General information: First Jewish presence: 11th century; peak Jewish population: 4,500 in 1930; Jewish population in 1933: 4,108 (in June)
Summary: The earliest record of Jews in Dortmund is dated 1074; at that time, Jewish merchants were known to pass through the city. The persecution of Jews in Dortmund during the First Crusade (1096) has been documented also. There is no indication of permanent Jewish settlement in the city until the early 13th century, although a Jewish cemetery was established outside the city walls in 1136. By 1252, Dortmund was home to an organized Jewish community with its own synagogue and mikveh. Those Jews lived in the Judengasse (“Jews’ Alley”), in the area of today’s Luehringshof. Dortmund’s medieval Jews, protected by the Counts of the Mark, made a living through moneylending. During the Black Death persecutions (1350) Dortmund’s Jews were accused of well poisoning; some were killed, and the survivors expelled. The Count of the Mark and the local authorities confiscated the property the Jews left behind. Eventually, in 1372, the city authorities, in need of money-lending services, invited Jews to return for a limited time. These Jews were given back the mikveh, the cemetery and possibly the old synagogue too, in return for the payment of fees. By 1380, 10 Jewish families lived there; Shimshon ben Shmuel of Dueren was their rabbi. As Dortmund gradually lost its status as a political and economic hub, its Jewish population declined to zero (by the mid-15th century). Jews returned in the 16th century but were expelled again in 1596; they settled in towns in the surrounding area: Castrop, Dorstfeld, Hoerde, Schwerte and Unna. Thereafter there is no record of Jewish life in Dortmund until the modern era. Jews were granted permission to come back to Dortmund at the beginning of the 19th century, and did so in increasing numbers from the middle of that century onwards. In the early 20th century up until the Nazi period, Dortmund’s Jews, apart from the poorer arrivals from Eastern Europe, were mostly upper middle-class. They earned a living as businessmen, salesmen and in the professions; some were artisans. Jews were increasingly active in public life after the Emancipation; in 1910, three served on the city council, and one was chairman of the local medical society. The Eastern European Jews made a living through petty trade, peddling and crafts. In 1818, Dortmund’s Jews worshiped in a prayer room in the home of Jacob Salomon. In 1853, a small synagogue was built on the Wuestenhof. As the community grew, plans were made to build a new synagogue; a plot of land was purchased on Hiltropwall in the city center in the 1890s. The new synagogue, designed by architect Eduard von Fuerstenau, was inaugurated on June 6, 1900. The synagogue, which had a 40-meter high cupola; a room for weekday prayers on the ground floor with its own Torah Ark; a mikveh; a choir loft; an organ; and seating for 1,270 worshipers, cost 501,000 Marks to build. Its congregation was affiliated with the Jewish communities in Luetjendortmund and Mengede. Dortmund’s Orthodox, Eastern European Jews, who arrived during World War I and lived in the northern part of the city, operated several prayer rooms of their own. Those prayer rooms were located on Zimmerstrasse, Leopoldstrasse (there was a mikveh in house number 31 on that street), and possibly on Heiligegartenstrasse and on Muensterstrasse too. There were also separate synagogues in the Dorstfeld and Hoerde districts of the city. In 1861, the medieval cemetery was replaced by a new burial ground in Dorstfeld; which was used by the Dortmund community too. Another Jewish cemetery was laid in Dortmund itself, in the Ostpark, in 1888. Dortmund’s Jews opened a private elementary school in 1840; which became a public Jewish elementary school in 1858. The school changed address numerous times: in 1870/1871 it moved to 9 Breitenstrasse; to Kampstrasse (to a new building) in 1889; to 51a Lindenstrasse in 1930 (the school had 300 pupils that year); and, in 1937/1938, to 14 Kampstrasse II. In addition to the elementary school, Dortmund’s Jewish community ran a handcrafts school and a Talmud Torah; around 80 children attended afternoon classes in the latter in 1932. There was also a Jewish community center which, like the school, was moved on several occasions; the last time was in 1937, to the Jewish school building on Kampstrasse II. The center closed down in 1941. In 1933, up to 4,200 Jews lived in Dortmund, making up 0.8% of the city’s total population. The Jewish community operated numerous charitable and welfare associations, including a soup kitchen and women’s society. There was also an orchestra, a choir and community newsletter. Jews were members of non-Jewish professional organizations and sports clubs too. Dortmund was traditionally a worker’s town with few Nazi Party supporters in the movement’s early years; anti-Jewish incidents were therefore rare until the boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933. Nevertheless, Dortmund’s boycott