A Living Saint: Rabbi Baeck

This portrait of a great spiritual leader by RABBI JOSHUA LOTH LIEBMAN of Temple Israel, Boston, author of Peace of Mind, is the result of a friendship which began in books and which came to life. Rabbi Baeck now serves as the President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, with headquarters in London. He came to America in January to tour the country in behalf of two great institutions of liberal Judaism: the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Hebrew Union College. Rabbi Liebman shared the platform with Rabbi Baeck in Philadelphia and in Boston, and spent many friendly hours with the famous liberal Jewish teacher.

by JOSHUA LOTH LIEBMAN

1

SAINTLINESS, is rare in any age; in our materialistic century it has become practically nonexistent. Yet when we do encounter authentic human greatness, we are deeply moved. The soulforce of Gandhi, the sacrificial nobility of Albert Schweitzer, have been sustaining bread for the hungry spirit of modern man. And on a par with the Hindu martyr and the Christian hero stands the figure of Rabbi Leo Baeck.

Picture to yourself an oak of a man, silver-haired, stoop-shouldered, with massive gnarled hands, the result of prolonged malnutrition under German oppression; piercing black eyes, still gentle though they have beheld atrocities that should blast the sense of sight; a sympathy-charged voice, electric with its capacity to exalt and inspire; a mouth mobile with laughter and wisdom. Such is the outward aspect of Leo Baeck — a saint for our times.

Long before the war started, Baeck had been an intellectual hero of mine. I knew him as one of the foremost scholars in Europe, a master of Greek and Latin, whose published volumes on religion and philosophy were treasured by thinkers everywhere. He was at home not merely in rabbinic literature but in philosophy from Plato through Kant, in the dramas of Shakespeare and Ibsen, in the art of Michelangelo and the music of Beethoven.

Baeck did not, however, dwell only in the ivory tower of speculation. He was a great communal leader, serving as the rabbi of the famous Oranienburger Synagogue in Berlin. He was known and respected in the chancelleries and embassies of the German capital as a spokesman of the Jewish people and of human rights. When the Nazis came into power, Rabbi Baeck stood in his distinguished pulpit and preached the living word of God against paganism and the idolatry of the State. These sermons brought him face to face with the Gestapo. As the years passed he was caught in the steel network of the SS men on five different occasions, but so great was the respect accorded this learned Rabbi, by Jew and Christian alike, that the Nazis hesitated to destroy him. Five times he was released. This “war of nerves” in which he was engaged with the Gestapo would have shaken or broken other men, but Baeck imperturbably continued preaching and teaching, serving as a bulwark of strength for his beleaguered people.

During those tragic years of increasing impoverishment and persecution, Rabbi Baeck became more and more the Moses of German Jewry, the special protector of children and the aged, aiding many to emigrate and find new lives in other parts of the world. His apartment, which was located near a park outside of Berlin, became the gathering place of multitudes in distress and the point of departure for those who sought the Rabbi’s farewell blessing. When the Nazis burned the synagogues in November, 1938, Dr. Baeck received a cable from a famous Cincinnati Temple offering him the post of Associate Rabbi. Baeck sent back the historic reply: “As long as there is a single humble Jew left alive in Germany, my place is here with him.”

The war started, and the iron curtain of secrecy descended upon Germany. Baeck disappeared, and in the second year of the war we in America received word that he had been liquidated by the Gestapo. But when the Allied armies liberated the Theresienstadt concentration camp, a seeming miracle had occurred: Rabbi Baeck was still alive!

I recall the joy in my heart on hearing this great news, even as I wondered how he had survived the pain and purgatory of those Nazi years. I received the answer to my question not long ago when I stood face to face with this martyr-saint of Israel, who in January, 1948, came to this country to lecture to audiences throughout the nation in behalf of Reform Judaism.

Little by little, from Baeck’s gentle lips, I pieced together the soul-stirring epic of his survival. One morning early in 1943 he heard the grim five o’clock knock on his door. He knew what that meant. Two SS men ominously said, “We have come for you.” Rabbi Bacck took a last lingering look at his library of 15,000 volumes and the files of his notes for books yet to be written. Be knew that this would be the last time he would see his papers, the notes of a lifetime. By chance he had in his coat pocket the pages of a manuscript on religion. One Storm Trooper said contemptuously to the other: “Toilet paper — let him take this with him.” The manuscript, entitled “The Psychology of the Jewish Spirit,” will be published this fall in London.

