Sunday, December 24, 2023

How Jews Spent New Years Eve in Berlin, 1936


How Jews Spent New Years Eve in Berlin, 1936

 For video:



I am proud to announce that there is an exhibit that opened this week in Frankfurt, Germany, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the reestablishing of the Jewish community after the Holocaust.


As  you may know, my father, Rabbi Dr William, or Wilhelm at that time, served as the first State Rabbi of the region of Hesse, the environs of Frankfurt, when the community was reincorporated. This followed his service establishing adult education programs for the survivors in the Displaced Persons Camps in the Salzburg area of Austria.

Here is the invitation, which I share with you:

It’s running from Dec 20 through May 26 of next year.


My father is featured prominently in the opening panels of the exhibit, that refer to the founding years ( and I get “honorable mention” for providing some of that material.

Exhibit Displays

 New Beginnings Exhibit


My father with the great Chief Rabbi of Germany through the Holocaust, Rabbi Leo Baeck.


At the dedication of the Westend Synagog




Here is the recording , broadcast over German radio, as my father lights the Eternal Lamp for the first time in the reconstructed Westend Synagog:



At the dedication of the synagogue




I want to shift the tenor of my talk today, though, away from the heavy lifting that my father was engaged in at that time, to a reflection of a lighter mood in the decade preceding, before anyone could know the severity of the tragedy to unfold.  This last quarter of 2023, or the first quarter of 5784, has been very heavy for us all, especially for our families in Israel, but for us here as well. So, I thought of an unusual document that had been sent me by a researcher in Germany, one that opened a little light in an otherwise already gloomy time.





My father, who had been leader of the Jewish Student Zionist organization in Vienna and then leader of the Jewish student’s organizatiuon in Berlin, had been in studies in Rabbinical school at the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums in the early 1930’s. However, family funding for his studies had been running out, so he left Berlin for Zurich to earn extra money as a tutor. While there, he basically was caught in a scheme that was intended to bring him back to Berlin and  his studies, but instead, landed him in prison, first in one called Moabit, then later in Brandeburg Prison.

I am surprised what good record keepers the Germans are, till today- I was sent his entire dossier!



 Berlin Kangaroo Court Indictement



          The archivist at Brandenburg found, among the legal documents, a personal letter to my father from a friend of his, Oskar Gellman, dated January 17, 1936, with an extra note by Erna, whom I assume to be his wife.


          His friend not only decided to appraise him of the mundane events of his acquaintances during the time her was in prison, but also to entertain him and keep his spirit up. Why the wardens would have kept just this letter, I have no clue, but the writer is so very vivid and ascerbic in his wit, that perhaps they kept it as an example of how funny these Jews could be. His writing verges on the Rabelaisian and he pokes sharply at his friends and acquaintances.


          It is a window on the mood of Jews in the early years of  the Hitler reign, as the Nuremberg laws were taking effect while the ultimate horror  awaiting them was something as yet unimagineable. Clearly, the author says nothing at all about the Nazi regime, since he is aware that the letter will be read by the authorities and understands the potential impact on my father’s pending appeal of anything at all material to his incarceration. He can only make reference to it as a one –time moment of stupidity that does not match my father’s fine personality and sterling character, which he pointedly emphasizes ( as does Erna). In light of the fun he pokes at his circle of friends, one can see how highly he regards my father in contrast. There is no reference to the status of Jews, per se, but clear references to the general difficulties in finding secure employment or economic security for some of the people involved and a general sense of wishing to leave. The one reference to politics is to the Italian occupation of Ethiopia and the fear of war between the British and French against the Italians in the Mediterranean.

          His language is full of idioms and verbal hyperboles that are sometimes hard to understand ( and hard to read). The text of the letter was transcribed for my by Omer Van Voorden.





My dear Willi,


          In the meantime, since Christmas, there  were only two days that were worthy of note: New Years and my birthday. I didn’t want to celebrate Sylvester [Ed.- New Years] in the way one could understand celebrate. I tell myself- if Willi is not here, but instead he is in B [ Brandenburg Prison], then there is no way to celebrate anything. It was clear that for your sake I could think of no reason I could celebrate. You know that when my sprit is lousy I am against any celebrating. I told to Roman that he and Moehrchen should come and reminisce over a glass of tea. However, I wanted to make Erma happy, so I bought Roman, Morchen, Erma and myself tickets to the Comic Opera at 0.75 ! [ Ed.- 75 pfennig, worth, in todays US dollar, about $5, or about twice the cost of a “Dreigroschenoper”, (Three Penny Opera). I do not know if his “!” is because was so cheap-or so expensive at the time] . However, it worked out differently than I had planned. On New Years eve, at 6 PM, Erna’s ex- husband and his current wife suggested that following the opera they would come to spend New Years with me.


          Out of politeness rather than out of joy about this implausible event, I said yes. Hardly had they come here, than there also appeared a couple from the outskirts of Berlin (whom I myself this summer more or less had befriended) with the same suggestion.

