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Berlin's 'Last Rabbi' Tended Fires of Faith Under Nazis' Noses

World War II: Martin Riesenburger, who presided at a cemetery, hid Torahs and prayer shawls and performed secret services.

April 20, 1997|RICK HAMPSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Holocaust and the war were over. A few young Jews walked up to the gate of a vast Jewish cemetery in Berlin, a graveyard so overgrown and cratered that it looked like a metaphor for German Jewry.

These men already had seen too much--at Auschwitz, they'd thought they'd seen the end of the world--but even they were shocked by what greeted them at the cemetery gate.

A rabbi.

A rabbi who told them he'd lived and worked openly here throughout the war, who said he'd hidden Torahs and sacred objects from the Nazis.

And that was why they had been called here, to dig them up.

Later, as they were leaving, the rabbi urged each to take something he had unearthed.

One of the men, Werner Coppel, thought of a common attitude at Auschwitz toward such holy items: "What good did they do us?"

Still, he picked up a tallit, a prayer shawl. A long one, off-white with black stripes and a silver collar and fringe at the borders.

As he left with his shawl, Coppel wondered: Who is this rabbi? And why is he alive?

*

His name was Martin Riesenburger, and he was the last rabbi of Berlin.

In the capital of the Third Reich, in the midst of the Holocaust, Riesenburger secretly tended the embers of Judaism.

Acting within the law, he gave hundreds of Jews a gift that was denied millions of others: a religious burial.

Acting outside the law, and at great risk, he conducted secret services and hid sacred objects. He even erected a sukkah, a traditional outdoor hut, for the holiday of Sukkot.

"Right under the nose of the Nazis, this rabbi gave Jews hope," said Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz, an American scholar who is studying Riesenburger. "For this alone, he deserves our praise and gratitude."

*

Riesenburger started out as a chaplain at Berlin's Jewish old-age home. That was 1933, the year Hitler took power. By 1941, the destruction of German Jewry was underway, and Riesenburger had to wear a yellow Star of David on the left side of his tallit.

But Riesenburger had a source of protection: his wife.

She was born a Christian, and even though she converted to Judaism in the 1920s, she was regarded as Aryan under the Nazi race laws. As her spouse, Riesenburger, like several thousand other Berlin Jews married to people the Nazis considered Aryans, was spared deportation to a concentration camp.

In late 1942, the Gestapo announced it would close the old-age home and deport its residents. Riesenburger held a final service in the home's synagogue.

"I made a short speech, interrupted by the crying of those present," he recalled in his autobiography, "The Light That Never Failed." When it was over, "We all shook hands, because we could not speak."

Working quickly--furniture was tossed out the windows, straw thrown on the floor--the Gestapo turned the home into a detention pen for Jews.

This was the work of Alois Brunner, an ambitious young Gestapo official who had quickly and ruthlessly deported Vienna's Jews. The deportation of Berlin Jews was going too slowly, and Brunner's mission was to make the city Judenfrei--free of Jews.

Riesenburger was arrested, taken to the old-age home and locked in the room in which he'd once presided over a ceremony marking a couple's golden anniversary.

After a week, he was called in to see Hauptsturmfuhrer Brunner.

In his autobiography, Riesenburger said only that Brunner told him to resume his work and released him.

Assigned to another synagogue, he held services at which Gestapo agents often outnumbered Jews. The latter realized, Riesenburger said, "it was only a trap."

In June 1943, Riesenburger secretly married a Jewish man and woman. He was 40, she 37. A few days later, they were deported to a camp.

It was the last marriage Riesenburger performed during the war; after that, there were only funerals.

*

Although Berlin had been declared Judenfrei, about 7,000 Jews still lived there. Some were underground; some were special workers; some, like Riesenburger, were married to Aryans.

When these Jews died, they had to be buried. The Nazis didn't want Germans to do it, so they assigned Riesenburger to Weissensee, the largest and now the last functioning Jewish cemetery in Berlin.

Riesenburger seems to have been appointed for two reasons: because he was protected, and because he was nobody.

"He was not a brilliant man, like some of the rabbis we had," said Jerry Bocian, who as a schoolboy met Riesenburger. "His sermons were simple. There were no great philosophical thoughts. I can't imagine him in the pulpit of one of the big synagogues."

But the Nazis had killed or jailed the great spiritual and intellectual monuments of the German rabbinate. That left Riesenburger, a warm, unpretentious man who liked to read his wife Bible stories. He wasn't even an ordained rabbi. He was a cantor, a vocation founded on his two early loves: God and music.

"He was not a big man, a leader," recalled Marcus Saferstein, another Berliner who knew him. "If he was, they would have taken him away."

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