General information: First Jewish presence: 1630; peak Jewish population: 600 in 1929; Jewish population in 1933: 565
Summary: In 1671, the Great Elector of Brandenburg allowed 50 persecuted Jewish families from Vienna to settle in the city, after which Potsdam’s Jewish community developed quickly. In 1731, David Hirsch won a monopoly on the kingdom’s velvet trade, an accomplishment that prompted other Jewish entrepreneurs to enter the silk industry. The Jews of Potsdam acquired a cemetery in 1743 and employed their first rabbi, Jehiel Michel of Poland, in 1760. The construction of Potsdam’s first synagogue, inaugurated in 1767 in the presence of the Prince and Princess of Prussia, was made possible by a loan from Frederick the Great. The ground on which the synagogue was built, however, proved too marshy to support the large structure; accordingly, a new synagogue was built on Wilhelmstrasse in 1802. Until 1776, the Jewish community was forced to pay exorbitant taxes and was required by law to purchase—this applied to each new Jewish household—costly china from royal factories. After these crippling taxes were lifted, the community showed its gratitude by donating the synagogue’s silver ornaments to the Napoleonic war fund and, much later, by sending volunteers to the Franco-Prussian War. In 1903, a new house of worship in the Reform style was built on the site of the original synagogue (by then the marsh had been properly drained). By this time, prominent Potsdam Jews included industrialists, professionals and councilmen. A home for Jewish girls was opened in 1929 and, in 1932, a boarding school for Jewish children from families in distress was established in nearby Caputh. The Nazis’ victory in the 1933 elections and the subsequent economic boycott of Jews triggered a Jewish exodus from the city. On Pogrom Night, November 1938, the interior of the main synagogue was plundered; the building was not set on fire because it was adjacent to the city’s post office. The cemetery and chapel were vandalized, as was the Caputh School. Jewish men were arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen. After the pogrom, the post office appropriated the gutted synagogue building, which was eventually destroyed in a bombing raid during the war. Potsdam’s last 40 Jews were deported in 1942, leaving a few survivors in the community’s Jewish retirement home who were, presumably, deported to Theresienstadt. The cemetery and its adjacent chapel were restored 30 years after Pogrom Night, and memorial plaques have been affixed to former Jewish communal buildings. In the 1990s, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe founded a new congregation in Potsdam; by 2006, the city was home to 1,400 Jews. As of this writing, a new synagogue complex is being built on the grounds of the old house of worship; it will contain a community center, a retirement home and the Abraham Geiger rabbinic seminary, the last of which is associated with Potsdam University.
Photo: The synagogue of Potsdam on the morning of November 10, 1938. Curious onlookers in front of the wrecked building. Courtesy of: Unknown.
Photo 2: The synagogue of Potsdam. Courtesy of: the Leo Baeck Institute Photo Archive, 23793.
Author / Sources: Harold Slutzkin
Sources: AJ, EJL, LJG
Located in: brandenburg