The Jewish Cemetery of Altona Königstrasse
The Jewish Cemetery of Altona Königstrasse. Sephardic Sepulchral Culture of the 17th and 18th century between Europe and the Caribbean is part of the Tentative list of Germany in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
The Jewish cemetery in Altona Königstraße was laid out in 1611 and is considered the oldest surviving Sephardic cemetery. Sephardim is the name for Jews from the Iberian Peninsula who were expelled in the late 15th century and settled in the Ottoman Empire, Northern Africa and Northern Europe. The cemetery in Altona contains about 8000 gravestones of both European Jewish cultures, Sephardim and Ashkenazi. The graves differ: the Sephardic gravestones are lying slabs or tent-shaped stones, the Ashkenazi ones stand upright.
Map of The Jewish Cemetery of Altona KönigstrasseLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
I visited this tentative WHS in May 2020. It is indeed very easy to pass by the Jewish cemetery at Königstrasse in Altona without even noticing that it is there.
It is situated in a very urban and populated residential area, along quite a busy street with constant traffic. A rather high wall on the left hand side of the entrance separates it from the residential apartments which are built less than two metres away. To the right hand side of the entrance there is a small playground and the whole surroundings look rather shabby with homeless people sleeping under every other tree. That said, the several high trees inside the cemetery help to conceal it in a sort of idealistic peaceful bubble. The Jewish Cemetery (Friedhof) in Altona is fenced off along its perimeter but the fence iron bars are wide enough to allow unobstructed views of the thousands of tombstones which lie inside, some of which are practically within arm's length from the perimeter.
It is a real pity that the cemetery has very limited opening hours as mentioned in other reviews. Moreover, make sure to check whether your intended visit happens to be on a Jewish holiday as the cemetery will be closed too. For the time being, the Eduard Duckesz House, the only metal structure just by the entrance is also closed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the highlight of any visit is the sepulchral art present on some of the intact tombstones. If you happen to visit when the cemetery is closed, just by the entrance are some of the biggest tombstones and if you have a good zoom lens, a short walk along the perimeter of the cemetery will still be rewarding enough, especially along Königstrasse and Louise-Schroederstrasse. If you manage to visit when the cemetery is open, entrance is free and male visitors will be given a kippah to cover part of their heads.
The Jewish Cemetery in Altona was established in 1611. It was used by the Jewish communities of Altona and Hamburg until its closure in 1869 and managed to survive the destruction and desecration of Jewish holy sites during national socialism and the bombing of Hamburg during World War II. It comprises an Ashkenazi section (German Jews) with some 6000 gravestones and a Sephardic section (Portuguese Jews) with about 1600 gravestones. Its outstanding array of engraved and sculpted funeral monuments makes this cemetery one of the most important testaments of Jewish communities in Hamburg.
The cemetery was originally established by the local Sephardic community which had immigrated from Portugal to Northern Europe to escape religious persecution. Most of them had been converted to Catholicism against their will but continued to practice their ancestral faith privately. Though Jews were not persecuted in Hamburg, they were not allowed to establish a cemetery for their community within city limits, since the Hanseatic city was a Lutheran stronghold and non-Lutheran communities were forbidden from purchasing land to be used for burials there. Altona, however, was not part of Hamburg back then, but it was part of the County of Holsten-Pinneberg, whose ruler agreed to sell the piece of land to the Jewish community. Altona was eventually merged into Hamburg in 1937.
Even though the symbols used by both communities are largely the same, the two sections of the cemetery are distinct from each other, since the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish communities had partially different sepulchral customs. Also, some of the inscriptions on the graves are in different languages: the Sephardic Jews traditionally spoke Judaeo-Spanish (or Ladino), which is a Latin language, while the Ashkenazi Jews speak Yiddish, a West Germanic language. Even though most epitaphs are written with Hebrew characters, some are written using the Latin alphabet.
When compared to other Jewish cemetries I visited such as the ones in Prague or Trebic in Czechia, the overall condition of the cemetery is surprisingly good. Exactly by the entrance to the cemetery stands a perfectly preserved gravestone, possibly the largest, engraved with a prayer in both Ladino and Hebrew. The motif of the skull was also present in the Christian burial culture of the time, as it embodies the idea of memento mori, in other words: remember that you will die, so you should enjoy life till it lasts. Many gravestones stand tall, but many others lie flat on the ground, while others are broken or in pieces. Some are covered by a thin layer of green moss, and some have been eroded by the elements to the point of displaying nothing but a blank space. Pebbles are frequently placed on top of some gravestones according to Jewish tradition. It is considered a mitzvah to mark a grave with a stone and it symbolises the permanence of memory.
