IV. Buildings Integral to the Former Life and/or Persecution of Jews in Altona.
15. No. 17 Palmaille.
"... so that the children go to school" (Jerusalem Talmud).
The Jewish Community School (Israelitische Gemeindeschule) in Altona was one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Jewish schools in North Germany. Historically, wherever Jews settled, in village, city or ghetto, elementary education was provided. Lessons were generally held in a prayer room, synagogue or the home of the teacher. And so it probably was with the establishment of the Jewish community in Altona in 1630. By the mid 17th century the first school building, a tiny building adjoining the synagogue in Kirchenstraße, is recorded. In 1711, following the Great Fire in Altona, the school building adjacent the synagogue is listed on the "conflagration map" as a victim of the flames. Over the next decades the location of the school changed many times: rented private accommodation, inconspicuous nooks and dilapidated dwellings. In 1805 the school was opened, with 60 pupils, in a house in Breitestraße, and then several years later it moved to no. 1 Böhmkenstraße. The name of the school also changed with location: Armen Freischule, Freischule für die Armen, Jüdische Armenschule and Talmud Tora Altona (in Hebrew lettering). In 1872 the name German Jewish Community School ("Schule der deutsch-israelitischen Gemeinde"), appeared (for the first time?) - a name that was nevertheless not consistently adhered to. In 1838 a Jewish patron of the school donated a two-storey house which was converted into a school building. For almost ninety years, from 1840 to 1927, the Isaak Hartwig Foundation at no. 3 (5) Grünestraße / no. 10 Gademannstraße served generations of pupils and teachers, and orphans, headmasters, and caretakers for whom the building was not only a school but also a home. The school building was repeatedly converted to accommodate the changing scholastic demands. Despite the visible deficiency in hygiene and inadequate classrooms lacking in air, light and heat, pedagogical methods were established that facilitated the provision of a child-centred, creative learning environment in the last phase of the school at no. 17 Palmaille from 1928 to 1938. It is these last ten years that this paper addresses.
The New School Building at No. 17 Palmaille.
Palmaille was one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, streets in Altona. A broad, tree-lined avenue separated the rows of houses on either side at the end of which stood a statue of Count Blücher, the city's chief representative. The majority of uneven numbered houses, like the school at no. 17, "backed onto the river Elbe". The Altona municipal authority had placed this magnificent building at the disposal of the Jewish Community School (Israelitische Gemeindeschule). In converting the building into a school an assembly hall with stage, a gymnasium, an art-room and craft-rooms were added. The drawing teacher and artist Kallman Rothschild, from the Talmud Tora School (TTR), decorated the classroom ceilings and walls with characters and scenes from biblical history. Perhaps it was he too who chose the dark green colour for the heavy entrance door and the two garlanded wooden columns. With his help "the old patrician's house with its oriels and verandas, its stucco friezes and heavy Gothic doors was converted into a place of genuine joy.
Directly on entering on the ground-floor one arrived, via the hall, at the classroom of the first year pupils referred to as the "baby class" by the older pupils. Particular attention was devoted to the arrangement of the classroom. Blackboards were hung low on the surrounding walls upon which the six-year-olds could make their first attempts at writing. They also served the drawing talent of the teacher Miss Lisbeth Caspari who with a few sketches masterly portrayed the sequence of scenes of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White in front of the beguiled eyes of the children. The broad windowsills of the high, narrow, double windows provided enough room for flowerpots with red bloomed, "diligent Lizzies" and for weeping children who were to water the flowers with their tears. The majority of classrooms were separated by movable walls so that, when there were insufficient pupils or teachers, two classes could be combined. The high ceilinged rooms were airy and equipped with blackboards on easels, and wooden waste paper baskets with enough room to "hold" trouble-makers. These waste paper baskets also served, in visual instruction lessons, to demonstrate the lifting of the Torah roll in and out of the shrine in the synagogue, accompanied by the prescribed song from the teacher-cantor, confirmed by the "Amen" of the class choir.