He was brought to Theresienstadt — an infamous collection depot for Jews from all parts of Europe — 50,000 human beings massed in cattle pens, the antechambers to the crematoria at Auschwitz.

From the ghastly fate of cremation Dr. Baeck was saved by a freak of chance. The first week of his imprisonment, as he was walking along the mudtrack between the huts, a Jewish doctor from Berlin stopped short in amazement and cried out, “Rabbi Baeck! I was rushing to see you. 1 heard that you were fatally ill.” “No, Doctor,” replied Baeck, “you see I am perfectly all right. There must be some mistake.”

There was a mistake. Another German rabbi, whose name was spelled Beck — a much older man — had died that night of natural causes in the same camp. The report was sent to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin that the famous Leo Baeck had passed away. “At that moment,” said Bacck, “I received a second chance for life, because on the record books I was already dead. I might have been recognized had the SS guards been from Berlin, but fortunately they came from the remotest parts of the conquered countries. They did not know my face and so I was allowed to move among my people unnoticed. Actually I had ceased having a name at all. We Jews in the camp had become mere numbers in the lottery of death.”

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A SECOND almost miraculous chain of circumstances benevolently conspired to save the Rabbi’s life. Regularly the inmates of the camp were sent by lot, according to their numbers, to the gas ovens in Auschwitz. Improbable though it seems mathematically, Baeck’s number was never drawn. Of the original 50,000, he was one of the 700 who survived the ordeal of the pyre.

Never knowing when he would be called, the Rabbi used his days and his nights as a true saint. No indignity could touch the essential core of his soul. Soon after he was brought to the camp he was made a “horse,” and harnessed to the garbage wagon. But as he said to me with a smile, “This was a quite happy period because the other ‘horse’ harnessed to the same cart was a distinguished philosopher. We had the most marvelous conversations on ethics and religion as we dragged the refuse through the mud.” Later, having turned seventy, Bacck was freed from his equine status.

What did he do? He spent his days visiting the sick, the discouraged, the doomed. He brought them the comfort of his presence and the healing medicine of his own faith.

Was an aged Jew dying on a mean pallet? Baeck brought him the solace of the Psalmist—“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” To fathers uncertain when they would be torn from their families to feed the maw of the gas chamber, he would quietly say, “Contrast yourself with these SS barbarians. You are the better person. Take pride in your goodness. After all, one day each man must die. We cannot be sure of what comes after death, but if this should be my own last day I should be able to stand without fear in the face of the Everlasting Mystery. Consider the marvelous alternatives. It may be as Socrates once said, that death is only a quiet sleep; or it may be the entrance into the Olam Haba, the world to come. Personally I feel that death will be the great rebirth. Of course, no one of us can know with certainty what will come. If we go to our deaths, however, as a child goes to his bed for the last time, we can accept that bedtime quietly and still say of life that it was good.” In his final farewell to many of his concentration camp brothers, Bacck would comfort them, “You have chosen a life to which you can say ‘Amen.’ ”

These consoling words of the Rabbi strengthened thousands of his people. As he expressed it to me, “My Jews went toward their certain death with heads high. It was a wonderful spectacle to see them begin their last journey with such disregard for the tyrants, such composure in the presence of evil.”

To the sick whom he visited daily, this remarkable spiritual leader brought the infinite cheer of his personality — “A good word is often better than a drug.” And not only did he bring a word but many times he brought a slice of bread. To realize what this boon meant, we must understand what the diet of the prisoners was. “A cup of ersatz coffee for breakfast,” says Baeck, “a cup of watery soup for lunch, another cup of coffee and four slices of bread for supper; no vegetables, no fruits, no meat, no butter — month after month.” Starved as the Jews were, there was always one who needed a slice of bread more than the others. Rabbi Bacck became the bread collector. He would say, “The old man in the next barrack is ill, he needs strength; give me one of your slices of bread.” And when he brought the bread to the ill or dying person, it represented more than physical nourishment; it was spiritual love bestowed by one suffering human being upon another more miserable than himself. The recipient had the feeling “I am not abandoned — I am among my people.”

In addition to these words of comfort and deeds of love, Dr. Baeck was able to spend the months and years teaching, keeping the intellectual and religious flame alive in his people. All teaching was forbidden. Indeed all intellectual exchange was “verboten.” To be caught imparting knowledge meant death. Baeck took this risk night after night. For in the darkness the Storm Troopers drank and caroused the night away in their distant quarters, believing that the Jews could do nothing without candles or light of any kind. This very darkness, however, proved a supreme blessing. Children would steal into the cell block of the Rabbi; he would instruct them in ihe Hebrew alphabet and tell them stories of the Patriarchs and Prophets of old.

