Martin Riesenburger & the Jews of Berlin
The Last Jews of Berlin
April 20, 1943 was the 54th birthday of Adolf Hitler. His best friend and minister of propaganda, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, therefore wanted to give “Dem Führer” a birthday gift.
That gift was to be the total elimination of the last Jews from Berlin. Hitler felt offended that as late as 1943 there were still 10,000 Jews in Berlin. Before the ‘takeover” of the Nazi party, 160,000 of the 585,000 German Jews had lived in that city. Since Germany at that time had 62 million people, few Germans had ever seen a Jew, except in Berlin, a city of 3.5 million.
Joseph Goebbels was not only propaganda minister, he was also Nazi Party Director for Berlin. Therefore he decided that just before April 20 of that year, all Jews still in Berlin would be arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Therefore, the Storm Troopers rushed into factories and arrested Jews still working there. Others broke into Jewish homes, arrested Jews on the street and anywhere at all. Since all Jews had to wear the yellow Star of David on their outer garments and at the door of their homes at all times, it was easy to find them. 8,000 such Jews were seized and sent to the gas ovens.
That left 2,000 Jews. The majority of the 2,000 were married to non-Jewish spouses.
Almost all of these Jews were men. These Jews were also arrested but were first sent to a collection point at Rosenstrasse 2-4, where the Jewish Community had its headquarters.
Thereupon the “Aryan” spouses, almost all women, hurried to the Rosenstrasse, where a large crowd of “Aryans” now assembled in the street. These women demanded that their husbands be freed. Hundreds of them shouted in chorus, “give us our husbands back.” As the crowds grew, day after day, the non-Jewish relatives of these women participated in the riots at Rosenstrasse 2-4. The armed guards threatened to shoot at the rioters but were prevented from doing so because too many non-Jews, supporters of the Nazi state, would have died. The Nazi government feared that the relatives and friends of their own supporters would rise against them if their women were killed in the streets. The crowd began to shout “you murderers” and let it be known that they would not leave no matter what the consequences. Therefore, Joseph Goebbels gave the order to release the Jews, who then survived the Nazi horrors in Berlin under the protection of their non-Jewish relatives. Now, what would have happened to all the German and Eastern European Jews if the public had protested the persecutions and murders everywhere? The truth is that wherever the population protested the arrest of Jews the Jews were saved. This happened in Bulgaria and in parts of Italy.
After the spouses of “Aryans” had been released, Goebbels discovered that there were still a few Jews in Berlin who were not married to “Aryans”. A few of these were arrested and told they would be spared if they “fingered” other Jews and gave their location to the secret police known as the Gestapo. Therefore, some Jews joined people on park benches and restaurants and talked to them. On occasion they discovered that indeed they had met a Jew. Hoping to survive, some of these Jews did give the names of these Jews to the police, only to find that they were sent to Auschwitz after all.
During these events there lived in Berlin a Jew by the name of Martin Riesenburger. He was married to a non-Jewish woman who had converted to Judaism but was regarded as racially “Aryan” by the Nazi gangsters. This man, although not a rabbi, functioned as the last rabbi of Berlin because he conducted burial services, led Friday night services and even gave sermons. He conducted the last wedding of two Jews in Berlin. The couple was gassed the next week. His services were clandestine. They lasted only 15 minutes so as to avoid Gestapo suspicions. Riesenburger even distributed a self made Jewish calendar.
Riesenburger also hid 5,000 Torah scrolls and prayer books. Having survived the destruction of Berlin, he became the first to organize Jewish religious services in 1945. He died in Berlin in 1965. His name is not to be found in the Jewish encyclopedia nor in any source concerning Jewish history. Therefore we meet him here for the first time.
Leo Baeck was the leading reform Rabbi in Germany in 1939. He had many opportunities to leave Germany but refused to leave his congregation. This was also true of Rabbi Joseph Carlebach, the orthodox chief rabbi of Hamburg. Both were sent to death camps. Baeck survived, Carelbach was murdered.
After the war, Baeck lectured at the Hebrew Institute of Religion and other American colleges. Even before his death in 1955, a Leo Baeck Institute was founded in New York, London and Jerusalem. The institute is devoted to the history of the German Jews, a 2000 year old story which began when the Jews came with the Romans to the towns on the lower Rhine, long before the ancestors of the present Germans came there. The Jews were the first Germans. Believe it or not.