Bookshelf of old copies of J. Previous names of this publication have included Emanu-El and Jewish Bulletin. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Previous names of this publication have included Emanu-El and The Jewish Bulletin. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

From 1948, a lesson in resisting tyranny

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Jan. 30, 1948

Dr. Baeck, in S.F., Relates His Experience in Nazi Camp

“To do justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”

Dr. Leo Baeck does not quote the Prophet Micah in revealing his philosophy of life or in relating the highlights of a career that has made him one of the most outstanding figures in world Jewry today. The words of the Book have been his guide through life. He lives them. He has practiced them through all of his 75 years of extraordinary service to humanity.

In San Francisco with the American Jewish Cavalcade, a spokesman for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the man who led the Jewish community of Germany in defiance of Hitler until he was led to a concentration camp, spoke modestly, only factually, of his services to his people in the face of death.

Scan of an old newspaper page with an image of the two men standing outside the White House
Dr. Leo Baeck and World Union for Progressive Judaism President Dr. Maurice N. Eisendrath at the White House in 1948

He shows no trace of bitterness. There is warmth and understanding in his deep penetrating eyes. In his face are strength and character; no lines to evidence the suffering he endured. Age has only slightly stooped his frame. His closely cropped mustache and beard are white.

One of the first things he said to me as we sat in his Fairmont room was:

“I would like to stress the fact that every Jew in Germany has experienced kindness from Gentile friends. The sin of the German people is not a sin of commission but of omission. They stood by…”

He explained how Jews were forbidden to buy vegetables and fruit, how they received only spoiled potatoes. “But my Gentile friends brought fruit and vegetables to me.”

Then, with a kindly smile, he added:

“You know, now I want to show my gratitude to them, so I send parcels to my known and unknown German friends.”

Jewish life and history in Germany are finished, he explained. “Germany for the Jew is a cemetery,” he said.

Re-education of Germany, in his opinion, must begin with the children. It will take three generations — a century.

He related that during the last trying months before his arrest in 1943, he had ample opportunity to flee the country. “I would have none of them,” he told me. “I told myself and my people that my duty was to stay with them as long there were ten people left.”

Speaking of life in the camp where he spent two years, he said 120 people died daily. Asked how he was able to preach Judaism to those in the camp in the face of the nazi guards, he said, with something of a smile:

“I could do it because darkness brought us liberty. Before Hitler, I loved the light. In camp, I loved the darkness. We lived in a visible and invisible world. The visible world — the slavery world — started at 5:30 a.m. At 6:30 p.m. the invisible world began with darkness — and freedom. And we all came to crave the darkness.”

Dr. Baeck’s camp assignment was tugging a cart about the place. To keep up his spirits, he discussed science and philosophy with the man who was drawing it with him.

I asked him what we in America could do to arrest the seeds of hate sown in this country by nazi propagandists. His answer came fast:

“The best thing you do is to be true Americans.”

Then he elaborated:

“A strong and stout soul is the best antidote. My prayer is that the American people always have a stout soul. But I’d like to say something more. There is no democracy without religion. The Pilgrims were religious people. Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln were pious men. Religion — with its blessing of freedom as you have in this country — and piety have played their vital part in making this country great. And that’s because in democracy the people obey God more than men. The nazi creed was to obey man more than God.”

He spoke enthusiastically of the American Jewish Cavalcade directed by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and its work in striving for a reawakening of Jewish consciousness. “The future of the Jew is contingent on his religion,” he said. “A Jew without religion is an incomplete being.”

Dr. Baeck was warm in his gratitude to the United States, explaining how he had been flown to Paris in an American bomber after his release from the nazi camp when American and Russian forces came into the reich.

It was to express that gratitude that he called on President Truman recently when he was in Washington.

He plans to remain in the United States until April before returning to London where his family resides. Later he will go back to Germany.