Again I explained the plan, but also gave notice that I would provide no alcohol and for that everyone would need to fend for him. Finally, they also bought tickets for the Comic Opera (at 0.75!). After completion of the cultural event, the whole social gathering took place in my apartment where a table was set. Served were: sausages and potato salad and again sausages and potato salad and for dessert  a salad made with peas and beans was passed around, with what afterwards turned out to have as bad consequences as could be. To my greatest shock I noticed that in addition to other bottles, the provincial couple had brought 2 bottles of whisky, 2 bottles of wine + 3 bottles of champagne to make us foggy.


          Everything naturally fell apart as I take note of my weakness for alcohol.


          Roman tried to get me drunk with downright sadistic pleasure. He cheered me with “prosit” constantly and I had to respond willy-nilly every time with another drink. Erna was soon very tipsy and glowed like a red bulb. (You might think this was due to an intensive sunlamp cure!). I don’t believe it. And you?  Around midnight, the company was already half wobbly and looking for me to systematically finish everything. Lion Braun was pale as a corpse and Roman began to target the wall with pancakes as for a mural. (The traces can still be seen). Here come true the old adage "who digs a pit for others...”


Roman had become totally wasted in the course of the evening. Afterwards, as the senior member here, I went first went for the toilet and, as a decent man, locked the door. I heard an urgent knock from the outside and opened the door.


Who rushed forward to me with a mouth full of seltzer water? The fat Roman! I have never seen anyone so pale... As he lay there, the poor guy and provided me with highly varied companionship. After some time, he gave himself to philosophical considerations about  comparison of human life with the famous “Huehnerleiter” [Ed.- There is a book by Alan Dundes ,Life Is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder , which explains this popular German saying that life is like a chicken coop ladder, full of filth] Is it still the bleakest? The Huehnerleiter got rid of his ruined shirt and ran again as half dull madman by the long corridor, until he fell tired and exhausted on shaking knees at the other end and with his gigantic chest covered the ice cold floor.

…In this mixture of human nourishment and blessed drunkenness, we other weak-kneed creatures let the Colossus sleep up to 4 o’clock in the morning.


Despite our muddled senses, and perhaps because of our heavy mass, we thought of you and communicate with you from a distance as the card that you've certainly received proves.


          We were drinking to your health and our card's contents clearly expressed our deep feelings. I hope our wishes have arrived. In addition, Willi, I personally have found myself completely out of balance since your fall and I must confess that only the idea that still keeps me going, you get the feeling, is that you still have an old friend in Berlin.

          I know that this is illogical, but I hope that my stay here can give you a little bit of calm. If not for you I would have left after Baby was engaged, but I will stay here and wait until you have finished your sentence for this one time nonsense. As I've known you as a constitutionally sound and logical man, I hope to God that you will well weather this difficult time, especially since I was able to convince myself that the institution you are in is very humane and you receive decent treatment. I am convinced that after your release a few weeks of nursing by your mother will be enough to get you afloat again. And I think that your professors and colleagues will forgive this inexplicable and unexpectable prank of yours.


          You are known as a fine and decent human being and I hope that we later will see your act as I see it, as the derailment by unusual circumstances of one fundamentally decent person.


          Now back to the Sylvester. Later on Erna’s sister-in-law and husband and another family known to you came by.


          After having brought Lion in a fully apathetic state to his home, we remained together until the New Year’s morning. The only ones who stayed sober were the provincial couple. They cooked us over stitch and thread and let no one sleep. On the New Year’s morning at 8, we went together to Erna’s in-laws to enjoy a decent breakfast.


          So, the 1st of January was spent in good chit-chat until the evening and then we moved on to our own homes to go to bed as soon as possible.


          One should not plan things; it comes out differently from what is planned.

[The letter goes on with some chit-chat about various and sundry common friends.]





          The world in general is continuing its old routine. Up till the military conflict between Italy and Abyssinia, the world events continue on the same old tune. The members of the League of Nations are striving to resolve the dispute by means of economic sanctions. There are some dark clouds on the political horizon.

One can only hope that after some dramatic moves, considered objectively, a “happy end” will finally be achieved. I personally can hardly believe that there is a serious basis to the threatening portent of a transfer of the conflict to Europe, in which England and France are one side, Italy on the other side coming to blows in the Mediterranean. I believe every European Government would be able to deny a material interest in this.

Italy could act out of desperation in the event that all other ways to back off, but that is not a foregone conclusion.


          ..Now, my dear Willy, don’t let your head hang down, everything will be over and I hope I can soon get from a letter from you. I will visit you again at the next possible opportunity. Goodbye, my good young man! Oskar.


My father was released from prison after hist initial sentence was cut to two years, on the condition that he leave Germany forever. Ironically, because Brandenburg, in this years was a prison focused on rehabilitation, he had relatively easy conditions, and was able to finish his Rabbinical studies by correspondence.  He made his way to Austria, published three essays on the dangers of facing contemporary civilization ( psychological, biological, and economic determinism) , escaped to Czechoslovakia with the Anschluss, and was again caught with the German takeover of Czechoslovakia, and this time, thrown into a notorious prison for subversives, the Spielberg castle of Brno, and then, sent on one of Eichmann’s first trains out to Poland, and form there, escape to the Soviet Union.

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