On July 29, 1945, a Jewish wedding was held at Berlin’s Rykestrasse Synagogue, the first since the city’s liberation, nearly three months earlier. The names of the bride and groom are lost to history, but not that of the presiding rabbi - Martin Riesenburger.
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His tale is one of the strangest – and little-known – episodes in the history of modern German Jewry.
Anti-Jewish measures within Germany had began almost immediately after the Nazi Party election in 1933. But it wasn’t until June 1943 that the regime declared the capital Berlin to be “Judenrein” – free of Jews. Nonetheless, it is estimated that some seven thousand Jews survived the Holocaust in Berlin itself. This count includes not only people in hiding, but also Jews of mixed ancestry and Jewish men married to Gentile women, which made them exempt from deportation. This was the case with Martin Riesenburger.
Safe from murder
Riesenburger, born in the city in 1896, was not an ordained rabbi, but rather a praediger – a preacher – as well as a cantor. In the 1920s, he had married Lucie Klara Linke, a Gentile convert to Judaism.
From the regime’s point of view, she remained an Aryan, a policy that saved both her and her husband from being murdered, and allowed them to remain in Berlin.
In 1933, Riesenburger began working at a Jewish old-age home on Grosse Hamburger Street. Toward the end of 1942, the military commander of Berlin, Alois Brunner, ordered the home to be closed down and its residents deported.
According to a 1997 Associated Press article, which was in turn based on the research of the American rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz and a German-language memoir by Riesenburger himself, Riesenburger was arrested – but was then called to Brunner’s office, where he was told that he was being released and could continue his pastoral work.
He began to oversee the Weissensee burial grounds, the largest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, in the east of the city. Amazingly, through much of the war, Riesenburger carried out Jewish burials, with the tacit agreement of the authorities.
Sometimes, the deceased had died of natural causes, but many were suicides; other times, he received urns of ashes of Jews, sent COD from German death camps, and he undertook to bury them, with a service, organ music and eulogy.
‘The Red Rabbi’
In early 1945, after his own apartment was destroyed in an Allied air raid, Riesenburger and his wife took up residence in the cemetery’s administration building.
Soon, he began leading Sabbath Eve services, secretly, in the basement of the administration building. Although the worshipers had to keep their voices lowered, he assured them that their prayers, said mostly in German, were heard. As he wrote in his memoir, "Quietly and silently," he later wrote, "the embers glowed underneath the cemetery." These were followed by candle-lighting and Kiddush.
There is no evidence that Riesenburger hid Jews, or was directly responsible for saving lives, but he did take in and thus save, by one estimate, more than 500 Torah scrolls, after they were dropped off at the cemetery one day with no warning.
At war’s end, the Rykestrasse, which had been spared from destruction on Kristallnacht, in November 1938, was the only synagogue still standing in Berlin.
The Rykestrasse, spared on Kristallnacht, was the only synagogue still standing in Berlin at the war's end. (Photo: Mazbln, Wikimedia Commons)
On July 13, 1945, the synagogue reopened for a Sabbath service – not in its main building, but in a smaller structure in front that had served as a school. It was two weeks after that that Martin Riesenburger officiated at a first wedding there.
After the war, as East Berlin was incorporated into the German Democratic Republic, Riesenburger continued functioning as a rabbi, and the Communist regime even prevailed upon the rabbinate of Hungary to grant him rabbinical ordination. Thus Riesenburger became the rabbi of the Rykestrasse Synagogue, and the chief rabbi, first of Berlin, and then of East Germany in general. In West Germany, he became known as “The “Red Rabbi,” and he made his share of statements critical of Western values and politics.
Rabbi Riesenburg died on April 14, 1965, and was buried in the same Weissensee cemetery where he helped keep Judaism alive in the final months of the war.
The Weissensee Jewish cemetery in Berlin. (Photo: Mazbln, Wikimedia Commons)