The assembly hall and staff-room were on the second floor. In the afternoons the latter served for religious education for those Jewish pupils, of all ages, who attended non-Jewish schools. These lessons were referred to as "religious school". The staff-room was appropriately very spacious, and divided into two sections by several flights of stairs, facilitating intensive group work. On the third and top floor there were smaller rooms for the school doctor and school nurse, and other useful adjoining rooms. Narrow stone steps led to the cellar which, to little children, was dark and mysterious. The cellar was also accessible from the garden via a side entrance. The caretaker, Mr August Haman, and his wife lived here; here was also the huge kitchen, which always smelled of burnt milk, and a dark room housing the boiler which heated the entire school. Here were also storerooms for potatoes and for the fruit from the garden.
Teachers, pupils and even members of the board of governors of the school never referred to the school playground only to the school garden, "a lovely garden with a view of the Elbe". It not only served for happy children's play during breaks and healthy sports activity but also for teaching the understanding and love of nature and for the growing of vegetables and flowers in gardening lessons; the old shady trees enabled visual instruction lessons to be held outside. Each year, on the "New Years Festival of the Trees" on 15th Shavat (January/February), the caretaker Haman together with the headmaster, occasionally accompanied by the rabbi, went from class to class distributing apples and pears from a huge basket to each child - the fruit of the harvest from the school garden. The "New Years Festival of the Trees" as a festival celebrating nature strengthened the attachment to the Holy Land and the common, loudly spoken blessing of the God given fruit, created a genuine religious atmosphere for the children.
In accordance with the government confirmed regulation of 10th June 1880 the Jewish Community School was "a state school in accordance with the Prussian laws of 14th June 1863, and 15th October 1872 respectively". The school comprised eight classes of five years, and was thereby structured like all elementary schools (Volkschule). Following the law of 1st October 1888 school fees were no longer charged. Payment was demanded only for the optional foreign language lessons (French and English as optional subjects) which amounted to 5 Marks per quarter year, and for text books and other school materials. However, according to the minutes of the meetings of the school board of governors these payments were much reduced or waived entirely when children from poor or needy families were concerned, and a large number of Altona pupils were such.
Some minutes of the meetings of the board of governors - also known as the school committee - have survived from the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries; the minutes of the meetings from 1840 to 1937 are almost completely preserved, from the time Chief Rabbi Jacob Aaron Ettlinger, among others, opened the school in Grünestraße with the following words written in a new minutes book: "... the art of writing was given to mankind by God in order to preserve the good and the useful for future generations ...". In addition to the rabbi other leading figures and incumbent community members were represented on the school board. The problems and themes discussed concerned the employment of teachers, religious and other teaching curriculum, the dates of school holidays, the job of the school doctor, as well as occasional disciplinary measures taken against pupils and teachers; but principally financial matters such as fees and reductions, teacher's pay or large acquisitions such as a piano or film projector were discussed.
Between 16th November 1926 and 19th February 1936 Dr Joseph Carlebach, who was appointed chief rabbi in Altona, was chairman of the board of governors; between 30th March 1937 and October 1938 Chief Rabbi Dr Theodor Benjamin Seew Weiß was chairman. Other renown members of the board were, to name only a few, Julius Neumann, Dr Hans Liebeschütz, Paul Möller, the lawyer Dr Alfred Manasse, Dr Erich Buchholz, principal teacher Max Sommer and Miss Ida Hagenow, the community secretary. At the end of the 19th century a proposal was made to accept women to the board as often specific problems arose concerning girls' education. This proposal was however rejected and a "women's board" established instead, which was enlisted when required. On such occasions "women members of the parents' committee", Mrs J. Rosa Hillelsohn for example, were invited. The last board meeting discussed the holding of religious education lessons together with the traditional education association "Jessode Tora", and the preparation of thirteen year old boys for their Bar Mitzvah; and proposals for new appointments of teachers to positions vacated by those wanting or having to emigrate.
Board meetings devoted much time to the question of social welfare, such as school medical inspection, the provision of milk and a warm lunch for children from impoverished families, and the sending of children to holiday homes or children's holiday camps. School leavers received sexual education, the boys from the school doctor and the girls from a female doctor. There was advice about careers and further education and much personal help in finding jobs - without compulsion to work on the Sabbath. As the minutes of the board rarely record political matters the school's reaction to the turbulent events in Germany in general and to the Sabbath Boycott of 1st April 1933, in which Jewish shops and department stores were boycotted and vandalized, in particular, - which occurred during the Palmaille phase of the school - is unknown.
