Since medieval times, Jews weren’t allowed to settle in the city of Hamburg. The first Jewish citizens were permitted in 1612, due to a reorientation of Hamburg’s trade from the Baltic Sea to the new and promising transatlantic trade routes. This required a new type of well-connected, experienced merchant with the necessary language skills. Many of those merchants came from the Netherlands and were descendants of Sephardi Jews, who had been persecuted and forcedly baptized by The Inquisition, particularly in Spain and Portugal. After settling in their new refuge, these merchants converted to the religion of their ancestors, thereby creating a heated controversy in the city, which was carried out with zeal by the orthodox protestant clergy. In 1612, the Senate gained the support of the protestant universities Frankfurt (Oder) and Jena and allowed the first Jews to settle in the city. However, these new citizens were not allowed to exercise their religion or to build synagogues and they had to bury their dead in the neighboring town of Altona.
In the following decades, the Jewish community grew to about 600 members. Their connections to the Netherlands and the Iberian Peninsula were a major factor for the rise of Hamburg as an Atlantic trade hub. However, after the end of the Thirty Years’ War the attacks of the protestant clergy on perceived “infidels” and their religious services – which they were already forced to hold in private in their homes – grew more intense. The Senate found itself in a dilemma: on the one side the pressure of religious authorities and the threat of civil unrest, on the other side the centrality of Jewish merchants to the economic growth of the city. In order to calm the public opinion and to reduce the total number of Jews in the city, the Senate decided to expel all Ashkenazic Jews of German decent from the city, who had to leave Hamburg by Easter 1649 and re-settled in the more tolerant, Danish-ruled Altona. The Sephardi Jews, who were deemed more important for trade, were permitted to stay.
Even after this drastic measure, the antisemitic sentiment of the Senate and the general population prevailed. In 1768 and 1773, the Senate proclaimed five streets in the Altstadt and 14 in the Neustadt, where Jews were allowed to settle and buy property. In 1788/89 the first discreet synagogue opened at the Elbstraße. When Hamburg was occupied by French troops in 1806, the Jewish community had grown to 6000 members and was the largest in the German Empire. After the emancipation, achieved under French rule, was revoked, some of the richest merchants converted to Christianity in order to leave the shabby streets of the Gängviertel. At the same time, the Neustadt Gängeviertel became home to a lively community surrounding the so called “Judenbörse” – a street-market. This community founded a school in 1805 (Elbstraße), an Israelite Temple in 1818 (Zweite Brunnenstraße) and a Jewish-Liberal Temple in 1844, whose remains can still be visited in the Poolstraße today. Members of the Jewish community in Hamburg were, among others, the merchant Salomon Heine, the philosopher and university teacher Ernst Cassirer and the actress and director Ida Ehre.
With the end of the Torsperre, the Jewish Community oriented itself towards the Grindelviertel, which became home to the New Dammtor Synagogue in 1895 and to the Main Synagogue in 1906 at Bornplatz. In 1925 the community had about 25,000 members. During the Third Reich, the Nazis curtailed the citizen rights of Jews and in 1938 almost all of Hamburg’s Synagogues were destroyed. From 1941 on, more than 5,000 people were deported as Jews, and more than 8,000 Hamburg Jews lost their lives in German concentration camps.