In the second year of his imprisonment, Baeck determined that he must do something for the morale of the adult population of the camp as well. He let it be known that the following Saturday he would lecture at a certain barrack. Here, under cover of darkness, hundreds huddled together awaiting the Rabbi’s utterance. So crowded were the quarters that the younger men had to lift him over the shoulders of the throng to the center of the gusty, wind-swept hall. No one could see another’s face in the thick darkness of those winter months. The only sound heard above the groaning of the icy wind was Rabbi Baeck’s voice lecturing on Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Kant. Week after week without notes or books of any kind, this man, out of the granary of his mind, fed his hungry people.

And now befell a third almost unbelievable escape from death. It was April, 1945. The camp population had dwindled from 50,000 to a few hundred. Typhus and starvation were raging. One night Rabbi Baeck was awakened by a Storm Trooper accompanied by a uniformed stranger who threw his flashlight into the Rabbi’s face. “Get up!” came the order. After a searching scrutiny, the stranger spoke in angry amazement. “You are Rabbi Leo Baeck. I have had you listed as dead on my books for years. I thought at first that I was seeing a ghost.” The speaker was Eichmann, most dreaded deputy of Himmler. “I see that we have made a mistake,” he continued. “Well, tomorrow morning I will remedy that mistake.”

Believing it to be his last night on earth, Rabbi Baeck sat down to write his farewell letters to his daughter and granddaughter. He was prepared to meet death with the same calm that he had imparted to others. As he wrote out his last sentences to his loved ones, he heard a cannonading. His letters finished, he lay down for a brief rest. When his door opened at dawn it was not Eichmann but a Russian officer who marched in. “We have captured the camp,” said the Russian. “The Nazis fled during the night.” Thus and finally, Baeck was liberated from the grip of the Nazi talons.

After liberation, news spread to American authorities that this great spiritual leader of German Jewry was still alive. One day, about a month later, an American jeep driven by a ruddy-faced sergeant drove up to Theresienstadt. “I have come to take you to American Headquarters in Prague, where Major Patrick Dolan is waiting for you,” said the sergeant. Rabbi Baeck complied with the request and was most cordially greeted by a tall, young American Major. “Rabbi, I have good news for you. I have with me a permit to bring you to London away from all the horrors that you have lived through,”

Baeck made it clear that he would love to go to London to be with his daughter. “But,” he continued, “you see I have been like a father to my people for twelve years now, and I could not desert the remnants of my flock at this time. I have medicine to distribute and food rations to share with the starving.”

This act of abnegation, so consistent with his whole life story, deeply impressed the American Major. “How long will it take you to finish your work here?” he inquired. “About a month,” replied Rabbi Baeck. With typical American efficiency, the Major planned: “Today is May 29. I shall return for you on June 29.”

It was a month of poignant duties — the burial of the dead, ministrations to the living, arrangements for transportation home for the broken survivors. On the appointed day, the Major returned, but as it happened, this was the eve of the Sabbath. The Rabbi explained that he could not leave until he had delivered a farewell sermon to the remnants of his people. By this time, Baeck himself had a fever and barely enough strength to totter about. In a thin, almost broken voice, the teacher gave his final lesson. “Be strong and of good courage. . . The following evening Baeck was winging his way westward in Major Patrick Dolan’s plane.

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I SAID in the beginning that saintliness is the outstanding characteristic of Leo Baeck. It has been my privilege to be with him a number of times during his visit to America. And his slightest word or action only serves to buttress my conviction that he is one of the unforgettable souls of modern times.

In the first place, he has a rare capacity for understanding human nature, its perversity and its goodness, as well as the ability to forgive men for their frailties. When I asked him how he maintained his faith in human nature during the terrible Nazi years, he replied that he realized that criminals had come to rule his country. “The tragedy that had overtaken Germany was comparable to what would happen in America if your Sing Sing Prison were to open its gates and convicts took over the seats of authority, becoming the governors, senators, and congressmen of this land. Incidentally, your American novelist, Sinclair Lewis, in his It Cant Happen Here, presented a vivid portrait of how a dictator can come to power — as one did in Germany. We Jews in concentration camps understood that perverts and criminals had seized the reins of authority in our land; some of us determined to outlive them, to demonst rate that the goodness of man can be victorious over brutality and bestiality.

