by his wife. Instead of integrating himself, however, he attempted to reform it by writing treatises on Jewish history and giving lectures. In the 1870s, when Antisemitism directed against eastern European Jews increased in Hamburg as in other places, unlike many of his fellow Jews, he did not retreat from public life in order to keep a low profile. Instead he founded a Polish association, in which Christian and Jewish emigrants conversed in their native language and discussed the situation in their former homeland. Berkowitz Kohn served as head of the association for many years.

Activism in the Social Democratic movement

Moreover, he concerned himself with the increasingly pressing matters of the “Social Question.” He witnessed the consequences of accelerated industrialization in the living conditions of Hamburg’s proletariat, yet he also felt them himself. The invention of new machines meant financial ruin for many shoemakers, and in the early 1880, it temporarily bankrupted his leather goods store just after his tenth child had been born. His sympathies for socialist ideas and Social Democracy grew stronger. Generally speaking, Jews were active in the Social Democratic Party in disproportionately high numbers. Their percentage among Social Democratic members of parliament was much higher than their percentage among the overall population. And not even this: Also many of the party’s leading thinkers were Jews. At the time, Hamburg became the stronghold of the German labor movement. Its local SPD chapter counted 4000 members in the mid-1870s, which was almost a fifth of the party’s countrywide membership. Hamburg was also the location of several labor union executive boards as well as the center of the cooperative movement.

In this environment, Berkowitz Kohn increasingly became active in the “social movements,” as the excerpt from the source states. Widespread poverty and poor living conditions among the proletariat had made him aware of the necessity for a fundamental change in social conditions. He considered political education a key factor in this effort. He was active in several Workers’ Educational Associations  Arbeiterbildungsvereine and in various cooperatives. Using his commercial knowledge, he explained larger economic contexts to the workers: “Upon closer inspection of the new social laws, one soon found in the union meetings and in the forming of cooperatives, a large field for sowing the seed of economic education for the working class. In Hamburg’s Old Town and in Barmbek, I taught history, accounting, and basic political economy at the School for Workers’ Education  Arbeiter-Fortbildungsverein. I later joined the board of the Education Association in Eimsbüttel, and I was able to recruit good teachers of German, Calculus, Writing, Drawing, Stenography, etc.” (pp.111)

As chairman of a proletarian educational association, he attracted the attention of the police, who, acting on the Anti-Socialist Law  The “Law against the Publicly Dangerous Endeavors of Social Democracy,” [Sozialistengesetz] passed on October 19, 1878. of 1878, suspected the association of being a Social Democratic front. However, state repression was unable to prevent the rise of Social Democracy in Hamburg or in any other German city. In fact, the Social Democrats gained a significant number of votes in the course of the 1880s. Party-affiliated newspapers were established and various workers’ associations were founded while Hamburg’s labor union movement grew as well.

After the Anti-Socialist Law was repealed in 1890, Hamburg was represented in parliament by August Bebel, one of the leading and most influential German Social Democrats, and Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Dietz, founder of the J.H.W.-Dietz publishing house, among others.

Berkowitz Kohn’s political legacy

The cooperative movement also saw a further boost during this time. In 1899, Berkowitz Kohn took on a leading role in the founding of “Produktion,” a consumer cooperative and building and savings society, which was to become one of the most important socialist consumer cooperatives. He remained active in Hamburg’s labor movement until his death on April 3, 1905. His importance for Hamburg’s Social Democratic Party becomes evident in the numerous obituaries honoring the decades of service this Jewish comrade devoted to it. “Vorwärts,” the party’s central organ, was among the papers reporting his death, and several cooperatives placed death notices in Hamburg’s workers’ newspapers. More than 100 people attended his funeral at the Jewish cemetery in Hamburg-Ohlsdorf, most of them SPD party members bearing a red and black flag and several wreaths decorated with red bows. The pallbearers were Jewish, and the funeral service was held in accordance with Jewish rite. Despite his decades of service to Hamburg’s labor movement, Berkowitz Kohn largely fell into oblivion. His descendants continued his work, however. His grandson, Reinhard Kohn, after years of being persecuted and oppressed by the National Socialists, not only became Senate President of Hamburg after 1945, but, being a long-standing member of the SPD, he also was appointed deputy chief justice of the Higher Social Court.

Joseph Berkowitz Kohn’s memoirs represent a remarkable document for Hamburg’s Jewish history. His life paradigmatically reflects the migration of eastern European Jews to Hamburg and their frequent activism in Social Democracy, labor unions, and cooperatives during the last third of the 19th century.

Select Bibliography

Christoph Holstein et al., „Alles für Hamburg.“ Die Geschichte der Hamburger SPD von den Anfängen bis 2007, Norderstedt 2008.
Gertrud Pickhan / Ulrich Bauche (eds.), Joseph Berkowitz Kohn, Erinnerungen. Ein Leben als polnischer Freiheitskämpfer und hamburgischer Sozialdemokrat, 1841–1905, Hamburg et al. 2006.

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

Sebastian Voigt, Dr. phil., is a research assistant at the Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ) in Munich, fellow at the Institute of Social Movements (Bochum) and lecturer at the city's Ruhr-University. His focus of research is: history of labour and union movements, history of antisemitism and history of (anti-) communism.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Sebastian Voigt, Social Democrat, Cooperative Member, and Jew. Joseph Berkowitz Kohn’s Activism in Late 19th Century Hamburg (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <> [February 25, 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.