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The Speicherstadt during the Nazi era

When the National Socialists came to power in 1933, economic and social life in the Speicherstadt also changed. Today’s UNESCO World Heritage Site bears witness to the systematic exclusion of Jewish businessmen from trade relations and the deportation of thousands of men, women and children via Hannover railway station – on the site of today’s HafenCity – to ghettos, concentration camps and extermination camps.

NS regime’s impact on the port

When the National Socialists came to power in 1933, the Hanseatic City of Hamburg underwent a seismic change in politics, when a senate consisting of members of the NSDAP took control. This senate explicitly implemented the economic policy restrictions on foreign trade and currency transactions imposed by the Reich government, which brought immense disadvantages for Hamburg as a trade centre. Thus, port handling and, inevitably, the associated unemployment figures in those branches of the economy that were intrinsically linked to trade and benefited or suffered from it, remained at the poor level of the Great Depression or even worse. The only exceptions were the shipyards where warships were built. After the company Gesamthafenbetriebs-Gesellschaft mbH [literally meaning ‘All port operations company’] was founded in 1934, it acted as the sole employer of all port workers from 1935 onwards and made all binding orders and decisions for all port companies that felt they were more or less forced to submit to the GmbH. This meant that the ‘Führer principle’ for the organisation of port operations and workers reigned in the port during this time. The people who suffered most from this were the dockworkers, longshoremen and unskilled labourers, who had no fixed contracts but were assigned work daily as needed. For the workers this explicitly meant that existing work was distributed more evenly with stagnating wages in order to cope with unemployment. However, this measure only resulted in lower monthly wages, which could hardly be offset by the newly paid holiday allowance and several special payments in addition to wages. This did not change until the outbreak of the Second World War.

HHLA in the swastika era

View over the Zollkanal from Bei den Mühren to the south-east, on the left the Jungfernbrücke with its beautiful gate. On the tree hangs a poster of the circle celebration of the NSDAP organization on 05.04.36. Photo: German customs museum

The owner of the Speicherstadt, Hamburger Freihafen-Lagerhaus-Gesellschaft (HFLG) – known today as Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG, HHLA for short – was not spared from the changes in the upper echelons of power. As was customary and requested by the Reich leadership, members of the NSDAP now sat on the HFLG’s executive board. Party badges and flags with the highly symbolic swastika became a part of everyday life. In addition to the replacement of all previous supervisory board members, all works councils were removed and any employee proven to have any form of Jewish relations was dismissed. One of the first official acts of the new leadership was the decree that every radio speech of the Führer had to be broadcast to all the dockside sheds and played for the assembled staff. Together with the forwarding agent Kühne & Nagel, HHLA was the logistics company entrusted with the import and export of all goods relating to the Speicherstadt. The company was also responsible for the transport, storage and sale of ‘Jewish crates’, and employed forced labourers and concentration camp prisoners during the war.

Bombing and destruction

During the Second World War, Hamburg was almost continuously exposed to Allied air raids. Therefore, makeshift air-raid shelters were gradually installed throughout the Speicherstadt. In the first few years the attacks by aerial bombs were largely manageable despite more than 300 air alarms, as other targets in the city had been in the Allied Forces sights. As a result, the Speicherstadt escaped major destruction, with a few exceptions. However, this changed with the devastating air raids in the final days of July 1943. The offensive, which the Allies called ‘Operation Gomorrah’ and which aimed to destroy the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, placed the harbour and the Speicherstadt under an apocalyptic fire storm for several days. During one of these attacks by almost 1000 British aircraft, the entire Sandtorkai on the warehouse side was set ablaze. The entire area was evacuated as best possible at the time, but countless victims were claimed. Even the customs officers fled the danger zone, which is why the customs frontier was open again for a short time for the first time in 55 years.

Ruin of block R 1 after the bomb hits of 18.06.1944. The part was rebuilt in 1953 as office building for the Freeport Office. At the building of the Hamburger Hafen- und Logistik AG the windows are locked. Photo: unknown, July 1944.
A truck drives onto the Kornhausbrücke, on the right side of the picture the ruins of the customs building at the Alter Wandrahm. A temporary wooden hut at the roadway to the free port serves as shelter for the customs officers and police. The entrance to the restricted area is controlled by German police and the British military police. Photo: unknown, 1948

This firestorm that lasted for day resulted in 15 warehouse blocks in the Speicherstadt being destroyed. Further bombing raids in the final years of the war destroyed other parts of the Speicherstadt, albeit no longer with the same intensity. April 1945 saw the last air strike carried out on the Hanseatic city, which had been largely destroyed by the end of the war. Entire districts of the city had been razed to the ground, with the Speicherstadt resembling a ruin. The almost 50 air strikes that hit the harbour had damaged or even destroyed almost 70% of the warehouses and 90% of the sheds on the docks.

Forced labourers

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the situation on the labour market changed abruptly. With the gradual withdrawal of young workers to the war fronts, there was suddenly a need for them wherever there had previously been a surplus. The lack of day labourers became massively noticeable especially in the port and in the Speicherstadt. Since this shortage of labour could not be offset by local personnel, the National Socialists relied on the concept of using foreign forced labourers who had been deported from occupied territories. Later, prisoners of war and concentration camp prisoners were also used for this purpose, who were transferred to Hamburg specifically for this purpose. The work to be carried out in the port included loading and unloading any transport vehicles, any shipyard and refinery work and clearing away the rubble after the numerous bomb strikes.

