‘The Last Rabbi Of Berlin’

Martin Riesenburger led a small flock of Jews during the war, and the Nazis knew it. Now his story is coming to light.

Steve Lipman — Staff Writer

Dusk, Friday night in Berlin. On the streets outside the entrance to Weissensee cemetery, a few children and adults walk nervously, making their way quickly through the open gate to the administration building, to a small chapel.

All wear the yellow star on their clothing.

It is 1943, 1944, 1945.

Inside the chapel, a score of seats are set up. At a table in the front of the room, a man stands greeting the Jews. He makes kiddush and leads the worshipers in some Shabbat prayers and offers some uplifting words.

Soon it is over. The Jews return to their homes in the surrounding neighborhood, in the eastern part of Germany’s capital.

And the man, Rabbi Martin Riesenburger, goes upstairs to his apartment, where with the knowledge of the Nazis he serves as the last rabbi in Berlin.

“Of course you know about Rabbi Riesenburger,” Annegret Ehmann, a young German scholar tells a delegation of visiting American rabbis in Berlin in 1994. “He was a rabbi who functioned in Berlin during the war.”

Of course, none of the American rabbis knows. All the rabbis of Berlin, as far as they know, had been deported early in World War II. And only one member of the rabbinical group seems to notice Ehmann’s offhand remark.

“I was fascinated. I was curious about it,” says Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz, 75, senior scholar at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

His colleagues, touring Wannsee, the villa outside Berlin where the Final Solution was plotted in 1942, were more interested in Ehmann’s expertise in the mischlinge, Germans of mixed Jewish-Aryan parentage.

Rabbi Zlotowitz wanted to know more about Rabbi Martin Riesenburger, so he approached Ehmann after her speech and got a few more facts. He discovered that Rabbi Riesenburger had written an autobiography after the war. Rabbi Zlotowitz returned to the United States and started working on his own book about this unknown slice of Holocaust history.

Research, the rabbi found, was difficult. In the hundreds of books documenting the Holocaust there is scarcely a mention of Rabbi Riesenburger’s name or the role he played. Outside of a small circle of experts on Germany during World War II, the rabbi is forgotten.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Rabbi Riesenburger’s exploits, according to Rabbi Zlotowitz, is that they were fully sanctioned by Berlin’s Nazi authorities. Some of the survivors Rabbi Zlotowitz interviewed hinted that Rabbi Riesenburger in fact used his position to help shelter Jews from the Nazis.

First, Rabbi Zlotowitz offers one caveat: Martin Riesenburger, who was in his 40s during the Nazi era and died in 1965, “was never a rabbi. He was a praediger” — a preacher. “Also a cantor. They called him rabbi.”

Originally at a Jewish old-age home, then at the sprawling Weissensee burial grounds, Rabbi Riesenburger functioned as a member of the clergy, leading worship services and officiating at funerals. “It was not clandestine,” Rabbi Zlotowitz says.

He concedes that many facts about Rabbi Riesenburger’s life are sketchy. There are few extant records. The Holocaust claimed many witnesses to Rabbi Riesenburger’s deeds. Many survivors died years ago, and those still living have faulty memories.

One survivor, Ilse Rischowsky Peritz of Baldwin, L.I., says Rabbi Riesenburger was “fantastic.” She was a teenager then, out of school, and accompanied her father and brothers to the chapel Friday nights “at least twice a month.”

Peritz says she was among a few children who regularly went to the chapel. The rabbi “was very friendly,” she says. “He helped very much. He did a great deal of good.”

On Yom HaShoah, commemorated today this year, Rabbi Zlotowitz is often invited to speak about Martin Riesenburger. He gladly accepts the invitations.

“I feel this should be known,” the rabbi says. Rabbi Riesenburger “did something that no one else did.”

Martin Riesenburger, as far as is known, was a native of Berlin.

“He was going to be a dentist, but failed,” Rabbi Zlotowitz says.

