Memoirs of a Jewish Journalist in Nazi Germany
My late father wrote this on April 1st, 1983, half a century to the day when the Brown Shirts booted Jewish Attorneys out of the German Courts.
Some eighteen months before my late father passed, he wrote about the events he lived through in Berlin with the rise of Hitler to power. The series of articles were published in the UK, the US, and in South Africa in various Jewish publications. While I have edited the occasional word to fit in with today’s more modern style of writing, the text remains more or less the same. This is the first of the six articles he wrote.
Before the Holocaust
My father met Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck wearing a chaplain’s uniform in German occupied ussia. The occasion was a Rosh Hashannah service for Jewish soldiers of the Kaiser’s army. The year was 1916.
Half a decade later, Dr Baeck used to conduct the services in Berlin’s Lutzowstrasse synagogue.
Father was a regular worshipper, a dark Homberg on his head on Friday nights, a top silk hat and talis on the holy days. Thus it became unavoidable that Dr Baeck made me Barmitzvah in 1923, just after my 13th birthday.
There were larger synagogues in Berlin than the Lutzowstrasse, like the ‘Great Synagogue’ in the Oranieburger strasse which I think took over 3,000 worshippers. The Lutzowstrasse in West Berlin was bout half its size. Even so, it was an imposing building.
There was a huge organ and a large upstairs stage for a mixed choir whose soloists more often than not were operatic singers of some fame.
In the terminology then used, practically all of the synagogues of the Berlin Jewish congregations, practiced ‘liberal’ interpretation of the Torah, and liberal services. But ladies were strictly segregated on the top floor gallery surrounding the prayer hall proper.
There was an intense social, cultural and political life in Berlin’s almost 200,000 strong Jewish community, comprising schools, sports clubs, lodges, and political organizations destined either to fight anti Semitism, or promote Zionism, immigration to the then Palestine.
There was an association serving the interests of members of the Synagogue Lutzowstrasse congregation. Its president was naturally Dr Baeck. I remember two members of the committee, a tall and suave Mr Klein, forever fixing things and pulling strings, and Dr Berlach, a legal man and Dr Baeck’s son-in-law.
My father had let himself be talked into being the secretary. That was find, as long as Dad employed a Jewish shorthand typist in his business to whom he could dictate lengthy letters and minutes.
“It was not so wonderful any more when Miss Cohen’s successor turned out to be a non-Jewish woman, and Dad was too embarrassed to confide to her discretion Jewish religious affairs.
I had just taught myself two finger typing on Dad’s new 1924 Adler typewriter. Shorthand I learned at school. So Dad spanned me in doing the minutes and letters — never mind that I would have preferred going swimming or ice skating when school work was done.
The Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue was lucky. It was a huge, huge hall. So, they had to employ a rabbi who would be audible, a man with a powerful voice — microphones and public address systems were then still technical curiosities.
To give their congregations variety, the synagogues used to swop their rabbis on a roster system. When the man from the Great Synagogue, a Dr Weisse, came our way, the services were invariably packed. He was a fascinating public speaker, talking the scriptures and a recent topical event and linking them in a thoughtful way. His voice would sink to a whisper, the tension of his listeners built up, a stillness and silence and suppressed breathing filled the air. Then, suddenly, Dr Weisse would raise that powerful melodious voice of his, and thunder forth an exposure of anti-Semitic hooligans and their intellectual bosses, or an admonition to us young people to stride forth in pride and take the fight to the enemy of the Lord.
Strong stuff this was; we lapped it up.
By comparison, Dr Baeck was a lousy public speaker. His deep religious philosophy, brought forth in a monotonous preaching voice, was almost guaranteed to send an exhausted Yom Kippur congregation into deep slumber.
I must confess to a very irreverent speel of us teenage schoolboys amongst his captive audience.
Dr Baeck used to hang on with both hands to the pulpit in front of him. Then when something very sad in his tales of woe of Jewish history came along, he would sink and shrink behind his pulpit and disappear from sight.