The most striking feature of this cemetery to me are the different symbols adorning the gravestones, which I didn't notice in other Jewish cemeteries I visited. Through my zoom lens, I managed to spot many different ones with hands, deer, lions and broken trees. All those symbols have a different meaning connected to the life of the deceased person. The Cohanim hands, for example, indicate the blessing of a priest. The deer represents the Naphtali tribe, and the lion represents the Judah tribe, two of the 12 tribes that in biblical times constituted the people of Israel who later became the Jewish people. The broken tree means that the person buried there died an untimely death.
I'm glad I allowed a 45 minute stop in Altona to see this old cemetery on my way back from my visit to the WHS of Haithabu and the Wadden Sea. I think that it deserves to be inscribed and if it will be put forward as a transnational nomination even better, as I'll gladly visit other existing examples to be able to compare. It certainly sparked my curiosity to read more about these Jewish communities and their unique customs.
July 2019 - we visited my uncle in Hamburg. Of course it was a weekday and the cemetary was closed, but if you walk around it, you can see actaully everything, that you could see when going onto the cemetary.
I know the Berlin Jewish cemetray, of course the one in Prague and we have been to Trebic. I dont know whetehr this one is really all that special. Interesting the Iberian Quarter in Hamburg, that has to do with the Sephardic Jews that came here from Portugal.
Next time i will be here on a sunday and actually visit the cemetery.
When news broke that Hamburg, my home town, would submit the Jewish cemetery in Altona to the German tentative list, my initial reaction was "We have an old Jewish cemetery in Hamburg?!". While I am used to go to odd places off the beaten path as part of my WHS travels, I did not anticipate to find such a site a mere 20min bike ride from my apartment.
At the time the cemetery was founded (1611), it was not in Hamburg, but in Altona, a separate town till 1938. Altona's rulers (since 1640 Denmark) were more liberal in religious matters than Hamburg. They allowed the Jews to bury their dead on Jewish grounds. Jews from both Hamburg and Altona were buried here. Nowadays, the cemetery is in the middle of the town and the fact that a mere 155 years ago you were actually in a different country can only be witnessed by small stones inlaid on the border.
The cemetery suffered during the Nazi era by allied bombing and some vandalism. The Nazis did not, though, systematically destroy the cemetery. Supposedly because they intended to use the cemetery for racist research, the tombstones providing family trees and the graves providing DNA samples of 300 years of Jewish inhabitants of Hamburg and Altona.
I took a long walk across the cemetery. You have to mind your steps quite a bit as the tomb stones are laid very close together. The site acts as a window into a distant past before the horrors of Nazi Germany destroyed the Jewish communities and history of Hamburg and Germany.
The early tombstones from the 17th century are supposedly artistically valuable. The plan is to submit this as a transnational site of Sephardic Jews (Surinam).
Personally, I would prefer a combined German submission on Jewish heritage in Germany (ShUM, Hamburg). I think there is a clear universal value here.
Update: It seems the nomination was pulled due to the scope of the size being too limited. Germany is reviewing if this can be combined into a larger serial site.
- Bring a hat.
- The cemetery can be reached by bus and train. Königstraße S-Bahn station and Altona Station are close by.
- Check out the opening hours before you go. It's open only three days a week for three hours (Tue, Thu, Sun 14-17h or 15-18h). There are also guided tours (Sun 12h). I would recommend Sunday as the cemetery is located between two roads with heavy traffic.
- Obviously, the Speicherstadt is nearby. If you have a little time you can actually walk along the Elbe across the Altona fish market to get there. Or take a trip with the harbor ferry.
- The history of Altona is quite interesting. If you are on the Schulterblatt (Schanzenviertel) you are standing on the border and you can find the border stones.
- A different, sadder kind of stones also found all over Hamburg are the Stolpersteine (Stumble Stones). They indicate where Jews lived or worked in Nazi Hamburg and what destiny awaited them.
2018 Requested by State Party to not be examined
After negative ICOMOS advice
2015 Added to Tentative List
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28 Community Members have visited.