By the 1930s, Rabbi Riesenburger was working at the old-age home. Through the war, Jewish communal life in Berlin was increasingly strangled, immigration to the West being replaced by deadly deportations east. Although the capital was officially declared judenrein, in June 1943, several thousand Jews still lived there. The number included forced laborers, mischlinge, men married to Christian women, and Jews in hiding.

These were Rabbi Riesenburger’s “congregants.”

The rabbi, it appears, was able to avoid deportation initially because his wife, a Christian convert to Judaism, was still considered Christian in Nazi eyes.

In 1943, bombed out of their apartment, the Riesenburgers, who had no children, moved to Weissensee, in eastern Berlin, where the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, with more than 100,000 graves, was located. Their new home was an apartment in the U-shaped administration building near the grounds’ entrance; their neighbor was a gravedigger.

Rabbi Riesenburger started leading Friday-night services each week in the chapel. With no printed announcements, word of Rabbi Riesenburger’s arrival spread by word of mouth.

Maybe a dozen Jews from the area, never more than 20, would walk to Weissensee on Friday evenings, says Rabbi Zlotowitz, who has conducted more than 100 interviews for his research in Germany, Israel and the U.S.

“The people I interviewed said they were frightened” — walking the streets of Berlin openly identified as Jews — “but they went.”

Rabbi Riesenburger, who like all Jews wore the yellow star, would lead a brief service, mostly in German, followed by candlelighting and kiddush. “A few prayers and a sermon. He would always have a sermon,” Rabbi Zlotowitz says. It was over in 15 minutes.

“He gave the people hope,” Rabbi Zlotowitz says. “He always told them the war would end. This was the darkest period in Jewish history and he gave them hope.”

Rabbi Riesenburger counseled the Jews who dared show their face, and he answered their questions on the phone, day and night. He surreptitiously made and distributed copies of the Hebrew calendar, with the dates of the Jewish holidays, when he also led services.

And mostly he buried Jews; hundreds of them. Jews who died of natural causes. Jews who committed suicide. Jews whose ashes were shipped back, COD, from the crematoria.

“He did a full Jewish service,” Rabbi Zlotowitz says. The Nazi authorities, not wanting to dirty their Aryan hands, “needed someone to do the Jewish burials.”

Rabbi Riesenburger’s service to the Nazis was not part of a master plan, Rabbi Zlotowitz says. Rabbi Riesenburger simply “was there. He was at the right place at the right time.”

So Weissensee remained open as Berlin’s only functioning Jewish cemetery, and its chapel was the sole Jewish house of worship.

“The Nazis didn’t feel he was a threat to them,” Rabbi Zlotowitz says. Rabbi Riesenburger had no particular standing in the Jewish community, no independent source of power. Aware of a Jew’s precarious position in the Third Reich, he “was careful” not to make any imprudent public statements.

“Did he cooperate with the Gestapo?” Rabbi Zlotowitz asks. Did he serve as the ears and eyes of the secret police in return for his freedom, as some Jews did?

“I don’t think he turned Jews into [the Gestapo],” Rabbi Zlotowitz says. “I don’t think he did anything to harm the life of a Jew.”

Rabbi Zlotowitz heard rumors that Rabbi Riesenburger helped hide Jews in Weissensee’s mausoleums, and helped others escape Nazi Germany. And Rabbi Zlotowitz also was told that those reports are not true. Confirmation of the rumors awaits further research.

What is documented is that a Christian man drove a truck, loaded with hundreds of Torah scrolls, to Weissensee one morning without notice. Rabbi Riesenburger helped unload them and hide them in the chapel’s choir loft. The sifrei Torah were recovered after the war.

“He was a hero,” Rabbi Zlotowitz says.

But little in Rabbi Riesenburger’s pre-Holocaust life suggested that he would become a rabbi, let alone a hero. He had no ordination, no great oratorical ability and apparently little skill in Hebrew. His denominational affiliation is unclear, but he probably did not identify as Orthodox.

“He did things that were Liberal,” the German name for the Reform movement, Rabbi Zlotowitz says — playing the organ on Shabbat. “He did things that were Orthodox” — washing the bodies of deceased Jews according to traditional custom, and wrapping them in shrouds, usually ersatz shrouds of newspaper.

