Those wishing to learn more about what occurred within the pre-WWII German Jewish community, an in-depth biography of arguably the most important pre-war German Jewish leader, Rabbi Leo Baeck, as well as Baeck’s contribution to modern Jewish thought, the well-researched and compellingly written book just published by Dr. Michael A. Meyer called Rabbi Leo Baeck – Living a Religious Imperative in Troubled times (University of Pennsylvania Press: 2021) is well worth reading.
Rabbi Leo Baeck was the pre-eminent leader of German Jewry throughout the 1930s. He was a brilliant scholar, philosopher, theologian, teacher, liberal congregational and community leader, and principled moralist who interacted with all elements of Germany’s Jewish and Christian communities. Baeck unified German Jewry in an increasingly fractured and tragic era. Conservatives, liberals, orthodox, Zionists, and assimilationists revered him.
Baeck was fearless in the face of the Nazi menace, emotionally steady, and a source of strength, courage, and inspiration for Germany’s Jews. He refused to abandon what remained of his people as antisemitic persecution intensified in Germany before the war. As a moral actor he followed his people into the concentration camps, though his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter escaped to the United Kingdom. His beloved wife Natalie died from a stroke in 1937, perhaps due to the extreme anxieties of the times. Most of his closest colleagues, associates, assistants, students, and friends were murdered, including his five sisters and two brothers.
In 1933, Germany’s Jews numbered 533,000 souls. Fewer than 200,000 Jews remained after Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938, the turning-point in Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews. Of that number only 10,000 escaped deportation, some by hiding until the end of the war, and others captured and murdered. Many chose suicide.
Rabbi Baeck was arrested by two plane-clothes Gestapo agents early in the morning on January 27, 1943 and taken to Theresienstadt (Terezin in Czech), a medieval fortress founded in 1780 and located forty-four miles northwest of Prague. The Nazis had emptied all civilians from the town and turned it into a concentration camp. Of the 140,000 Czech, German, and Austrian Jews sent to this ghetto throughout the war, including 15,000 children, only 6,000 survived. Many died of hunger or disease, or were sent by train to Auschwitz. Baeck survived there until liberation by the Russian army in 1945 partly because the SS gave him better accommodations as the leader of German Jewry and because, mistakenly, the Nazis thought he was already dead. Another Rabbi “Beck’s” death had been registered.
Throughout his internment, the SS in Terezin permitted scholars and teachers to give public lectures – 520 lecturers and at least 2430 lectures in all. Baeck’s friend Jacob Jacobson said that “Baeck’s earnest moral challenge, his profound discipline of thought, and the charm of his personality could not but inspire reverence; and in revering Dr. Baeck and his words, reverence was, in fact, shown to the very essence of Judaism.” (p. 158)
Baeck regarded the Biblical Prophets as the “religious geniuses of Judaism, occupying a role in religion equivalent to that of the greatest painters or sculptures in their respective fields…The Prophets embody the essence of Judaism, which Baeck defines as the unmitigated moral imperative. It was the Prophets, not the priests, who distinguished Israel from other nations and made the religion of Israel unique. For Baeck, not surprisingly, it is the history of the prophetic message – not the history of judges, monarchs, and Second Temple priests – that constitutes the true history of Judaism in biblical times and up to the present day.” (p. 21) Baeck taught that Jews were inherently a people of nonconformists. Courage to follow the universal moral path despite the overpowering force of the State defined the Jewish people.
During his internment at Terezin, Baeck “… believed [that to remain strong], required two qualities: patience and imagination. Patience meant a resilience that did not allow the will to live to give way. Imagination meant the vision that allowed one, despite everything to see a future. Each quality required the other. Patience without imagination could sink the ghetto dweller into an acceptance of the slavery imposed by the environment; imagination without patience could become a personal daydream, a dangerous turn away from everyday reality. For Baeck, in characteristic fashion, both qualities were linked to the moral sphere: moral patience made it possible to hold onto fellow human beings and not allow the bond between self and others to be severed; moral imagination enabled persons to see themselves in the place of others and to feel with them both their grief and their happiness.” (p. 153)
Baeck also emphasized the importance of justice as “the ultimate meaning of history. Were justice to perish, it would be meaningless any longer to live on earth…. True history is the history of the spirit, of the human spirit, which may sometimes seem powerless, but which in the end remains superior; which survives because even if it does not possess power, nonetheless it possesses strength, strength that can never cease.” (p. 159)
Upon liberation by the Russian army, Baeck – emaciated after losing seventy pounds – joined his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter in London on July 5, 1945. After a short period of convalescence, he picked up where he left off before war as a leader, scholar, and teacher. He was welcomed into the centers of power in the new Germany, the United States, and Israel. He regarded the Zionist project as “rational in purpose but also mystical in significance, a refuge for the survivors and at the same time a hope for the future.” (p. 190). He believed deeply in the new Jewish State as a cultural, spiritual, and political center of Judaism but warned against the politicization of religion by the Chief Rabbinate and the potential for enmity between Jew and Arab.
Rabbi Baeck was harshly judgmental of the failure of German universities and intellectuals, the German churches, and all Germans of Nazi youth age and older for the evils they perpetrated and/or permitted by their silence. For a short time, he doubted the notion of “steady moral progress.” Yet, he emphasized again that “Justice is the foundation; upon it, and upon it alone, can and should humanity be built, in order that human society may be firmly founded, a society in which all shall have their place to live for the high tasks for which the Creator has made them, each with his individual nature, each with his unique personality.” (p. 172)
Dr. Michael Meyer, the Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History Emeritus at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, has synthesized brilliantly the thought and life of Rabbi Leo Baeck as well as his noble legacy forged during the darkest years in Jewish history.
This blog also appears on my Blog at the Times of Israel – https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-new-biography-of-rabbi-leo-baeck-leader-of-pre-wwii-german-jewry/