The Holocaust and the war were over. A few young Jews walked up to the gate of a vast Jewish cemetery in Berlin, a graveyard so overgrown and cratered that it looked like a metaphor for German Jewry.
These men already had seen too much--at Auschwitz, they’d thought they’d seen the end of the world--but even they were shocked by what greeted them at the cemetery gate.
A rabbi who told them he’d lived and worked openly here throughout the war, who said he’d hidden Torahs and sacred objects from the Nazis.
And that was why they had been called here, to dig them up.
Later, as they were leaving, the rabbi urged each to take something he had unearthed.
One of the men, Werner Coppel, thought of a common attitude at Auschwitz toward such holy items: “What good did they do us?”
Still, he picked up a tallit, a prayer shawl. A long one, off-white with black stripes and a silver collar and fringe at the borders.
As he left with his shawl, Coppel wondered: Who is this rabbi? And why is he alive?
His name was Martin Riesenburger, and he was the last rabbi of Berlin.
In the capital of the Third Reich, in the midst of the Holocaust, Riesenburger secretly tended the embers of Judaism.
Acting within the law, he gave hundreds of Jews a gift that was denied millions of others: a religious burial.
Acting outside the law, and at great risk, he conducted secret services and hid sacred objects. He even erected a sukkah, a traditional outdoor hut, for the holiday of Sukkot.
“Right under the nose of the Nazis, this rabbi gave Jews hope,” said Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz, an American scholar who is studying Riesenburger. “For this alone, he deserves our praise and gratitude.”
Riesenburger started out as a chaplain at Berlin’s Jewish old-age home. That was 1933, the year Hitler took power. By 1941, the destruction of German Jewry was underway, and Riesenburger had to wear a yellow Star of David on the left side of his tallit.
But Riesenburger had a source of protection: his wife.
She was born a Christian, and even though she converted to Judaism in the 1920s, she was regarded as Aryan under the Nazi race laws. As her spouse, Riesenburger, like several thousand other Berlin Jews married to people the Nazis considered Aryans, was spared deportation to a concentration camp.
In late 1942, the Gestapo announced it would close the old-age home and deport its residents. Riesenburger held a final service in the home’s synagogue.
“I made a short speech, interrupted by the crying of those present,” he recalled in his autobiography, “The Light That Never Failed.” When it was over, “We all shook hands, because we could not speak.”
Working quickly--furniture was tossed out the windows, straw thrown on the floor--the Gestapo turned the home into a detention pen for Jews.
This was the work of Alois Brunner, an ambitious young Gestapo official who had quickly and ruthlessly deported Vienna’s Jews. The deportation of Berlin Jews was going too slowly, and Brunner’s mission was to make the city Judenfrei--free of Jews.
Riesenburger was arrested, taken to the old-age home and locked in the room in which he’d once presided over a ceremony marking a couple’s golden anniversary.
After a week, he was called in to see Hauptsturmfuhrer Brunner.
In his autobiography, Riesenburger said only that Brunner told him to resume his work and released him.
Assigned to another synagogue, he held services at which Gestapo agents often outnumbered Jews. The latter realized, Riesenburger said, “it was only a trap.”
In June 1943, Riesenburger secretly married a Jewish man and woman. He was 40, she 37. A few days later, they were deported to a camp.
It was the last marriage Riesenburger performed during the war; after that, there were only funerals.
Although Berlin had been declared Judenfrei, about 7,000 Jews still lived there. Some were underground; some were special workers; some, like Riesenburger, were married to Aryans.
When these Jews died, they had to be buried. The Nazis didn’t want Germans to do it, so they assigned Riesenburger to Weissensee, the largest and now the last functioning Jewish cemetery in Berlin.
Riesenburger seems to have been appointed for two reasons: because he was protected, and because he was nobody.
“He was not a brilliant man, like some of the rabbis we had,” said Jerry Bocian, who as a schoolboy met Riesenburger. “His sermons were simple. There were no great philosophical thoughts. I can’t imagine him in the pulpit of one of the big synagogues.”
But the Nazis had killed or jailed the great spiritual and intellectual monuments of the German rabbinate. That left Riesenburger, a warm, unpretentious man who liked to read his wife Bible stories. He wasn’t even an ordained rabbi. He was a cantor, a vocation founded on his two early loves: God and music.
“He was not a big man, a leader,” recalled Marcus Saferstein, another Berliner who knew him. “If he was, they would have taken him away.”
And so, as millions of European Jews were incinerated like waste paper, Martin Riesenburger began giving a lucky few a decent burial.
At first, he performed several funerals each day. Many were suicides, including people who had received a summons to Gestapo headquarters. Often, remains arrived in the mail in an urn, with a return address at Auschwitz or Buchenwald. They came C.O.D.
Riesenburger prepared the body for burial, led the small funeral procession, said the prayers and played the organ.
