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Discussion Papers Series

Rabbi Leo Baeck and the Leo Baeck Institute - A Response to Nazi Persecution and Displacement and Post-Holocaust Memory

by William H. Weitzer

 

In December 1945, Rabbi Leo Baeck, who had survived two years in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt (Terezin), stated that “the history of German Jews has definitely come to an end” after more than half a million Jews in Central Europe were either forced to flee or had been killed in the Nazi concentration camps.1 However, despite his harsh judgment following the Holocaust, Rabbi Leo Baeck did not turn his back on the history of German Jews.  He was instrumental in founding the Leo Baeck Institute, which for 60 years has kept the German-Jewish historical narrative alive.

The German-Jewish story did not end with the Second World War. A significant number of German-speaking Jews had escaped Europe before the Second World War and smaller numbers had survived the horrors of the camps. Today, Jews with German-speaking backgrounds live all over the world, with large populations in the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom and Australia. After 1945, Jews and many other displaced persons encountered persecution in their former Eastern European home countries and went to Germany. After the fall of the Soviet Union and another significant westward migration, more than 200,000 Jews live in Germany today. Most came from Russia after 1989.

The Leo Baeck Institute ensures that the achievements of hundreds of years of German-Jewish history are not forgotten. The Institute provides the space and resources to research, remember, and make relevant for the world an important story of assimilation, accomplishment, destruction, and survival.

Introduction to the Leo Baeck Institute

The first evidence of Jews in Central Europe reaches back to the Roman Empire, 300 AD, in Cologne. After the Age of Enlightenment, Jews in Central and Eastern Europe became increasingly integrated into society and were finally able to participate in political, economic, and intellectual life. This growth and assimilation peaked during the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and in Central and Eastern Central Europe, until the National Socialist Party rose to power in 1933. More than 200,000 German-speaking Jews perished in the Holocaust. More than 250,000 refugees and survivors found new homes in 97 countries around the world. The Nazis also wiped out six generations’ worth of German-Jewish achievement —starting with Moses Mendelssohn’s generation in the 1760s—when they destroyed not only the culture of Jews in Central Europe, but also much of the cultural achievements of Germany as a whole.

In 1955, just 10 years after the Second World War, a group of émigré intellectuals including Ernst Simon, Robert Weltsch, Martin Buber, and Gershom Scholem met in Jerusalem to establish an institute to preserve German-Jewish history. The Leo Baeck Institute was founded to preserve the history of German-speaking Jews after their expulsion, murder and destruction in their homelands, and to document extraordinary developments in Jewish and German history. Rabbi Leo Baeck agreed to be the first president, and independent centers were established in London, Jerusalem, and New York. 

Today, the Leo Baeck Institute maintains an archive with over 3 million documents, 80,000 books, 25,000 photographs, and 8,000 works of art and other artifacts. These collections document in great detail the lives and accomplishments of German-Jews during the modern era. The broad range of papers of individuals and families provide insight into the daily lives of Jews as a part of German society. All aspects of that society—from the rural countryside to the metropolitan centers, from the retail level to the industrial, from daily life to the highest offices of politics and academia—are documented with original papers and publications to show the full picture of the German-Jewish experience.

Rabbi Leo Baeck — Leader of Germany’s Liberal Jewish Community

The life and work of Leo Baeck typifies the culture of German-speaking Jewry in the fertile period between the unification of Germany in 1871 and the rise of the Nazis in 1933. Rabbi Baeck was a prominent advocate of a theology that interpreted Jewish tradition as the expression of universal values, which made full participation in German civic life possible—and even imperative—for the Jewish minority. He became a symbol of an assimilation that still embraced Jewish identity and, after 1933, the leader of the organized Jewish response to Nazi persecution.

Both as theologian and leader, Baeck was subject to vehement criticism. Traditionalists attacked his liberal theology and cultural attitude towards religious observance and cultural identity.  After the war, much more serious charges were levied over his response to the collapse of civil society in Germany, most famously formulated by Hannah Arendt in her reporting on the Eichmann Trial in the early 1960s.  Yet Arendt’s portrayal of Baeck as too passive—at best, naïve about the danger of Auschwitz, and at worst, disingenuous—ignores a decade of courageous advocacy, when Baeck refused opportunities to escape and remained in Germany to help his people.

