Hamburg's Portuguese Cemetery

Michael Halévy

The Jewish cemetery in KönigStrasse in Hamburg is not only the oldest Jewish cemetery in Hamburg, it counts as one of the most prominent cultural monuments in Hamburg and Northern Germany because of the exceptional decoration on the gravestones and beautifully fashioned epitaphs in Hebrew and Portuguese which bear witness to the extraordinary craftsmanship of the stonemasons who made them. It seems appropriate therefore to have this cemetery at last included in the UNESCO list ‹Cultural Heritage›. The application to UNESCO was given the necessary emphasis in a letter to the mayor of the City of Hamburg and the Presidents of Germany and Portugal.

There have been frequent demands that both the Ashkenazic and Sefardic parts of this remarkable cemetery should be the subject of scientific research. While the (larger) Ashkenazic part has still not found the interest it deserves, historians, linguists, art experts and genealogists have been fascinated by Hamburg's Portuguese cemetery for almost a century and have published important studies or written valuable manuscripts. These studies however only dealt with a few aspects of the cemetery and for a long time comprehensive research seemed impossible due to lack of funds. During recent years, however, the situation has changed and detailed study of this important Jewish cemetery can now begin next year.

The conditions for thorough scientific research into the cemetery are extraordinarily good: Many important documents have been preserved in the Hamburg state archives, the Institute for the History of German Jewry, the Department for the Protection of Historical Monuments and the private Halévy archives. These include books of records, registers of births and deaths, a list of Ketubbot, genealogical charts etc. Furthermore, there are thousands of photographs taken during the war(!) which today are an invaluable source of information in view of the destruction of many of the gravestones. In the early nineties the Department for the Protection of Historical Monuments commissioned the restoration of numerous gravestones. The photographs taken during this work also constitute a unique source for later study. In 1998 I discovered in the archives of the Jewish Community in Hamburg more than a thousand record cards with photographs of the Ashkenazic part of the cemetery which were taken shortly after the Second Word War. Hopefully more of these unique documents will reappear in time.

Since I began my work on the cemetery, by the Hamburg Institute for the History of German Jewry the following studies have been published or will soon be completed:

(1) Since 1994 a comprehensive Biographical Lexicon of Hamburg Sephardim compiled Hamburg Institute for the History of German Jewry. In this lexicon which includes only the Portuguese Jews buried in the Königstrasse cemetery between 1611 and 1877, the life stories of approx. 2,600. In addition to the dates of birth and death and other relevant facts of family history, all non-Hebrew have been included and printed with a German translation. Further there are about 850 Hebrew with their German translation. There is supplementary information about the type of stone used, the topographical position and a detailed description of all artistically relevant features. This combined biographical - epigraphically - art history lexicon will be published in summer 1999.

2. The second volume of the scientific book series is The Sephardim in Hamburg. The History of a Minority edited by myself, deals largely with the cemetery in Königstrasse. A further volume to be published in two years time is devoted exclusively to Sefardic gravestone art.

3. In a number of essays I have written about the epitaphs - epigraphic material in the Portuguese cemeteries in Hamburg and Gluckstadt. These epitaphs contain a wealth of genealogical information with which gaps in family histories can be closed. The next two volumes in the series ‹The Sephardim in Hamburg› will investigate the Portuguese communities in Altona and Glückstadt and on sefardic sepulchral art. In two years the book ‹The Jewish Cemetery in Glückstadt› will be published on which the historian Kay Blohm, the photographer Jürgen Faust and Michael Halévy are currently working.

4. In co-operation with photographer Jürgen Faust, who has been taking photographs of the cemetery for two years, the book ‹Betahaim› Sefardic graves in Schleswig-Holsteinî. The text is richly illustrated with over a hundred photographs of the artistry of grave masons in the Portuguese cemeteries in Königstrasse and Glückstadt. The photographs printed in this book are part of an exhibition of photographs, which were shown in autumn 1997 in the Jewish Museum in Rendsburg and in spring 1998 in the Jewish University in Hamburg. In autumn 1998 the exhibition will go to Münster and later to Israel and Portugal.

5. For an essay I compiled and studied the aspects of the images and on the Portuguese graves in Hamburg.

6. During the last years these unique graves have unfortunately fallen into a considerable degree of decay and quite a few have been severely damaged by vandalism. Now we have succeeded in co-operation with the authorities in Hamburg, the Jewish Community, the Department for the Protection of Historical Monuments, the Association of Former Hamburg Citizens in Israel and some, in putting together the necessary funds to finance studies of the Jewish cemetery in Königstrasse and also to undertake necessary restoration procedures. There are also plans to make casts of the graves of important and graves, which are of particular artistic value. Professor Michael Brocke of the University of Duisburg and the Salomon Steinheim Institute in Duisburg has been asked to make a scientific study of the cemetery. Professor Brocke, who is one of the most renowned researchers of Jewish cemeteries and Jewish epigraphs, will probably commence this study with his co-workers next summer.

7. Together with Michael Brocke and Gaby Zürn I have been asked by the Hamburg Historical Monuments to publish an illustrated guide to the cemetery. This guide will include both the Ashkenazic and Sefardic parts of the cemetery and will give an introduction to the history of the Jewish communities in Hamburg, of the cemetery itself, of Jewish law funeral as well as a map of the cemetery showing the position of certain important graves. This book will be published in autumn 1999.

8. In the next few years we are planning in co-operation with the Moses Mendelssohn Academy (Halberstadt) and the Warburg Library (Hamburg) to hold three colloquiums on :
(a) Jewish sepulchral art
(b) The Sephardim in the Shoa
(c) Sefardic genealogy.

After completion of this work we will hopefully know more about the Portuguese Jews who lived in Hamburg, their connections to other centres of the Marrano Diaspora such as Amsterdam, London, Venice, Curacao, Jamaica and Barbados. So far no such detailed studies have been made of any of these cities or regions and it is to be hoped that Amsterdam will follow our example and publish the long awaited lexicon of the grave epitaphs inscriptions of Ouderkerk in the next few years.

Bibliography :

1 Michael Studemund-Halévy (ed), Die Sefarden in Hamburg. Zur Geschichte einer Minderheit. Hamburg 1994-1997

2 JürgenFaust/Michael Studemund-Halévy (ed), Betahaim. Sefardische Gräber in Schleswig-Holstein. Glückstadt 1997

3 Michael Studemund-Halévy, Panorâmica da epigrafia tumular luso judaica-em Hamburgo, in: Actas do 4. Congresso da Associação Internacional de Lusitanistas, Lisbon 1995: 1081-1092

4 Michael Studemund-Halévy, Panorama de l'épigraphie funéraire judéo-portugaise à Hambourg,- Mémoires juives d'Espagne et du Portugal, Paris 1996: 105-125

5 Die portugiesisch-spanischen Grabinschriften in Norddeutschland: Glückstadt und Emden, in: Aschkenas 7, 2, 1997: 389-439

6 Michael Studemund-Halévy, Os epitáfios luso-espanhóis no norte da Alemanha: Glückstadt e Emden, in: Lusorama 36, 1998: 60-77

Michael Halevy, a regular contributor to Los Muestros, teaches at Hamburg University (Germany).

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- Copyright © 1998: Moïse Rahmani -