Hamburg is a dark city much of the time, prone to rain. When the sun does
shine the city has a glowing, almost inner beauty. Like most German cities
it once had a flourishing population of people who, to varying degrees,
identified themselves as Germans and Jews. It was a dramatically larger
population during the 1920's then it is today. In search of a present day
community of Jewish people in Hamburg I am unable to ignore a dark past.
In addition to the portraits of people I met in Hamburg, Germany, the
pictures I made are of places that research revealed were once homes or
businesses of Jewish people who were transported eventually to death
camps during the 1930s and 40s. Some were Jewish homes, some were
the buildings into which Jews were herded in the days before being
crammed into freight train cars for days or weeks without respite, unable to
sit or lie down, unable to relieve themselves except where they stood.
I photographed the Hamburg parks and streets and cinemas and banks
and schools as well as public transportation, where laws passed during the
1930s forbid Jewish people from entering. When Jews did break those
laws, if they were not arrested and imprisoned, I learned, they were
sometimes beaten, sometimes hung from a nearby tree or post, or simply
The contrast between the horror that took place in Hamburg and the beauty
there began to occupy me and influence my vision more and more.
I sensed that for people then, as for people now, a beautiful place, a
beautiful day, flowers, food, love, art, were not different. Those people did
not live in a black and white world; their world was just as vivid as mine, as
ours. And into that world came terror and injustice and cruelty almost
beyond imagination. Right there, in Hamburg.
The true subject of this project is the immense tension I felt between the
beauty of the buildings and spaces Jews once inhabited in Hamburg and
the savagery with which they were treated in the city they knew as home.
Driving this emotional response to Hamburg was the sense, based upon
daily personal observations, that in many temperamental respects the
German people, who now inhabit all of those formerly Jewish homes and
businesses, have not changed all that much.
Being in Hamburg, I felt, for the first time, my own Jewish identity.
My mother’s family originated from Poland and Russia. And after having
been raised in the United States without any religious influence by my
parents -- only intellectual and moral -- for the first time, in Germany I felt
like a minority. I felt, in fact, the ghosts of history come alive, like I am
behind enemy lines.
Research about the history of Jewish people in Hamburg and my
conversations with Jews living in Hamburg only reinforced my discomfort
with Germans and Germany. I met a woman who had survived Aushwitz
and now travels Europe with a folk band. She confides to me that she does
not think the Germans ever changed much at all, or were ever really
interested in changing. The times simply changed, she says to me. I met
another woman who spent years of her childhood in a concentration camp,
and as an adult stayed in Hamburg working as a journalist. She attempted
to tell the story of what she saw as a mockery of justice as German courts
prosecuted Nazi criminals after the war; she told me that the Germany
justice machinery was nothing but pretense. She is ill and close to death
when she speaks with me, and remains bitterly disappointed by all involved,
Germans, Americans and Jews included. I saw a picture of her with her
girlfriend taken perhaps in the early 1960s and she is very beautiful and
they look like they are in love.
I met another very old woman who, while a Jew, was spared deportation
by a census error, and lived out the war in her apartment waiting every day
to hear a knock on her door. She is gentle and kind, and I was surprised
when she expressed to me, through an interpreter, a deep, strong hatred of
Germans. They are animals, she says, the kindness of her eyes in contrast
with her words. I asked her why she stayed in Hamburg all these years
when she could have left. She said it was the only home she ever knew. A
few weeks later she passed away.
I visited Nuengame, a concentration camp on the outskirts of Hamburg,
near a small village. Thousands were worked to death in the brick factory
and by digging canals there. Others were transported to the Hamburg
shipyards to work, or to local factories, until they died from exhaustion and
starvation. Those too weak to work were executed and later gassed in
several gas chambers built there. Now, groups of schoolchildren come to
the museum built on the site. Here I see an elaborate installation in a
modern building showing large prints of prisoners in conditions of horror.
Steel rebar has been used to support the black and white photographs of
prisoners. Something made me uneasy about how artistic and neat and
clean the entire presentation is.
There is also a group portrait of the SS guards arm in arm and smiling,
looking into one another's eyes, displayed in the museum with no apparent
sense of irony. While the old brick factory has been kept intact, its windows
are boarded up, and all of the facilities of the actual slave and death camp
were destroyed. There are walkways to the places the camp used to be.
Signs along the walkways point out where things once were. One, with an
arrow, says "This way to the gas chambers."
I met people in Hamburg who survived concentration camps during the
1930s and 40s. I saw the paintings of a famous Jewish painter who
worked until they took him to Aushwitz where he died along with the rest of
his family. I met people who have recently moved to Hamburg for reasons
of faith or commerce. Perhaps they are trying to make some peace with the
place or just use it like any other place to make money.
Most interestingly of all, perhaps, I discovered that the Jewish Community is
a legal term in Germany now, and that only those who attend religious
meetings at the Jewish Community Center and synagogue are given legal
rights and protections as Jews. One of those rights is round-the-clock
protection by police standing at the doors of both the synagogue (a new
one built after the war, since older ones are in use by Germans) and the
Community Center, which is essentially a Jewish school and day care
I learned that many of those who survived death camps do not attend
religious gatherings, and so are given no special rights under German law.
As one elderly woman says to me, "Am I supposed to go live in a home for
the elderly with a bunch of old Nazis?"
There is little kinship felt between those Jews in Hamburg who are religious
(and whom appear mostly unconcerned with any politics except those of
Israel), and other Jews who are not actively religious. Jews whose interest,
ironically, covers a wider political spectrum, including present
day injustice and the injustices of the past, in Hamburg, are not legally
considered Jews in Germany.
Throughout my work on this project my German girlfriend at the time, Tanja,
provided enthusiastic support, often leading me forward with her interest,
which was always sincere. Sadly, when she approached her family about
the project, she was met with silence.
THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF HAMBURG