Much of the historical record on the life of Leo Baeck and the German-Jewish response is preserved in the archives and library of the Leo Baeck Institute. It shows a surprisingly vigorous and rational response by Germany’s Jews. Like that of the international community, the response was inadequate, and it failed to prevent destruction of unprecedented magnitude. But rather than identifying a failure to predict the future, it is instructive to examine the decisions and actions of Leo Baeck and the community he led within the context of the possibilities of his time.

Early Life and Major Works of Rabbi Leo Baeck

Leo Baeck was born in Lissa (now Leszno, Poland) in the then German province of Posen on 23 May 1873. The son of a rabbi, he attended  the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) and then  moved to Berlin to study at the more liberal Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Academy of Jewish Learning) in Berlin. By 1897, he had secured his first post as rabbi in Oppeln (now Opole, Poland).

In Oppeln, Baeck made his mark as an intellectual and a modern theologian with the publication of Das Wesen des Judentums (The Essence of Judaism) in 1905. Written in response to Adolf von Harnack’s Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity), the book is a passionate argument for the enduring relevance of Judaism. Harnack saw Judaism as a cult based on outmoded rituals and laws. Baeck responded by locating the essence of Judaism in the intersection between rational ethics and a personal experience of the divine. The commandment to search the scriptures for ethical principles, he argued, made Judaism an evolving, perpetually modern tradition of critical thought.

In 1912, Leo Baeck was called to Berlin, where he worked both as a rabbi at the large synagogue on Fasanenstraße and as a lecturer at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (University for the Study of Judaism; the Lehranstalt was renamed in 1922).

First World War Service and Anti-Semitism

Rabbi Leo Baeck served Germany in the First World War as the leading figure in the Association of Field Rabbis. Unlike the field chaplains of the Christian denominations, the rabbis served without pay.  During the war, German Jews exhibited their patriotism by fighting in disproportionate numbers. Every fifth Jew in Germany (100,000 in total) served in the German military, and 12,000 Jewish soldiers died in the conflict. Despite their contributions, the patriotism of German Jews was not honored. In 1916, when the German military looked for scapegoats to take the blame for the failing war effort, it conducted a census in the hope of demonstrating that Jews were shirking their duties. Because the survey illustrated that Jews were in fact fighting and dying for Germany, the results were suppressed.

Although many Jews saw loyal war service as a chance to cement their status as full members of German society, the bitter experiences of the Jewish census and the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that emerged after Germany’s capitulation in 1918 left Germany’s Jewish community embattled and divided. Smaller Zionist and Socialist camps saw their future in emigration or revolution; while veterans’ groups such as the Reichsbund Jüdischer Frontsoldaten (Association of Jewish War Veterans)embraced German nationalism in hopes of acceptance.

Leo Baeck, along with the broad mainstream of Jewish society, opted for the pragmatic advocacy of the Jewish Centralverein deutscher Bürger jüdischen Glaubens (Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith), which fought discrimination in the courts and maintained a public relations campaign to portray German Jews as model citizens contributing to Germany’s cultural riches. In 1918, Baeck returned to Berlin and worked at the Prussian Culture Ministry as an expert in Hebrew. In addition to his position as a rabbi and lecturer at the Hochschule, Leo Baeck also became President of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Rabbinerverband (Union of German Rabbis) in 1922. He was elected President of the German B’nai B’rith Order in 1924.  

Despite the real and increasing threat to Jewish security and disagreements over how to address it, Jews flourished in the Weimar Republic. During those 15 years, five of Germany’s nine Nobel Prize-winners were Jews. Jewish university faculty established Critical Theory, a movement that would resonate through academic discourse for generations. Alfred Döblin transformed literature, making the modern metropolis itself a character in his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. Max Reinhardt brought Berlin’s Deutsches Theater to the vanguard of international theater. Billy Wilder, Max Ophuls, and Ernst Lubitsch made cinema into the quintessential story-telling medium of the 20th century. Magnus Hirschfeld introduced scientific methods to the study of human sexuality and launched a gay rights movement. Jews became leading doctors, lawyers, and civil servants.  Jewish religious thinkers like Leo Baeck, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig injected new impetus into Jewish religious life.