began a few days early, on March 28. Entrances to Jewish shops were blocked; the SA and SS arrested Jewish doctors, lawyers, department store employees and business owners. They were taken into “protective custody,” only to be released shortly afterwards. On April 1, the day of the official boycott in the rest of Germany, anti-Jewish placards were displayed in the street, flyers were distributed, and SA men barred the entrances to Jewish-owned shops. In 1934, incidents of vandalism, violence and harassment increased: Jewish properties were graffitied; their windows smashed. The number of pupils in the Jewish school went up as Jewish children were excluded from state schools. The city theater was banned from staging a Wagner opera, because Jewish artists were to be involved in its production. In 1935, anti-Jewish demonstrations were held in which Jews were accused of being traitors, murderers, defilers of women and of attempting to start a war. The persecution intensified to such an extent that approximately one third of Dortmund’s Jewish population left; 800 of those who remained became dependent on financial aid. Nevertheless, during those years, Dortmund’s branch of the Jewish Cultural Association continued to offer plays, lectures and concerts. The community newsletter published articles on Palestine and Jewish history. Vocational training and lessons in Hebrew and English were intensified; the Palestine Office and Hehalutz organized immigration to Palestine. After the synagogues in Munich and Nuremberg were demolished in August 1938— at that time there were 2,600 Jews in Dortmund—Dortmund’s city council decided to do the same. The official reason given for the demolition of the synagogue, which was described as a “shameful stain” on the city’s landscape, was the need to improve traffic flow. This excuse exempted the city council from paying the 1 million Reichsmarks it would have owed the Jewish community had the building been “aryanized.” Eventually, under the threat of violence, the community leadership opted, on September 19, 1938, to “voluntarily” sell the synagogue and its land; 135,000 Reichsmarks were to be paid for the plot; nothing for the synagogue building itself. After the city council approved the purchase, Dortmund’s district Nazi leader arranged for a crowd to gather outside the synagogue and destroy its interior, breaking the promise made to the community leaders that they would have eight days to remove ritual items from the building. Nevertheless, some Torah scrolls were reportedly rescued from the building and kept in the community’s offices. A Torah pointer also survived and was discovered in nearby Unna in 1987. After the sale was agreed, it was claimed that anti-Nazi materials had been found in the synagogue; as a consequence the purchase price was reduced. Even then, the state still deducted taxes from the amount; the Jewish community eventually received a pitiful sum. Demolition work began on October 3, 1938; the walls were dynamited on October 19. By December the site had been completely cleared. Reportedly, the remains of the synagogue were set on fire on Pogrom Night, November 9-10, 1938. It is not known whether the Orthodox prayer rooms in the north of the city were attacked; SA and SS troops did, however, inflict heavy violence on Dortmund’s Jewish community: Jewish homes and businesses were wrecked, their owners forced to pay money to the vandals. Jewish men were arrested; most of them sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where 17 died. Five hundred Jews fled the city after the pogrom. In June 1941, 1,222 Jews were still in Dortmund. They were forbidden to use public shelters, radios, telephones or even the streets without permission. Gradually, they were moved into communal accommodation in so-called “Jews’ houses.” The deportations, which included Jews from Dortmund and from the surrounding area, began in 1942 and ended in early 1945. Eight transports in total, each containing around 5,000 persons, left the city destined for the ghettos and camps. At least 2,200 Dortmund Jews died in the Shoah. After the war, in the summer of 1945, a new Jewish community with 50 members, most of whom were survivors of the Theresienstadt ghetto, was founded in Dortmund. In 1952, the community was awarded 800,000 Deutschmarks as compensation for the synagogue; the city council retained ownership of the site, which was renamed Platz der Alten Synagoge (“the old synagogue square”) and today is the forecourt of the city theater. A commemorative plaque was erected there in 1990. Memorial plaques for Jews deported from Dortmund have been erected in various locations around the city. The synagogue in Dortmund today, at 9 Prinz Friedrich Karl Strasse, was inaugurated in April 1988 (it replaced an older synagogue established in 1956 at the same address). In 2006, Dortmund’s Jewish community had more than 4,000 members.
Photo: The synagogue on Hiltropwall in Dortmund. Courtesy of: Yad Vashem Photo Archive, 214AO9.
Author / Sources: Bronagh Bowerman
Sources: EJL, LJG, SG-NRW