European Jewish Emigration via the Port of Hamburg
In the second half of the 19th century Hamburg became one of the leading ports of emigration in Europe. People mainly emigrated to the USA seeking a better life. Whereas initially the emigrants were mostly poor people from rural areas in Germany, in the second half of the 19th century there was a rapid influx of east-European Jews that emigrated via Hamburg. They were fleeing from the pogroms occuring in their countries. Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II (Tsar of Russia 1855-81) by the Nihilists in 1881 the Jews of eastern Europe were held responsible and the harassment and pogroms that followed forced hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate. The lodgings owners and emigration agencies in Hamburg were notorious for defrauding the emigrants of their small savings. The Jewish community in Hamburg tried to protect the emigrants from the worst by providing advice and accommodation.
At the beginning of the 20th century the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actiengesellschaft (Hapag) built an emigrant's "city" in Veddel, in the port area, as a refuge. It could accommodate 5,000 people awaiting departure of their ships. It included a kosher canteen and a synagogue.
Until Ballin Stadt was rebuilt only one pavilion remained from this former settlement. It was reached by taking the S3/S31 train to Veddel and then walking roughly 200 metres to the corner of Veddeler Straße and Veddeler Bogen. The building was in use but in a delapidated state.
After the First World War, in the face of the internal revolution in Russia, and the persecution of the Jewish population in eastern Europe, a new era of emigration began. Many of these refugees who, over decades, emigrated via Hamburg stayed in the city and established an east-European Jewish community. The yeshiva at No. 2 Bieberstraße was where they met before acquiring their own synagogue at No. 13 Kielortallee.
In 1933, a new era of Jewish emigration began with German Jews fleeing the Nazi terror. Thousands of Jews visited the numerous consulates and embassies in Hamburg with the aim of being allowed to emigrate. This was initially encouraged by the Nazis as it corresponded with their policy of expelling Jews from Germany. However, there were strict regulations regarding how much, better said how little, money and valuables the refugees were permitted to take with them. The number of refugees rose dramatically following the Pogrom Night of 9th/10th November 1938. Many families sought at least to place their children with foster parents abroad.
Due to this Nazi persecution of the Jews the Zionist movement gained members in Germany and especially in Hamburg. To many people an independent state of Israel seemed the only way to achieve a life of freedom. At No. 245 Tinsdaler Kirchenweg, 22559 Hamburg, in Rissen, on the western edge of Hamburg, the Ejn Chajim Training Centre was situated, for young people who wanted to prepare themselves for the hard life on a kibbutz in Palestine. They lived in Rissen as in a kibbutz. The Nazis tolerated the training as it corresponded with their policy of expelling Jews from Germany.
The greater the threat of war the more Jews desperately attempted to find a foreign country that would accept them. On 13th May 1939, the Hapag steamer St. Louis, with 937 German Jews on board, departed Cuxhaven, on the mouth of the river Elbe west of Hamburg, under the captaincy of Gustav Schröder. The St. Louis sailed for the Caribbean. The atmosphere on board was gloomy as the refugees had sacrificed everything and their last hope was that Cuba would accept them. Arriving in Havanna their worst fears were confirmed. The Cuban authorities refused them entry and compelled the St. Louis to depart their territorial waters.
Then began an odyssey across the North Atlantic Ocean. Captain Gustav Schröder sought, in vain, another host country. He steamed perforce towards Europe seeking a safe harbour for the despairing refugees, who had only just escaped the Nazi terror and on no account wanted to return to Germany where the Gestapo awaited to deport them to concentration camps. Captain Schröder, with some of the other officers, developed a plan to strand the ship on the British coast following a bogus engine problem, so as to prevent the return to Cuxhaven. At the last moment, the St. Louis obtained authorization to dock in Antwerp, in the Netherlands, and to put its passengers ashore before returning to Germany.
Today, in Hamburg a street is named in honour of Captain Gustav Schröder through whose personal courage the refugees were rescued.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War it was almost impossible to leave Germany as an emigrant, and shortly thereafter emigration was officially prohibited. Over the following years those of the Hamburg Jewish population who had not escaped abroad were deported to concentration camps and extermination camps where the majority were murdered.
At the end of the war there were many thousands of freed concentration camp prisoners wandering across Europe. Many of those who had survived the Nazi terror had the sole wish to reach Palestine. Thousands of Jewish refugees arrived in ports on the Mediterranean Sea seeking the possibility of sailing to Haifa. The most famous of the numerous ships that attempted to break the British blockade was the Exodus 1947 that departed the port of Sète in southern France in 1947. The British authorities, who had from 1922 onwards, administered Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, wanted to prevent any more Jewish refugees entering the country as they feared an aggravation of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. The ship was intercepted and boarded with force before it reached the coast of Palestine. Instead of interning the refugees in camps on the island of Cyprus, as was customary, the British sent the "Exodus" refugees back to France, via a troop transport ship. The ship lay three weeks outside a French harbour in the mediterranian heat as the French authorities stubbornly refused to allow the British to land the refugees. Thereupon the ship sailed for Hamburg which at this time lay in the British occupied zone of Germany. On 8th September 1947, the refugees were forcibly disembarked in Hamburg, and interned in a fenced camp near Lübeck. It was not until the state of Israel was founded in 1948 that the way was opened for them to enter the land of their forefathers.