During services, the rabbi’s head was covered. “The German Liberal Jews always wore a kipa,” says Rabbi Zlotowitz, who was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1955, worked as a pulpit rabbi and UAHC staffer, and lives in Fair Lawn, N.J.

Despite postwar photographs that show Rabbi Riesenburger as a clean shaven, dour, unsmiling man, the Jews of Berlin who knew him describe him as “very warm — good with children,” Rabbi Zlotowitz says. “He was a good listener. He was able to cheer you. People just loved him. They idolized him.”

Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz had no expertise in the history of Nazi Germany until he decided to write about Rabbi Riesenburger’s life.

Descended from Polish Jews who lost several relatives in the Holocaust, a native of the Lower East Side, Rabbi Zlotowitz is the author of 10 books, with three more on the way. His specialty is rabbinics and the classical Greek translation of the Torah.

When he returned from his 1994 trip to Berlin, he searched for a copy of Rabbi Riesenburger’s autobiography, “Das Licht Verloschte Nicht” (“The Light That Never Failed”).

He finally found it at the New York Public Library. It was in the reserve section, for reading only in the library.

“I can’t sit here,” Rabbi Zlotowitz told the librarian.

He had the 90-page book “reproduced — for me. It cost me a lot of money.”

The rabbi, who learned German in college, read the autobiography at home. He became more “excited” about Rabbi Riesenburger’s story, although the book is “self-serving — he didn’t give much detail.”

Rabbi Zlotowitz contacted the German Consulate in New York, and with an unnamed “angel” it sponsored a research trip to Germany. “I think,” he says, the German government “wanted to know a piece of the Holocaust that’s not usually told.”

He interviewed eyewitnesses, including Rabbi Riesenburger’s widow, and historical experts, visited archives and the places where Rabbi Riesenburger lived. “I went back [to Germany] at least seven or eight times.”

No publisher has shown interest in the project, nor have any literary agents.

Since starting his research, Rabbi Zlotowitz has given several speeches about Rabbi Riesenburger’s life.

“It’s impossible,” listeners tell him.

“It doesn’t change the general story of Jewish life under the Nazis, in the heart of Berlin,” says Michael Berenbaum, author and former director of the research director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “It adds texture. I’m always happy when you learn more about this story [the Holocaust].”

“Whenever you think something is impossible in the Shoah — bizarre things did happen,” Berenbaum says.

Even in Berlin, few people recognize Rabbi Riesenburger’s name today, Rabbi Zlotowitz says. “The West German Jewish community deliberately suppressed any knowledge of him because he was East German.”

The Encyclopedia Judaica does not include a single reference to Rabbi Riesenburger, and it has just one allusion to his activities under Nazi occupation: “The Jewish cemetery had remained in use.”

Rabbi Riesenburger stayed in East Berlin after World War II, serving at the Rykestrasse Synagogue, the only Jewish house of worship east of the Berlin Wall for most of the communist years.

For the East Berlin government he was a convenient propaganda tool, a living symbol of freedom of religion. In the West he was known as “the Red Rabbi.”

“I don’t think he was a communist, but he did lean toward communism — he blamed the West for everything,” Rabbi Zlotowitz says.

Rabbi Riesenburger was appointed chief rabbi of East Berlin, then chief rabbi of East Germany. At some point, Rabbi Zlotowitz says, the East German government pressured the rabbinate in Hungary, site of the largest Jewish community in communist Eastern Europe, to grant Rabbi Riesenburger rabbinical ordination.

When he died, buried in the cemetery where he served during World War II, 100 yards from the apartment where he lived, it was officially with the title of rabbi.

When Rabbi Zlotowitz goes back to Berlin, he usually visits Rabbi Riesenburger’s grave. During his pilgrimage, he reflects on the value of Rabbi Riesenburger’s inspirational sermons.

He recites the “El Moleh Rachimim.” “I always say a prayer for him.”