Nazi Rise to Power

In 1933, with the Nazis in power, doctors, lawyers, and members of the civil service all lost their standing. Jewish and other modern artists were declared “degenerate” and Jewish business-owners were subjected to boycotts and a tidal wave of offensive propaganda. Many believed that the strictures were temporary and bad governments come and go. In an essay written in October 1933, Leo Baeck expressed skepticism about the basic tenets of Jewish existence in Germany.  He questioned whether “Jews have ever been subjects of history” rather than “objects of other nations and groups of people.” 2   During the next five years, Jews suffered increasing oppression in Germany, and many young people emigrated. Still, the Jewish community continued to organize through groups such as the Jüdischer Kulturbund (The Jewish Cultural League), which gave opportunities to Jewish artists who were no longer permitted to perform for non-Jews. Even the most pessimistic could not foresee that the screws would keep on tightening to the point of genocide.

In 1933, Leo Baeck was elected president of the Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden (National Representation of German Jews), an umbrella organization of German-Jewish groups founded to advance the interests of German Jewry in the face of Nazi persecution. In 1935, the organization was forced to change its name according to the Nazi view that there were no “German Jews” but only “Jews in Germany”.  It became the Reichsverband der Juden in Deutschland (National Organization of Jews in Germany).  As its leader, Baeck worked to alleviate discrimination and persecution and maintain the morale of German Jews.  Though he was never a Zionist, Baeck also helped Jews emigrate to destinations including the Palestine. He found himself a reluctant interlocutor with the Nazi administration but firmly believed that his place was in Germany, advocating for whatever measures were possible to protect the Jews.  Despite opportunities to emigrate, he remained in Berlin.

In March 1938, due to the German annexation of Austria, 185,000 Austrian Jews, thus far spared the worst persecution, found themselves in the same situation as their German brethren. The Nazi problem became a European crisis. German and Austrian Jews placed their hopes in an international solution.

In July 1938, President Roosevelt initiated the Evian conference—a meeting of 32 major nations—to address the crisis and find countries of refuge for German and Austrian Jews.  The meeting stoked hopes, but did not result in specific solutions.  European countries expressed a very restrained willingness to accept refugees. Latin American countries offered admission beyond their set quotas.  A front-page article in the August 1, 1938 edition of Aufbau—the German-language journal published by Jewish refugees in New York—expressed a degree of optimism and praised the fact that this was the first refugee conference held by governments as opposed to League of Nations committees. “If our pessimism is less this time, even with a certain degree of hope to achieve useful results, we are to thank first of all President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Hull.”3

Soon after the annexation of Austria, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in early October to occupy the border territories (Sudetenland) and then the entire country the following year. In late October 1938 Poland would not permit “stateless” Polish Jews who had been expelled from Germany to cross the border.  On November 1, 1938, Aufbau roundly condemned the failure of the international community to pass “the great test” and solve the refugee crisis. “The demon of the Munich Agreement is pounding across the earth,” wrote the editors in a front page article, “after the heads of governments of the so-called democracies threw a brave and humane people into the throat of the insatiable swastika barbarism, ... The Evian conference is all but a faint memory and the arrogant smile on the faces of American Jews is dying …”4 

Kristallnacht was just one week later. During this “night of broken glass,” synagogues burned, properties were destroyed and lives were lost across Germany and Nazi-controlled territories. Jewish men were sent to concentration camps and killed in large numbers.  The result was another massive wave of emigration from Germany and Nazi-occupied countries.

The Jewish community did not give up. In August 1939, shortly before the start of the war, Leo Baeck addressed German-Jewish refugees across the world with a letter published in Aufbau, entitled “A Word of Comfort from Dr. Leo Baeck”. He reported on the difficulties he faced in his work on behalf of the Jews still in Germany. “The work has to be done. It is comforting to me when I learn about the resources Jewish people have, resources of energy and smarts.... As individuals these people are often depressed and angry, as a group they are highly respectable”.5 After six and a half years of repressions and increasingly accelerating deterioration of the position of Jews in Germany, Leo Baeck continued to hold on to whatever hope was left.