Then when deeds of great glory had their turn, he would pull himself up with his hands, he would grow and grow behind the pulpit. And Dr Baeck — mind you — was a tall gangling man, indeed. So, what did we boys do.? With soft, whispering voices, we would lay bets on how long the rabbi would disappear from sight before his period of phenomenal growth behind the pulpit.
The 1920s were a period of opening vistas and great cultural achievements in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic, and after 1923 had passed when the World’s most galloping inflation had made poor billionaires of every one of us, the five golden years of prosperity came upon us.
German Jewry prospered as never before. We also became hosts to an influx of Jewish refugees from the East, Communist Russia, the Baltic countries and Poland.
With them, they brought the orthodox tradition of divine service, and generally practiced this in one of the smaller halls which surrounded the large liberal synagogues. Their children, of course, went with us to German speaking schools. For the first time, we heard Yiddish. Derived as it was from the middle-high German as spoken before Martin Luther’s time and with a heavy salting of Hebrew words, we would pick out and understand a sentence here and there.
However, some of the words gradually infiltrated our spoken German slang. When we started to use such words, as Tsorrus, Chutzpah, nicho (all the same) and mixed this into the real broad Berlin dialect, our purist parents were aghast, and such mixing of languages was much frowned upon.
In the event, Yiddish religious expression, such as shool and Yahrzeit, have infiltrated into the English language rather than their German counterparts such as Schule or Jahrzeit. The reason is obvious. Sheer numbers.
There were in pre-war days about eight million Jews whose mother tongue was Yiddish, but only about 1 ½million in the Germanic parts of the old Austro-Hungarian empire and Germany proper.
Many Jewish social occasions and dances took place in the magnificent marbled halls of the Bnai Brith lodge in Berlin’s Kleistrasse.
The Jewish Jiu-Jitsu club to which I belonged vied with the Jui-Jitsu club of the Berlin police force for the honors of champion club of Germany.
Life was happy. We were an ambitious, sophisticated and even arrogant lot. The depression years 1930 to 1932 taught us thrift and respect for the “Moonshine” worker.
Then fate struck. The Nazis had come to power. German Jewry rallied its resources. The philosophical Rabbi Baeck became the brave and sophisticated fighter for our physical and spiritual survival.
In 1933, he was elected president of the ‘Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden,; the Board of Deputies. His irreverent teenage barmitzvah of 1923 had by now become a journalist on a Jewish newspaper. Thus, unavoidably, our paths crossed again.
Well do I remember the conferences at Kantstrasse headquarters of the ‘Reichsvertretung’, presided over by Leo Baeck and where I attended merely as a press reporter.
I never came as humanly close to Leo Baeck as my father did
Watching the man at work at times, I couldn’t help but admire the rabbi’s moral caliber and his shrewd manouevres against our Nazi oppressors, as well as forever becalming the troubled waters of our internal Jewish political quibbling.
I said good-bye to Dr Baeck in 1936, when I emigrated to South Africa. My parents, with great luck, joined me in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, just before war broke out.
Another decade passed, the decade of the Great Holocaust. Together with six million of my Jewish brethren, my sister and her family, and aunts and cousins, were murdered.
By a miracle, Dr Leo Baeck, survived concentration camp and death camp, and after his rescue in 1945 joined his daughter in London.
Father started now to correspond with Dr Baeck. I was in the South African airforce, and we had to live on military pay. But England was still on food rationing.
So, Dad scrounged with his shillings, and every week he would send off to Dr. Baeck and his family; a small food parcel with South African delicacies.
Another half a decade later, I broke my father’s heart. I married an Afrikaans woman, non-Jewish. Dad penned his sorrows to his old minister, Dr Baeck.
I read the great man’s replies, carefully written in long hand. I don’t remember the contents, but they much eased Dad’s feelings about the matter.
A few years after father’s death in 1952, the Progressive Jewish Congregation of Port Elizabeth was formed (the main congregations in South Africa being orthodox), with the ‘Leo Baeck Hall’ the centre of activities.
Dr Baeck passed away soon after, and I handed his letters to the congregation for safe keeping in their archives.
The full six articles have been combined into an ebook entitled “Memoirs of a Jewish Journalist in Nazi Germany.: