'Like many, he faced challenges simply because he was Jewish'

Dortmund honors its only Jewish mayor, who ultimately died poor due to Nazi policies

A new initiative seeks to pay tribute to Paul Hirsch, who transformed the city but was denied pension by the government because he was a Jew, after retiring in poor health in 1933

Descendants of Paul Hirsch commemorate the former German mayor in Dortmund, November 30, 2023. (Courtesy of Combat Antisemitism Movement via JTA)
Descendants of Paul Hirsch commemorate the former German mayor in Dortmund, November 30, 2023. (Courtesy of Combat Antisemitism Movement via JTA)

BERLIN (JTA) — When Adi Amit stood in front of Dortmund City Hall, addressing a gathering far from her home in Israel, she felt the eyes of her great-great-grandfather Paul Hirsch looking over her shoulder. Figuratively, that is.

On November 30, the city of Dortmund unveiled a giant banner depicting Hirsch, who was mayor of the city from 1925 until 1933, when he retired due to ill health.

After the Nazi government denied him a pension because he was a Jew, Hirsch died in poverty in Berlin in 1940, at the age of 71. His wife Lucie took her own life in 1941 after receiving a deportation notice. Both are buried in Berlin’s Weissensee cemetery.

“Like many, Paul faced numerous challenges in his life simply because he was Jewish,” Amit, 24, told a crowd at the dedication. “But today, around 90 years [after the Nazis came to power], we stand here together in Germany to commemorate and acknowledge the man he was and the meaningful contributions he made.

“This is a point of light for me, especially given the terrible reality we have been experiencing since October 7,” she added, referencing the Hamas-led terror onslaught in southern Israel that saw 1,200 people brutally murdered and 240 more abducted to the Gaza Strip.

The banner will remain on display outside City Hall through January, and plans are reportedly underway to have a permanent tribute to Hirsch in the city.

“I just spoke, and I felt like he was looking at me,” Amit told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “In some way I felt like I was connected to him, especially in this moment. And I don’t think I would have had any other chance to feel that connected to him otherwise.”

Meanwhile, Dortmund Mayor Thomas Westphal has announced plans to name an annual prize after Hirsch and to invite family members back every year for the award ceremony. There are no details yet about what the prize would recognize.

The recent event was held during the 2023 European Mayors Summit Against Antisemitism, a project of Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), a US-based non-profit. The summit brought some 120 representatives from 60 cities across Europe to Dortmund from November 29-December 1 for panels and discussions on challenges and best practices. It also included a meeting with Natalie Sanandaji, a survivor of the Nova music festival massacre on October 7.

It is the third such summit that CAM founder and CEO Sacha Roytman Dratwa has convened since 2019. The first partnership, with Frankfurt, was digital and organized during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, a live event was held in Athens, and this year saw gatherings in Dortmund and in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“When we started working with the city of Dortmund, we didn’t know about the story of Paul Hirsch,” Dratwa said in a telephone interview from Israel. “As a part of the preparation, we started learning about the city and researching online.”

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, in 1933 there were 4,108 Jews living in Dortmund, which had a total population of 540,000. The city, in Germany’s Ruhr region, was known for its coal and steel industry and was heavily bombed during World War II. Today’s Jewish community in Dortmund numbers about 2,600, according to the latest statistics from the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Hirsch was born in 1868 and studied medicine and economics before launching his political career with the Social Democratic Party in Berlin. He climbed the ladder, serving as prime minister of the state of Prussia (an area now in Poland and Russia) from 1918-1920. Hirsch became known as the political architect of “Greater Berlin,” a conglomeration of the city’s many districts that formalized city boundaries. He was later wooed to do the same in Dortmund, achieving what was reportedly the second-largest municipal regional transformation in Germany since Berlin.

Yet his story is little known. A short biography by Renate Karnowsky takes up a chapter in a 1984 book in German about Prussian history, and there are stumbling block memorials and a plaque on the house where he and Lucie lived in Berlin.

Paul and Lucie’s daughters managed to flee Nazi Germany: Eva via England and South Africa to California; and Thea to Peru, where she married Max Kahn, a refugee from Cologne, and raised a family.

A woman passes a memorial stone where the former Synagogue was standing before it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938 in Dortmund, Germany, November 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Last month, Thea and Max’s son, Leopoldo Kahn, flew in from San Diego with his wife Marilyn and other family members for the banner unveiling in Dortmund.

“You can’t imagine the sensation I had when I saw that cover come down and we saw the picture there,” Kahn told JTA in a phone interview. “My feelings were that finally something was being done for my grandfather.”

Kahn, a retired businessman who moved from Peru to the United States 35 years ago, said he learned a lot about his grandparents from his aunt Eva. “And later on I read about him quite a bit. And he was quite a man.”

He told the crowd that day in Dortmund that his family was “living proof, that despite the efforts the antisemites make, we are here living in continuity.”

But complacency is dangerous, he added. “This meeting is a wakeup call that the mistakes… are beginning to repeat themselves unfortunately worldwide, and we need to work to stop these attitudes and hatred.”

The connections to descendants of Hirsch came about a year ago, through Dortmund antisemitism activist Daniel Lörcher, who at the time was head of corporate responsibility at the Borussia Dortmund professional sports club. He has since founded What Matters, a consulting firm for projects addressing antisemitism, racism and other forms of discrimination.

Lörcher had reached out to the Amit family in Israel because of his work to raise awareness about local Jewish history. He had heard about them through a friend of Adi Amit’s boyfriend Noam Bursztein.

“He asked me if I was willing to meet him, because the team is really interested in Jewish heritage,” Adi Amit recalled. Last spring, Lörcher met with Amit, her mother and Bursztein.

“Of course, I heard the name before, but I hadn’t thought about the family,” Lörcher recalled in a phone interview. “I was really surprised. And then things went very fast.”

Lörcher later met with Adi Amit’s grandfather, Leopoldo Kahn, during a special training session for the Borussia Dortmund soccer club at a Jewish school in San Diego.

Then, when CAM decided to hold its antisemitism summit in Dortmund, Lörcher suggested they “think about doing something special, to use the mayors summit to remember Paul Hirsch and his very special story for the first time.”

As the kicker, they commissioned German urban artist Mister Oreo 39, aka Julian Schimanski, to create the larger-than-life portrait, under the words: “Who is Paul Hirsch?”

Dratwa said that the Dortmund Jewish community and Mayor Westphal all agreed this was “a great opportunity to educate, and create a positive impact about the past, to create a better future.”

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