He always gave a eulogy. “He wouldn’t stop talking until the last person had his handkerchief out,” recalled Liselotte Clemens, who worked at the cemetery as a teenager. “He could really squeeze the tear ducts.”
He did it not by mentioning current events--he never even alluded to politics--but by preaching hope, by stressing that there was something eternal that nothing could extinguish.
His message was cliched and banal. And it got his people through another day.
Life was hard, tense--even for protected Jews, even in the cemetery. The Gestapo had invaded other graveyards to catch fugitives (they were hanged on the spot), and agents watched Weissensee’s entrances.
Yet Riesenburger went further.
One day, a truck pulled up to the gate. The driver, a Christian, hopped out and said he had a pile of Torahs in back: “Please be quick, I have to be off!” It was a Christian neighborhood. Spies were everywhere.
Riesenburger roused his employees. “We have a special job,” he said. They loaded the Torahs onto carts, wheeled them inside, and hid them in the choir loft of the mourning hall. They packed them so high that, by the end, they had to stand on some Torahs to add more to the top of the pile.
In all, Riesenburger hid or buried more than 500 Torahs. His goal, he said, was to remind survivors “that Berlin Jewry did not cease to exist.”
Before the High Holy Days, some of Berlin’s remaining Jews, including those posing as Aryans, began to call the cemetery to inquire, elliptically, if there would be services.
So Riesenburger began holding them secretly. He made copies of his Jewish calendar and slipped copies to people, so they would know when the holidays fell.
They met downstairs in the yellow-brick administration building. Gates were locked, a lookout posted. The services usually were attended by about 14 people, all afraid. Ilse Peritz, now of Baldwin, N.Y., was 9 at the time. It was so risky, she said, her family didn’t all go at once.
Soft as their prayers were, Riesenburger told his followers, they were heard. “Quietly and silently,” he later wrote, “the embers glowed underneath the cemetery.”
Liselotte Clemens, the cemetery worker, recalled Riesenburger’s confidence: “If he was afraid, he never showed it. He gave you the feeling everything would be fine.”
“We had no leaders, so we followed him,” she added. “No one gave a hoot whether he was ordained or not.”
And at some point--no one recalls when--people began calling him “rabbi.”
In February 1945, the Riesenburgers were bombed out of their apartment house. So they moved to the cemetery, living on the second floor of the administration building. Their neighbor was the gravedigger.
Now, although Riesenburger rarely left the cemetery, he had less and less to do there. Burials had dropped from 3,257 in 1942 to 228 in 1944.
It was a gloomy, desperate time.
“We stood between the living and the dead,” he wrote.
Then, in April 1945, the cemetery workers heard Soviet artillery to the east. Soon, shells were flying overhead. The Riesenburgers retreated to a crude bomb shelter below the administration building.
After a while, they heard men’s voices outside the cemetery door, ordering: “Open up!” Next, they heard several shots, followed by a silence that stretched, second by second, until dawn.
When he emerged, Riesenburger found two black uniforms lying on the ground. The men outside had been SS, Hitler’s bodyguard. There were bullet holes in the cemetery door.
Not long after, the Soviets arrived. When the first soldier came through the gate, Riesenburger recalled, “we embraced this messenger of freedom. We kissed him and we cried.”
On a Friday night a few months later, a few Jews who had drifted back from the camps gathered in an old synagogue youth chapel in West Berlin.
It was the Sabbath, but they did not come for services. They had no rabbi, no Torah, no prayer book, just this room they’d cleaned up. The synagogue itself had been burned down by the Nazis.
Then a man appeared in the doorway. No one had seen him before.
He introduced himself as Rabbi Riesenburger. If you want prayer books, I have some, he said. I’ll bring them to you next week.
He brought enough to fill a suitcase. The prayer books led to services, which led to the first bar mitzvah and the first wedding. At Rosh Hashana, Riesenburger preached. As usual, he made people cry.
No one seems to recall what he said, but several people make roughly the same remark: To make us cry, after all we were through, took something special.
Riesenburger never left East Berlin. The East German Communist government, eager to reject the Nazi legacy, recognized Riesenburger as the nation’s chief rabbi. He defended the regime and criticized West Germany. Insofar as he was known at all in the West, it was as “the Red Rabbi.”
He died in 1965 and was largely forgotten. Today, as comprehensive a source as “The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust” has no reference to Martin Riesenburger.
But Werner Coppel remembers.
He is 72 now. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, he takes out the prayer shawl Riesenburger gave him and wears it to services at his synagogue in Cincinnati.
Having chosen it almost carelessly half a century ago, he now stipulates in his will that he be buried with it. He says it’s a kind of connection to his parents, dragged off long ago without a chance to pass along so much as a teacup.
Coppel still has photos of Riesenburger and thinks about him now and then.
“When it comes to German Jewry, a lot of things have been forgotten,” he said, “and this story will be lost when we go.”