There is little information regarding the curriculum of the last ten years of the Jewish Community School (Israelitische Gemeindeschule). However, a general idea of the subjects taught in the successive first five school years can be obtained from the school reports of a girl pupil.
The same subjects appear in the same order in the school reports of all five years and it can be seen that not all subjects listed were taught. It is also not possible to ascertain how many hours of teaching were devoted to individual subjects or what teaching materials were used. And yet this partial view indicates the gradual broadening and diversification of the curriculum without sacrificing the time devoted to religious lessons.
The Teaching Staff.
During the school's Palmaille period, as well as in the last years in Grünestraße, there was no longer an official headmaster. Up until 1919 this position was reserved for the rabbi of the Jewish community. Chief Rabbi Dr Meir Lerner was the last rabbi to perform this function and he himself taught the diverse Jewish religious subjects as part of the regular curriculum (religious law, daily religious prescriptions, Talmud, etc.) in separate lessons for boys and girls. He was also a state recognized examiner for religious education. However, with the enactment of the division of state and church in 1919 clergy were only authorized to observe religious education lessons. He was then allowed to make methodological suggestions to the teachers but the latter were not obliged to accept these. The minutes of the board of governors meetings of the Jewish Community School in Altona show that he continued to be recognized as the honorary "spirtual" headmaster, whereas the incumbent headmaster was referred to as "principal teacher" ("Hauptlehrer") or "head of school" ("Schulleiter"). Mr Bachrach, "a perfect gentleman and excellent organizer", admired by all the pupils in the Grünestraße school for his kindness and wisdom, was appointed "principal teacher" on the basis of his merit. Mr Max Sommer succeeded him when he retired.
during a visual instruction lesson outside, 1937
(far right Noemi Carlebach 1927-1942).
Former pupils of Mr Sommer report that he had his own methods of controlling the trouble-makers in his class. He neither repremanded nor punished them but consulted God in heaven and prayed for a better-behaved class. As his teaching methods were based on prevailing, modern pedagogical visual instruction and as he often taught out of doors he was generally popular and seldom needed to resort to the dramatic wringing of his hands.
Eva Möller's certificate for swimming for 15 minutes.
From the above and from personal statements of former pupils the Jewish Community School is portrayed as being one where staff and pupils joyfully participated in creative, child-centred activities which made it a genuine community school. As well as benefitting from private musical talents parents and relatives participated in the school play when it required casting a particularly tall boy (e.g. as Joseph, biblical ruler of Egypt) or a very small child (as Mary in the lyrical drama "Marie auf der Wiese"). Theatre property such as wigs, top-hats, dresses and suits of velvet and silk were all brought from home. And so it was that once a precious basalt figure became the victim of a young actor, portraying the monotheist Abraham, who smashed to pieces this lifeless idol. As regards content the majority of performances followed the Jewish festivals or biblical stories, such as "Benjamin with the sack" ("Benjamin mit dem Sack"), who could not sell the fragrant citrus fruits necessary for Sukkoth, or the warlike Antiochus IV, Seleucid king of Syria, who attacked the Jews and provoked the revolt of the Maccabees, and who was unforgettable to all children at the time of the Chanuka festival on account of his theatrical proclamation "Foul fiend, grin you still? ...". But also Schiller, Goethe and other German classics were celebrated in poem and song. After 1933 the teacher Philip Moddel wrote plays partly in modern Hebrew where the theme was the suffering of the people of Israel and the hope of deliverance in the land of Israel. There were short dialogues and songs that allowed the less talented and those with learning difficulties the chance to perform. The dress rehearsals took place before the entire school, and occasionally in one of the Jewish homes for the aged; parents and members of the community were invited to the premieres whereby the Jewish winter aid fund benefited. These events always attracted a large audience, whereas parent evenings, at which pedagogical-religious problems were discussed, were poorly attended. For this reason it was proposed in a board meeting to send written invitations to parents and not to be content with the entries in the customary "contact booklet" in which pupils wrote their tasks, instructions and school announcements and which parents read and signed.
In addition to the financial hardship there was the threefold "competition". The possibility of sending children to a state school was seriously considered by assimilated Jewish families which should not necessarily be interpreted as anti-Jewish but more as an expression of the feeling of having achieved the longed-for acquisition of equal rights and integration in German society. In certain cases place of residence and distance from school was the deciding factor. But also, contrary to expectations, children from religiously estranged, assimilated families often attended the religious Jewish Community School for the sake of convenience. However, the two Hamburg Jewish schools offered by far the most serious competition: the Girls' Secondary School in Carolinenstraße (Höhere Töchterschule in der Karolinenstraße) and the TTR, the Tamud-Tora-Realschule for boys. Both schools comprised both a primary school (Grundschule) with four elementary years (Volksschule) and a secondary school (Realshule). Many Altona parents started their children from the first school year in one of these two Hamburg schools. This applied to both German Jews and east-European Jews. The "enticement" of Hamburg put the prescribed minimum Altona school population, necessary for its existence, in jeopardy. In spite of the school's performance, especially the German lessons, being acclaimed by the Prussian school inspector, the Altona school was classified by many German Jewish families as perjoratively "typically east-European Jewish", whereas ambitious east- European families wished to offer their children the stimulus of a higher cultural- academic standard. The agreement with the TTR not to accept any Altona children of primary school age was circumvented by many Altona parents who accepted the higher school fees and travel expenses to have their children, especially gifted pupils, admitted to one of the two Hamburg schools. It was happily recorded that the move of the Altona Jewish Community School into the beautiful school building at no. 17 Palmaille brought with it an increase in the number of pupils.
The school also had a problem with its reputation. The spirit of the school was an indication of traditional religiousness which also applied to the employment of teachers which was verified (for example synagogue attendance). And yet, for some, the necessary co-education was unjustly interpreted as a sign of lax religiousness and afforded parents an "excuse" for their preference for an all boys' and all girls' school in Hamburg.
The Altona social worker and school nurse Recha Ellern unexpectedly became the advocate for the Hamburg girls' school. She claimed that the young girls from Altona had a better chance of further education at the Carolinenstraße school through the stimulation of the higher educational standard of the Hamburg girl pupils and from the cultural environment of the big-city. Perhaps there was truth in what she claimed as she certainly wanted the best for "her" mostly east-European Jewish girl pupils, but this merely aggravated the problem of the existence of the Altona Community School for which every single pupil was crucial to its future existence.
Lastly, there were internal pedagogical problems. Precisely because the school was so closely examined occasional pedagogical problems came to light more than in the Hamburg Jewish schools. The excessive burden of homework, the frequently combined classes and the above mentioned blows to the back of the hands and other punishments, that were applied as disciplinary measures by pedagogically untrained teachers, were criticized. These occurrences were in no way typical of all the teachers at the community school, and not typical of the school itself. Most former pupils remember the Jewish Community School as being "just wonderful".
Suffering in this land,
Friday 28th October 1938 preceded the so-called "Black Sabbath" which was the weekend of the "Poland Operation" ("Polenaktion") where hundreds of Jewish families of Polish extraction were suddenly and unexpectedly expelled, from German towns and cities, to Poland. The majority of these families ended up in ghettos and death camps. The few school children remaining in Altona were transferred to the Hamburg Jewish schools, to the TTR and the girls' school. The Jewish Community School building was impounded. The last photograph, from 1941, shows the new uniformed owners standing in front of the dark-green front door.
The school building at no. 17 Palmaille survived the war. Principal teacher Max Sommer and teacher Philip Moddel were able to visit the former school in 1949 and 1951 respectively. Shortly after this the building was demolished and a high-rise building erected on the site. Palmaille continues to exist, similar to the way it has for decades, however, there is no longer a no. 17 Palmaille. There is only a high-rise building (Federal Fisheries Institute) and no commemorative plaque - without any kind of reminder.
Prof. Dr. Miriam Gillis-Carlebach: "...damit die Kinder in die Schule gehen" (Jer. Talmud)