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Martin Riesenburger: Prison Chaplain during the Cold War

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This document certified in February 1953 that Martin Riesenburger (1896–1965) was employed as a rabbi and responsible for pastoral care in prisons. It is labeled as a “service card” and written on Jewish Community of Berlin letterhead. The card appears makeshift: it was not preprinted, is not on reinforced paper or card, and the passport photo is only stapled to the page. And what does “pastoral care in prisons” mean?

Employee ID with photo and stamps

Martin Riesenburger’s service card; Jewish Museum Berlin, Gift of Peter Schulz, photo: Jens Ziehe

Berlin During the East–West Conflict

The Jewish Community of Berlin was split over the intensification of the East–West conflict in early 1953. The Jews of East Germany suffered reprisals. They were accused of disloyalty to the GDR. Several hundred Jews escaped from East Berlin. The East Berlin community came under surveillance and individual community members were arrested. It is possible that Rabbi Riesenburger was responsible for these prisoners and was granted permission to visit them in prison.

Rabbi in East Berlin

Riesenburger had survived the period of the Nazi rule thanks to his wife. Lucie Klara Riesenburger had converted to Judaism in the 1920s and was therefore considered a non-Jew according the Nazi racial laws. Following liberation, he led the first Jewish prayer service in Berlin in May 1945. In 1961, the East German government appointed Martin Riesenburger as the chief rabbi of the Jewish communities in the GDR. Martin Riesenburger died four years later in Berlin.

Title Martin Riesenburger's Jewish Community of Berlin service card
Collection Archive
Location and year of origin Berlin, 16 February 1953
Medium Paper, ink, photograph, staples
Dimensions 14,9 x 21 cm
Acquisition Gift of Peter Schulz

Rabbi

A rabbi is a Jewish scholar who interprets and makes judgements under religious law, gives sermons, and leads the community.
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Jews of East Germany

In East Germany, Jews were recognized as a group persecuted by the Nazi regime, but were viewed as less significant than active resistance fighters and anti-fascists, especially those from the Communist Party. In the early 1950s, some Jews were subjected to repression because they were suspected of collaborating with the West.
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