The Second World War

On 1 September 1939, the Nazi armies invaded Poland and started the Second World War. On 1 October 1939, Aufbau published the lead article under the headline “‘Schm’a Yisroel!’ Under the Hail of Bombs. How Death Ravages the Jews of Poland,” in which “from the multitudes of news and the overabundance of unspeakable details and cruelties,” the mass killings and massive bombardments of synagogues and Jewish schools were reported.6 Even with the knowledge of the escalating brutality of the Nazi assault from 1933 onward, the invasion of Poland and the beginning of mass murder surpassed all dire expectations and must have been beyond comprehension. Leo Baeck and his deputy Otto Hirsch took action as the heads of the Reichsverband. They led a large group of highly trained professionals—some of whom later formed the founding group of the Leo Baeck Institute—to enable emigration and alleviate persecution under worsening conditions.

Leo Baeck refused to leave Germany or his community even after Jewish businesses and synagogues (including his home congregation at Fasanenstraße) were burned and looted in November 1938.  He is reported to have said that he would leave Germany only when he was the last Jew remaining there.  He remained the nominal president of the Reichsverband when it was placed under Nazi control. When the organization was finally disbanded in 1943, Leo Baeck, then 70, was sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt (Terezin) with family members.

During his time in Theresienstadt, Leo Baeck continued to teach, holding lectures on philosophy and religion. He refused to participate in the administration of the camp as a member of the council of elders and instead had to do heavy labor. He also began a manuscript that would later become Dieses Volk – Jüdische Existenz, (This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence),7 an interpretation of Jewish history. The camp was liberated in May 1945 by the Red Army. Rabbi Leo Baeck survived, but his four sisters perished in Theresienstadt.

Preserving the Past after the Holocaust

After the liberation of the camp, Leo Baeck made his way to England where his daughter Ruth resided.  He received many citations and honors as a result of his efforts under the Nazis, and spent much of his next years traveling, lecturing, writing, and helping to found several relief organizations for European Jewry.  

When the Leo Baeck Institute was founded in the 1950s, it was hardly the result of popular longing to reminisce about the days of German-Jewish symbiosis. Few people were interested in stirring up painful memories of the Holocaust, and even fewer in remembering what some viewed as the failed experiment of German-Jewish assimilation. The German Federal Republic’s economic miracle was in full swing, the new state of Israel was a rallying point for the Jewish Diaspora, and the United States was locked in a new and terrifying conflict with the Soviet Union. However, the founders of the Leo Baeck Institute displayed the courage and foresight to look back, when most cared only to look forward. To these veterans of the effort to protect Germany’s Jewish community, it was their cherished culture, values, and traditions that had given a beleaguered people the resources to organize and struggle against the bleakest of odds.


1 Aufbau, vol. 11, nr. 51, Dec. 21, 1945, p.1.

2 Der Morgen, October 1933, p.237.

3 Aufbau, vol. 11, nr. 51, Dec. 21, 1945, p.1.

4 Aufbau, vol. 4, nr. 9, August 1, 1938, p.1.

5 Aufbau, vol. 4, nr. 12, November 1, 1938, p.1.

6 Aufbau, vol. 5, nr. 18, October 1, 1939, p. 1.

7 Leo Baeck, Dieses Volk: jüdische Existenz. Frankfurt a.M.: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1955.


Discussion Questions

  1. What is the aim of the Leo Baeck Institute? What materials does it have in its archive?
  2. Why is it important to learn about the daily lives of German-Jews during the modern era? What were some of the accomplishments of Jews during the Weimar Republic?
  3. According to Mr. Weitzer, Leo Baeck was an advocate of full participation in German civic life. Why might this have been a difficult position for him to take?
  4. How do you think Leo Baeck’s experiences during the First World War impacted the choices he made later in his life? What were some of the activities that Leo Baeck engaged in during the Nazi rise to power?
  5. What lessons can we learn from Leo Baeck?

The discussion papers series provides a forum for individual scholars on the Holocaust and the averting of genocide to raise issues for debate and further study. These writers, representing a variety of cultures and backgrounds, have been asked to draft papers based on their own perspective and particular experiences.
The views expressed by the individual scholars do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.

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