“Furthermore, one must not generalize.” He smiled, holding out his pitifully gnarled hands. “These were the results of German cruelty, of malnutrition; but they do not tell the whole story. I think at this moment of a young German Christian boy — a polit ical prisoner who shared the cell with me in one of the Gestapo dungeons. He treated me as though I were his father, giving me more than his share of the bread and water day after day. I shall never forget either a distinguished Christian countess in Berlin. In that year of the regime when the Nazis had given an order that Jews should be allowed to eat only rotten potatoes, this noblespirited woman walked to the Baeck house every Friday afternoon bearing an open basket of fresh fruits and vegetables. She knew that she was risking her life, yet she continued her deed of Christian love until at last we were sent away.”

Baeck’s magnanimity mounts to the highest intellectual plane. In one of our discussions, the name of Carl Jung, the psychiatrist, was mentioned. I told the Rabbi that many had come to regard Jung as a Nazi or at least a Nazi sympathizer. “No, no,” Baeck replied, “I knew him well in Berlin. I do not agree with many of his theories but I visited him last year in Switzerland and I told him then that he had made a mistake in accepting the presidency of the German Psychological Society during the Hitler years. . . . ‘Jung, you were foolish to have taken this honor from the hands of the Nazis.’ . . . He agreed with me that it had been a mistake.” My own inner comment was that this was indeed a masterpiece of forgiveness from a man who had suffered in a concentration camp while the Nazis decorated the more pliant psychiatrist.

The amazing thing about Baeck is that he harbors no visible bitterness and is untouched by pessimism. Of all the men I have ever met, this seventy-fiveyear-old Rabbi, ascetic, scarred by his imprisonment, the participant in agony such as few human eyes have ever witnessed — this man is still most triumphantly affirmative in his approach to life and the future. He possesses an enormous vitality and a contagious enthusiasm for ideas and ideals.

He has a particular love and sympathy for America. When in Washington, D.C., at the beginning of January, the first thing that he wanted to do after being received by President Truman was to visit the Lincoln Memorial. Not satisfied merely to look at it from below, he called out to his friends, “Come, let us climb nearer Lincoln’s face.” He ran up the steps with a joyous vigor that amazed everyone. Silently he contemplated the Great Emancipator, one of his own great heroes. “I have read something of Lincoln every week during this past year.”

Perhaps the most memorable thing about Leo Baeck is that he has totally escaped self-pity. During one conversation it came out that the Nazis had killed his four sisters and had sent his surviving brothers to their death in the gas chambers of Poland. “But let us not speak of this,” he said quietly, “while there is so much work yet to be done in the world.” In essence, he believes that the work that he can do is to teach men and women a living faith in the One Being, God, who speaks to man with an eternal “Thou shalt,” calling upon him to fulfil! the Divine commandments of love and of justice. Every life in some part has tragedy, but man can learn how to say “nevertheless” — to walk in the way of God in spite of all obstacles and all terrors. “God made the earth, but now man must make it a realm of God.” Rabbi Baeck is a brave defender of human personality and human freedom, summoning the human race in spite of its errors and frailties to make room for God on this planet.

In a recent address, Baeck distinguished between two kinds of memory; one, the memory given us by nature, can be either weak or strong, powerful or feeble; the other, chosen by ourselves, can be either noble or ignoble. “So many people go through life,” he said, “filling the lumber room of their minds with the odds and ends of a grudge here, a jealousy there, a pettiness, a selfishness — all ignoble. The true task of man is to create for himself a noble memory, a mind filled with grandeur, forgiveness, restless ideals, and the dynamic ethical ferment preached by all religions at their best.”

He put the meaning of life into a succinct aphorism: “The mark of a mature man is the ability to give love and to receive it —joyously and without guilt.” All the rest is commentary.

My contacts with Rabbi Baeck the past months have given me a renewed faith in man and a deeper confidence in the human adventure that will eventually go beyond tyranny, war, and cruelty. I have lived with a character who has seen the worst that man can do to his fellow man, yet he himself remains an undiscouraged, unbroken pioneer of the Divine Kingdom. An intellect of titanic scope, he is more than a man of learning; he possesses the wisdom of the heart. He is a soul on fire.

He stands with Francis of Assisi in the Christian tradition and the great martyr Rabbi Akiba in the Jewish tradition — truly a contemporary of every great Saint who has walked the earth. Leo Baeck can be for all of us, as he is for me, the antidote to pessimism, and the proof that man truly is created in the image and likeness of God.