In winter 1937/38 a training unit of the Kriegsmarine with the submarines U 25 and 26 as well as U 30-32 and the tender (escort ship) Saar lay in Baakenhafen at shed 22 Photo: Gustav Werbeck

The forced labourers employed in the port were housed in sheds, warehouses or purpose-built wooden barracks. There were separate camps for the civilian workers and the prisoners of war, and the concentration camp prisoners were housed in specially set-up outposts of the concentration camp. An example of this was subcamp of Auschwitz concentration camp located south of the Speicherstadt in the converted granary ‘Lagerhaus G’ at Dessauer Ufer from June 1944. The camps were separated according to gender. The living conditions were extremely primitive, and despite the hard physical labour, nutrition was poor too. Contact with the German population was also forbidden and punished.
Between 1940 and 1945, a total of almost half a million men, women and children were forced to work. There were almost 1400 of these forced labour camps in Hamburg alone. Prisoners of war were threatened with death and forced labour, often in the port of Hamburg. In Hamburg’s Neuengamme concentration camp and its subcamps, almost 100,000 people were imprisoned, forced to work, murdered.

Jews in the Speicherstadt

The change of political power at HFLG, the owners of the Speicherstadt, caused severe difficulties for the Jewish merchants living there. For example, all Jews who were involved in the coffee trade in any form, whether as traders, brokers, or agents, were from then on excluded from any interaction. Leases for the storehouses were cancelled, and all business relations were cut off ad hoc. This led to the gradual disappearance of Jewish business people from the Speicherstadt, although their disappearance can be interpreted in several different ways. The Speicherstadt also became a gateway to freedom during the times when it became increasingly dangerous to be a person of Jewish faith. Several coffee roasting companies based there, including Arthur Darboven, for example, smuggled almost 50 Jews out of Germany through the Speicherstadt for several years.

The staff of the distribution shed Kamerunkai follows the speech of the “Führer” more or less eagerly. Those sitting on the back boxes show less interest. Photo: Gustav Werbeck, 21.03.1934

Deportation of Jews and ‘Gypsies’ – the station ‘Hannoverscher Bahnhof’

In addition to the population cultivating a Jewish faith, the Sinti and Roma living in Germany, at that time still disrespectfully called ‘gypsies’, were a thorn in the side of the National Socialist leadership. In 1939, 850 people of this origin lived in Hamburg. In 1940, upon the orders issued by Heinrich Himmler, the ‘Reichsführer-SS’, they were first interned with other gypsies from northern Germany in Fruit Shed C in Hamburg’s free port and from there deported to the Belzec camp in Poland. But that was only the beginning. Further deportations of Sinti, Roma and Jews to ghettos and concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau followed in 1943 and 1944. By 1941, between 10,000 and 12,000 Jews had left Hamburg. When the deportations began, there were still 7547 Jews living in the Hanseatic city, many of them aged over 60, most of whom were impoverished and isolated and under the complete control of the Gestapo. All deportations from the North German region in various directions were handled by the station Hannoverscher Bahnhof, on whose site parts of HafenCity are now located. Originally built in 1872 as the terminus of the railway line from Hanover, the station was used almost exclusively for the transfer of goods in the Port of Hamburg after the construction of Hamburg Central Station, until the National Socialists saw it as the perfect place for the deportation of undesirable sections of the population to their labour and concentration camps.

Where once the horror took place, idyll reigns today: the former Hanover train station at Hamburg’s HafenCity. Photo: Massimo Tealdi
Today, memorial plaques next to the remains of the tracks commemorate the deportations. Photo: Massimo Tealdi

The stations remote location played a key role in its selection, as hundreds of wearers of the Star of David would have attracted unwanted attention at Hamburg Central Station, as well as its low degree of utilisation, as it was necessary to handle countless loading operations with luggage, for which the station’s loading facilities were particularly suitable. The last Holocaust train left Hannoverscher Bahnhof for Theresienstadt on 14 February 1945. In total, at least 20 Holocaust trains with 7112 men, women and children were sent via this station to ghettos, concentration camps and extermination camps until the end of the war. Over 6000 of them died there. The remains of the station, which was heavily destroyed during the war, were blown up in the 1950s.

Jewish crates

Before the Jews of Hamburg were threatened with deportation and murder by the Nazis, they were expropriated by order. Their personal belongings also ended up in the Speicherstadt, only for these to be auctioned later. Anyone who had some money in 1942 could easily snap up some bargains. Furs, watches and jewellery were offered cheaply at auctions. But nobody really wanted to ask where these came from…

Crate of the Reichsbahn is loaded onto the “Selby”, one of the regularly returning weekly steamers to London. These standardized containers were called “Jew’s crates” by the dock workers because the emigrants’ belongings were also transported with them. Photo courtesy of HHLA.

The night of pogroms on 9 November 1938 changed many things in the German Reich for the Jewish population, from that moment on they were persecuted, imprisoned and murdered. The property and possessions of these Jews were confiscated and ‘disposed of’ right down to the last household item. The Gestapo’s ‘evacuation order’ already contained a corresponding addition. The entire belongings of Jews across the entire Reich and occupation zones who had already been arrested, killed or fled were stored by the Nazis in the free port and the Speicherstadt, in ‘Jewish crates’.

Some of these crates contained inventories of entire apartments. They contained everything from clothing to cutlery, crockery, children’s toys and furniture. These boxes were then auctioned off to the local German population on an almost daily basis by auction houses. In Shed 25 alone, a total of over 27,000 tons of the property belonging to Dutch Jews was stored. These crates sold like hot cakes, especially among working class people likes the dock workers. In total, around 100,000 Germans probably got their hands on these belongings very cheaply. The proceeds from these auctions went to the Reich.