The beginning of the end of German Jewry


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11 October 1933

Rudolf Seligsohn‘s eulogy for Bertha Lindenberg

When Bertha Lindenberg was buried in Oderberg on 11 October 1933, rabbi candidate Rudolf Seligsohn (1909–1943)—only twenty-three at the time—held a remarkable eulogy. For Seligsohn, saying goodbye to Miss Lindenberg, a woman with deep roots in the little Brandenburg town, was "a symbol of another, greater farewell." It was a farewell to the Jewish communities in the countryside and small towns, which "will not be able to take up the harsh struggle for existence that the German Jews must now pursue."

The decline of such communities had begun in the mid-nineteenth century as a result of emerging urbanization, the allure of the big cities, and the advance of modernization. Rudolf Seligsohn believed it meant the loss of treasured values, of manual labor, and of a strong sense of connection with the soil. For him, this parting marked the end of endeavors to "lay the foundations of German Jewry afresh" by sustaining smaller communities. It also signaled the failure of hopes to achieve "a healthy and equitable distribution of the adherents of Judaism across our fatherland" by means of new settlements.

Seligsohn could not have guessed what the future would bring—"only a prophet could tell whether German Jews will enjoy the shining light of freedom again"—but he emphasized that "if the gates do reopen," the German Jewish community would have to renew itself. It would have to give precedence not to the path of nineteenth-century emancipation, the path "toward pure intellect, the path into the city," but instead to rootedness in the countryside. He saw the deceased woman and her family as "representatives of true Jewishness," of a Jewishness that "clings to its soil, straight from the root, robust and strong, constructing, preserving, and sustaining."

The funeral of Bertha Lindenberg, who "took her leave at a moment of historical transition," was the last to be held at Oderberg‘s Jewish cemetery, in use since at least 1750. The cemetery was desecrated during the Nazi period and many of its gravestones were lost, while others were simply thrown haphazardly into a heap. After the war the cemetery was cleaned up, and around forty monuments and fragments were reerected. They included Bertha Lindenberg‘s tombstone.

Aubrey Pomerance

Categorie(s): religious life | school
Rudolf Seligsohn‘s eulogy for Bertha Lindenberg, Oderberg (Mark), 11 October 1933
Leo Baeck Institute, Seligsohn Kroner Family Collection, AR 25128

Rudolf Seligsohn

Rudolf Seligsohn was born and brought up in Berlin. In 1928, he began two courses of study: classical philology at Berlin‘s Friedrich Wilhelm University, and rabbinical training at the College for the Science of Judaism. In 1934 he earned both his doctorate and his rabbinical ordination. Seligsohn was then appointed rabbi to the Bonn community, and in 1935 he married Gerda Kroner. Alongside his rabbinical duties, he taught Latin, history, and geography at the Jawne in Cologne—the Rhineland‘s only Jewish high school.

In response to the November 1938 pogroms, the Jawne management initiated steps to relocate the school to England. In January 1939, Rudolf Seligsohn organized the first of four transports, accompanying thirty of the school‘s children to freedom. Once in London, he and his wife Gerda ran the Jawne Hostel where the children lived.

In early 1940, Seligsohn joined the British army‘s Pioneer Corps and was posted to a company made up mainly of German and Austrian refugees. One year later the American Jewish Congregation in New York offered him a position as rabbi, but the war prevented him from accepting it. He remained in England and was promoted to corporal, then sergeant.

In spring 1943, Rudolf Seligsohn contracted meningitis. He died in Stratford-on-Avon in late April that year, aged only thirty-four and just eight months after the birth of his daughter Elisabeth. His eulogy was given by Max Eschelbacher, a long-serving Düsseldorf rabbi who had fled to Britain in late January 1939. "Here lies the coffin, draped with the Union Jack; his comrades, British soldiers, stand honor guard and will carry him to his grave. How alien this picture is, yet how familiar. A refugee is accompanied to his final resting place by us, who share his destiny. Here we see before us the harrowing destiny of Jews in our time, which is also the eternal Jewish destiny."

Rudolf Seligsohn (left) and his teacher Leo Baeck, with whom he had a particularly close relationship. The photo was taken in the Erzgebirge mountains in 1930.
Leo Baeck Institute, Seligsohn Kroner Family Collection, AR 25128