Rabbi Leo Baeck of Berlin (26 cents)

Leonard Baker won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for his “Days of Sorry and Pain: Leo Baeck and the Berlin Jews”. Looking at the book today, I find it a rather surprising choice, although I don’t know what the competition was. This is not to say that it is not a very good book, but the subject is rather specialized, the writing is straightforward but not particularly literary, and much of the research was based on interviews, and not documentary research.

Baeck was a very interesting person, a leader of the Jews of Berlin throughout the Nazi years, a survivor of Theresienstadt, and eventually a teacher at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Certain things stand out.

First, Baeck was clearly extremely bright. He was educated not only as a rabbi, but had a secular education was well. He believed in education as a life-long pursuit. How and whether he kept up his Jewish studies throughout his life is unclear from the book (this is somewhat of a surprise), but he kept up his Greek studies, waking every morning at 5 a.m. (sometimes at 4 a.m.) to spend an hour studying ancient Greek. His intelligence came across when Baker discussed the lectures on Greek that Baeck gave while in the prison camp, which he was able to do in part because he had memorized much of Plato.

Second, Baeck was in many ways the quintessential German in deportment. He was a very formal individual, the kind of person who might put on a coat and tie to go to the bathroom. He was never seen dressed otherwise, no matter what the occasion or the location (including the prision camp).

Third, he started his career as a rabbi in two smaller German towns (first Oppeln in what is now western Poland, and near his home town, and then Dusseldorf). When he moved to Berlin, still as a relatively young man, his employer, as was the case in Berlin, was not a particular synagogue, but rather the Berlin Jewish community, which hired all the rabbis and assigned them to preach at particular synagogues at particular times. This meant that rabbis in Berlin, as opposed to elsewhere, did not have congregations or congregational relationships, clearly a negative, but also made it possible for someone like Baeck to develop a following and a reputation which stretched across the entire city.

Fourth, he was clearly charismatic, although he was never a particularly compelling speaker or preacher. He seemed to have the ability to connect one-on-one, he was a good listener, and if someone had a particular need, he tried to meet it. He was very steady.

Fifth, in part because he was quite well known, he did have a privileged position throughout the Nazi years. This does not mean that he collaborated with the Nazis, because he did not, but they generally let him alone, and did not restrict his activities. Of course, Berlin had no ghetto (there were no ghettos in Germany proper), and he lived in his apartment home until the day he was finally arrested and sent to Theresienstadt.

Sixth, he was a Progressive, or Liberal, Jew, fully comfortable with the degree of cultural assimilation that was going on in Germany. He argued against orthodox positions on various topics. And he was supportive of various liturgical reforms, although he had his limits (such as on the proposals to move the Sabbath to Sunday). Like most German Jews, he felt very German and found it hard to believe that Hitler had the traction he did at first. Clearly, Hitler’s support in Berlin, when more than half of the Jews of Germany lived, was much less than it was elsewhere in the country.

Seventh, he started out, like most German Jews, anti-Zionist, but he changed his position more and earlier than many others. As the Nazi policies became more extreme, without significant opposition, he fairly early became convinced that the long history of Jews in Germany was coming to an end.

Eighth, he encouraged emigration (his only daughter left for London), but like a captain of a ship, he declared that he would not leave until he was the last Jew left in Germany, because he had to minister to those remaining.

Ninth, while he was never the Chief Rabbi of Berlin (there was no such title), he was also referred to as such, and headed the Jewish communal organizations for a period of years, until the organizations were directly taken over by the Nazis. The Nazis permitted the Jewish communal organizations to exist because it made their work easier; from the Jewish perspective, the organizations provided Jews with help as needed.

Tenth, in spite of his belief that Jews had no future in the country, Kristallnacht (November 1938) was an enormous surprise to him, as it was to everyone else.

Eleventh, when he arrived at Theresienstadt, he was surprised at how bad the conditions were, how crowded everything was. He determined to keep up his rabbinical/ministering work, although he refused to join the Nazi organized communal organizations (the equivalents of Judenrats).

Twelfth, even in Theresienstadt, he had a privileged position because of his renown. He was not selected on any transports to the east (Auschwitz), although some of his family members were.

Thirteenth, after Theresienstadt was liberated, he split his time between London and Cincinnati. He turned 70 while in prison, and lived until he was 83. For part of the time each year, he taught at HUC, still the archetypical formal German professor, whose personality did not mesh with the young American rabbinical students, who respected him for who he was and what he had done, but couldn’t understand his classes on Midrash, another of his specialties.

Today, Baeck is not remembered by many. I wonder what he thought of his accomplishments as he neared the end of his life, whether he felt he had acted properly. The book gives no clue – perhaps there is no evidence to draw on.

Baeck died in 1956. The book was published in 1979. The author, Leonard Baker, died a few years later, in his young 50s. I know very little about him – could not locate an obituary. Still trying.


2 thoughts on “Rabbi Leo Baeck of Berlin (26 cents)

  1. Funny. I thought Baeck was tremendously famous! He wrote a tract (book?) that is quite important in reform Judaism in which Judaism is defined not as halacha but as an ethos. Also, having known Nurit’s grandfather, who also read Plato in Greek every morning after milking cows, I gather he was quintessentially German (or German-Jewish) also in his adoration for Plato. What was his opinion of Goethe, whom the Jews often held as the embodiment of a German and intellectual ideal? Michael

    • He did write a couple of books, one of which was (maybe is) widely read within a relatively small circle. He was famous in the development of liberal Judaism in Germany in the first part of the twentieth century, but if you took a survey today amongst Jews of any denomination (or no denomination), I don’t think you would find he had any name recognition to speak of. From a few allusions in the book, I think he thought highly of all those German thinkers that cultural Germans thought highly of, and that would include Goethe and Heine and (at least for a while) Wagner.

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