Vom Grabmal zum Kulturdenkmal - Rundgang über den Jüdischen Friedhof Altona
Neue Geschäftsführerin der Stiftung Denkmalpflege Hamburg: Irina von Jagow übergibt an Dr. Ulrike Pluschke


Hamburger Sparkasse

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History of the cemetery
and its funerary art

The Jewish Cemetery Altona and the Eduard Duckesz House

Gazing through the lattice fence along Königstraße, one looks into a mysterious world. Beneath the dense foliage of lofty trees, one can discern ancient stones with strange inscriptionsFor a long time, one of the oldest and most important cultural monuments in Hamburg  was noticed only by the attentive passer-by. In this place, the Jews of Hamburg, Altona, and for a time also of Wandsbek, laid their dead to final rest. They brought them to the Heuberg areaaccording to Jewish tradition, far removed from the place of settlement. Here in 1611, the Sefardic Jews who had come from Portugal to Hamburg succeeded in acquiring the very first Jewish cemetery in northern Germany.They were granted the important privilege by the Schauenburg counts and later the Danish king in Copenhagenof establishing the cemetery in perpetuity. In 1618, the Ashkenazic Jews living in Altona and speaking German and Yiddish were able to acquire a plot of land close by in order to likewise establish a cemetery. For many years, these two Altona cemeteries were separated by a wall. Today the once divided cemeteries form a single unit. In the centre lies the Hamburg section, almost devoid of gravestones, which after the destruction in World War II was considered to have been destroyed. Yet in the course of restoration work, many fragments of gravestones have been unearthed, and these will shed new light on the Hamburg Jewish Community once their secrets have been investigated.

Since 1999, the cemetery has been the focus of systematic research and restoration in the framework of a joint initiative by Hamburg foundations, among them the Herrmann Reemtsma Foundation, the ZEIT Foundation, the AxelSpringer Foundation and the Hamburg Monument Foundation (Stiftung Denkmalpflege Hamburg). After research by Michael Studemund-Halévy on the Portuguese-speaking Sefardim, the SalomonLudwigSteinheimInstitute under Michael Brocke translated and commented on the Ashkenazic gravestone inscriptions with their lettering in HebrewOne can read a gravestone as a life history or a commendation to the world beyond. In the long texts, the merits of the deceased are praisedfrequently by employing appropriate quotations from Jewish biblical scripture. These inscriptions often prove complicated for the translator, since the Hebrew language leaves open much latitude for interpretations.It is written without vowels and many abbreviations are used. Numbers are represented by letters of the alphabet, and thus can also be read as a word. It is fascinating to stand with experienced Judaic experts before a gravestone inscription about whose meaning a lively discussion can ensue.

The Jewish Cemetery Altona also has artistic special features as well: the Sefardim buried their loved ones beneath massive grave plates, large slabs that astonish us with their Baroque stone masonry. The gravestones are populated by an entire cosmos ofputti, death’s heads, winged sand clocks, or even a hand reaching down from the clouds, slashing a bough from the Tree of Life. The Jewish prohibition of images? Biblical figures appear before us on the gravestones, embodying the first name of the deceased. Daniel must languish in the lion’s den, Jacob dreams of the angels’ ladder, Rachel leads the sheep to the well. We even twice encounter a bare-breasted figure of caritas with two infants. The fine artistry of this stone masonry led art historians to the memorable pronouncement that whoever wishes to see Baroque in Hamburg must pay a visit to the Jewish cemetery. Fantastic escutcheons and family trees of the descendants are part of the extraordinary plastic richness of the Sefardic graves.

The world of the Ashkenazim is more austere. From the low, round-arched gravestones to the larger than life sepulchral stelae of the Baroque era, the Ashkenazic gravestones, in contrast with those of the Sefardim, stand as a general rule in upright position. The efforts of the restoration experts have done much in recent years here to raise up these stones, because as a result of age, the effects of war and vandalism, most of those stones had toppled over. Even when they develop a certain grandeur, they are far less decorative than the stones of the Sefardim. Predominant here are the word and the polished turn of phrase.The Altona Ashkenazic Community was an intellectual one. Many presses published religious works here that still today are perused and studied. The rabbis of Altona had an importance reaching far beyond the region. Many of them lie interred in a rabbinical row of graves often frequented by the pious. The graves of Jakob Emden and Jonathan Eybenschütz are much visited on their respective anniversary of death, the “Jorzeit.

Since 2007, the Hamburg Monument Foundation has introduced regular opening hours and guided tours in the Jewish Cemetery Altona. The EduardDuckeszHouse serves as a visitors’ centre where lectures and small exhibitions take place. In addition, a library for Jewish culture, art and cemeteries invites the visitor to probe more deeply into the topic. The extraordinary topography of elevation on a narrow plot of land that cuts across at the boundary of the cemeteries (without itself ever having been a part of the cemetery grounds) permits us to enjoy a panoramic view -- likewise welcome to those pious visitors for whom entry to the cemetery grounds is forbidden by religious precept.  

The Jewish Cemetery Altona is one of three proposed UNESCO World Heritage projects for which the city of Hamburg intends to submit an application. The unique Sefardic funerary art, which in a similar form, due to family connections and relocations, can only be found elsewhere in Amsterdamand the Caribbean makes the cemetery into a cultural monument of truly global significance and stature. The paramount importance of the Altonarabbis, still present in Jewish memory today, attracts numerous international visitors, and likewise underscores the transnational importance of this site. That was also reaffirmed on the occasion of the celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the cemetery on 31May 2011.

Irina v. Jagow, Hamburg Monument Foundation




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