- The Jews and Germans of Hamburg: The Destruction of a Civilization 1790–1945 by J.A.S. Grenville
To the extensive literature on Hamburg during the Nazi years, the late John Grenville added this admirable history of the city’s Jews, based in part on documents that survived because a janitor ignored Gestapo orders in 1945 to destroy them. The title may [End Page 485] mislead, for only two brief chapters summarize the tale of the Jewish community before 1933; the bulk of the book focuses on the community’s destruction. General readers will appreciate Grenville’s decision to devote as much space to events in Germany overall as to those specific to Hamburg, interweaving both gracefully.
Specialists hoping to learn how Hamburg’s Jews fared vis-à-vis those elsewhere may regret that this study provides no systematic comparisons. Passing references to crueler circumstances in nearby Hannover imply that Hamburg’s Jews fared somewhat better. Grenville attributes this fact to leading personalities on both the German and the Jewish sides—implicitly downplaying the influence of the city’s mercantile traditions. Gauleiter Karl Kaufmann suspended his zealous antisemitism where cash was concerned: when it dawned on him that money could be saved by keeping Jewish children out of public schools, he reversed an earlier order cancelling annual subsidies to Orthodox Jewish schools. Economic concerns likewise prompted the Nazi leader to shield Jewish-owned import and export firms from Aryanization. But fiscal concerns could also lead to negative results, as when Kaufmann ignored directives from Berlin exempting half-Jews from expropriation.
The conservative leaders of Hamburg’s Jewish community, many of whom had occupied prominent positions in civic institutions during the Weimar Republic, proved adept at maintaining longstanding ties with government bureaucrats, and not averse to groveling before Nazi officials when they saw the opportunity to ameliorate conditions. They did not always succeed. Education officials proved surprisingly congenial; Hamburg’s Welfare Office, run by a vicious Nazi, was consistently perverse. Grenville singles out Jewish community chairman Max Plaut for his skill in dealing with the Nazis. A secular, fully assimilated, German nationalist and a Freikorps veteran, Plaut inspired a certain respect among the bureaucrats. His opposite number at the Gestapo, Claus Goettsche, was motivated more by opportunism than ideology. Their relationship enabled the Jewish leader to win a few minor concessions. Plaut managed to negotiate the release of Jews from Sachsenhausen, secure passports and visas for some of those wishing to emigrate, and establish a short-lived Jewish bordello that avoided complications under the Nuremberg Laws. He persuaded Goettsche to alter orders that would have sent Chief Rabbi Joseph Carlebach to Auschwitz; instead Carlebach was sent to the Riga ghetto, where it was thought (erroneously) he would be safer. The author may seem at pains to defend Plaut against the charges of collaboration that poisoned his postwar attempt to settle in Palestine.
Grenville extends that defense to the broader leadership of the Hamburg Jewish community, whose members might have emigrated but stayed on in order to sustain solidarity, provide social services, and facilitate others’ emigration in the face of advancing demoralization and pauperization. Their efforts helped enable more than half of Hamburg’s Jews to survive. In addition to the usual maintenance of educational and charitable institutions, there was the totally unexpected responsibility of vacating the Jewish cemetery and removing the corpses to a new inter-confessional [End Page 486] necropolis. Banker Max Warburg repeatedly delayed emigrating in order to keep Jewish charities afloat and help secure foreign visas.
Initially the sense of urgency to leave was muted. Mixed signals from official sources kept Hamburg Jews guessing about their future in Germany until Kristallnacht shattered the hopes of all but the most willfully optimistic. During the war Jewish community leaders were compelled to provide forced labor, herd their coreligionists into segregated housing, and facilitate deportations. That most of the later transports from Hamburg were destined for the “model ghetto” at Theresienstadt rendered the last of these obligations...