Rabbi Leo Baeck never left the Jewish people’s side

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By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA,  California — Among the non‑Orthodox rabbis who were placed in the concentration camps, Rabbi Leo Baeck provides one of the most outstanding examples of shepherding of that era. Baeck’s saintly conduct served as an inspiration to all who were with him in the camp. In the years prior to the war, Baeck did his utmost to encourage the Jews of Germany to leave the hostile climate of Germany. Baeck refused offers from the Jewish communities in England and the United States to offer him asylum. He was determined to remain in Germany until he was the last remaining Jew. Like the shepherd, he was determined to look after the flock regardless of personal danger. Baeck succeeded in getting out one third of the German Jewish population. He used his pulpit to challenge the atrocities of Hitler and the Gestapo. When he was summoned to appear before the Gestapo on the Shabbat, he openly refused and defied them.

In 1941, Baeck was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The Nazis used  Theresienstadt as a model camp where the Jews were supposedly “treated well.” Prior to his 70th birthday, Baeck volunteered to be responsible for the camp’s welfare program. He was determined to keep up the morale of his fellow inmates. Baeck recognized the importance of keeping his people’s spirit as strong as possible. He taught Torah and philosophy in the camp while arranging for theatrical and musical performances for the camp’s children. Rabbi Baeck recalled after the war:

  • It was dangerous for us to meet at night. There was an additional danger as well. During the day these men were involved in terrible, back‑breaking work. And after such work, when they needed rest, they came together at night to listen to lessons and lectures, which could have weakened their bodies further. I shall never forget those meetings. We would assemble in darkness.   To light a candle there, or even a match, would have brought immediate disaster upon us. We spoke about matters of the spirit and eternal questions, about God, about Jews in the world, about the eternity of Israel. In the midst of darkness, I sensed light in the dark room, the light of Torah…More than   once I could not see their faces, but I did see great spiritual light.[1]

Leo Baeck also personified the best qualities of shepherding by refusing to abandon his flock when they needed him most.  In fact, when the Church attempted to work out a prisoner swap for Baeck, the Church official replied: “Your mission is in vain; if the man is such as you have described him, he will never desert his flock.”[2] Indeed, the Church official’s words proved true for in 1945, the Nazis released 1200 Jews from Theresienstadt, but Leo Baeck refused to be one of the rescued numbers. When an American officer came to personally look after his release, Baeck insisted on staying for an additional two months, until the typhus epidemic had been properly controlled. While he was there, Baeck wrote many letters for inmates who had no identity papers; these letters ensured that the inmates would be well-received by the international community.[3]

The heroism of men like Rabbis Eliezer Silver and Leo Baeck deserved to be remembered until the end of time. The Jewish people were blessed to have such outstanding leaders.


Notes:

[1] Cited in Siddur Sim Shalom (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly & The United Synagogue of America,1985), 832.

[2] Leonard Baker, Days of Sorrow and Pain: Leo Baeck and the Berlin Jews (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 62.

[3] Naomi E. Pasachoff, Great Jewish Thinkers: Their Lives and Work (Springfield, NJ: Behrman House, Inc, 1992), 154.

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