Lilli Zimet, my mother’s cousin, is a lively ninety-four year-old who issues her keen memories with the precise articulation of a native German speaker. Largely housebound, she keeps in touch with family and friends from her two-story home on a woodsy street near Temple Beth El in Poughkeepsie, New York, where in 1946 her husband, Rabbi Erwin Zimet, another refugee from the Nazis, assumed leadership of fifteen families. Drawn by his charisma and lively programming (including Lilli’s classes and choir), the Conservative congregation grew to nine hundred families before Erwin Zimet’s death in 1989.
When I recently mentioned that I was engrossed in a biography of the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, Lilli recalled hearing Buber lecture to Jewish teachers outside Berlin. It was Buber who saw how assimilated German Jews, having relinquished so much to be good Germans, were particularly vulnerable to Hitler’s anti-Semitism, and so would need Judaism as a kind of “spiritual resistance” during the Hitler years.
Lilli and Irma, my mother, were exactly the kind of assimilated teenagers Buber worried about. Their families attended synagogue on the High Holidays, and they went to public high schools, which released them for two hours of weekly Jewish instruction while their gentile peers went to Catholic or Protestant classes. Although Irma’s family used separate dishes for milk and meat, in Lilli’s family keeping kosher meant eating bacon only in the kitchen.
“Until Hitler, we simply weren’t very conscious of being Jewish,” Lilli recalled. “It somehow wasn’t very important to who we were.”
Yet by 1934, after merely a year of Hitler as Chancellor, life had become so difficult for Jews that 37,000—almost a tenth of the nation’s 400,000 Jewish citizens—had left Germany. When my mother’s Nazi biology teacher discussed the new “scientific” evidence for Jews being a degenerate race and her girlfriends crossed the street to avoid her, she simply dropped out of school. (She would study hard to earn an American high school diploma when I was in my teens.) Though Lilli was one of two Jewish students in her Lyceum class, she loved her music teacher, and her Christian schoolmates stood by her. So she graduated in 1935, just as the Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of citizenship and forbade Jewish students to attend public schools and universities.
An Alert and Strong Love: Buber’s Vision of Jewish Education
In 1925, hoping to draw German Jews to the Bible, Buber began working with the theologian and philosopher Franz Rosenzweig to translate the Torah into a German that reproduced the wonderful rhythm and poetry of Hebrew. During much of their collaboration, Rosenzweig, who had ALS, could barely move or speak. Buber would read each Hebrew phrase aloud and wait for Rosenzweig to tap out German suggestions. Rosenzweig died in 1929, leaving Buber to complete the ambitious project. Ironically, he would finally do so in Israel in 1961, surrounded by spoken Hebrew, and with few Jews left in Germany.
Convinced that learning their own history and faith could give Jews meaningful lives either under the growing restrictions of Nazi Germany, or wherever they might find a new homeland, Buber rallied the Jewish community to create a system of Jewish education. “In our history hardship has always had a reviving power,” Buber wrote. “It is not the worst thing that our starting point is hardship and compulsion. What we must do is make of it freedom and a blessing.” Although the Orthodox community objected to leadership by a man who did not attend synagogue and was married to a gentile, in 1934, Buber convinced his friend, Ernst Simon, an educator and Jewish philosopher who had already fled to Palestine, to return to Germany to run a national coordinating office, and the two began contacting rabbis and Jewish teachers to act as speakers and teacher trainers. National and local teacher training conferences and country retreats were organized to deepen teachers’ Jewish knowledge, strengthen their pedagogical skills, and create a unified Jewish community.
Surrounded by virulent Nazi propaganda, Buber argued that Jewish instruction—he included Hebrew, Jewish history, the Hebrew Bible, community, and faith—needed to be slow and thoughtful, allowing for active student participation, including questions, comments, and challenges. Jewish teachers needed to teach by their presence and example, opening themselves to “I-thou” relationships with each other and their students.
To generate an “alert and strong love” for the world around them, including its deprivations and horrors, Buber utilized psalms and other biblical readings to remind German Jews that their spiritual doubts were not new. In a collection of twenty-three Hebrew psalms he published in 1936 alongside his own German translation, he reassured his readers, “the words of personal complaint are themselves an offering to God.” Even amidst the growing peril, Buber argued that it is people who turn away from God; “God dwells where man lets Him in.”
Reading the Torah out loud, as he had done with his friend Rosenzweig, he hoped his listeners would hear its personal call. “The biblical word cannot be detached from its spokenness,” Buber believed. “A command is not a sentence, but an address.”
Lilli’s Jewish Education
By 1935, Irma, the youngest of seven siblings, was living with her aged parents in a small apartment behind her father’s vacuum sweeper factory, teaching herself to sew. But Lilli, who was living at home with her parents and older brother, was determined not to let the Nazis stop her from becoming a teacher. Although Jewish schools were not allowed to grant academic degrees, Lilli found a course in elementary education headed by Nellie Wolfheim, a disciple of Maria Montessori (herself banned by Hitler), located in a private apartment. The course, which drew fifteen young Jewish women, included an intensive mix of pedagogy and psychology, including two internships in Jewish kindergartens, along with Jewish instruction.
“Initially, Jewish education was incidental to what I wanted to study,” recalled Lilli, who as a student was unaware of Buber’s role in Wolfheim’s curriculum. “I was in a Jewish school more by default because the other schools wouldn’t take me. But eventually we all started to realize, this Jewish music or art is ours. We felt a new pleasure in our background so it was good to know.”
Graduating a year-and-a-half later, Lilli found a job supervising the after-school program at the Kaliski School, another small private school that had joined Buber’s movement. Lotte Kaliski, a young woman from Breslau with a strong limp from childhood polio, had opened a school specializing in fresh air and exercise in 1932. But the realities of the Nazi regime soon convinced Kaliski to devote her school to teaching Jewish children.
The Kaliski School was located in a villa recently vacated by a Jewish family in Berlin’s suburb, Dahlem, when Lilli was hired to supervise the after-school program. Lilli remembers a large dining room where the students had lunch and the teachers met for conferences, and a beautiful stone terrace where she did crafts and homework with the younger children.
According to Lilli, Hebrew, the Bible, Zionism, and the history of Jews were integrated into the regular K-12 curriculum. As students celebrated the round of Jewish holidays, Lilli’s first Jewish venture was to organize the school’s Oneg Shabbat, which she had learned at Nellie Wolfheim’s school and “was eager to put into practice.”
One afternoon, as Lilli and I sat on her living room couch, she pulled out an old photograph album. Neatly tabbed onto black construction paper were photographs of Martin Buber, relaxing on a garden chair in a suit and vest, as he talked to a gathering of young people amidst the trees.
“This was in Lehnitz, where he talked to the teachers,” Lilli remembered with warmth. Buber and the teachers were on the wooded grounds of a Jewish convalescent home on Lehnitz Lake, about two hours from Berlin.
The Jewish convalescent home had become part of the Jewish education movement early in 1934, teaching housekeeping and home economics to prepare young women for employment in their new countries. The home also offered its facilities and grounds for summer conferences on Jewish education. The highlights were lectures by Martin Buber on biblical narratives, as well as on the importance of a Jewish education and the role of the teacher in working through differences in traditions to create a truly unified Jewish community.
It was at Lehnitz Lake in 1937, that Lilli met Erwin Zimet, a Polish native and an admirer of Buber. Zimet, who was a guitar-playing rabbinical student in Berlin, was instructing teachers in Judaism and Hebrew, as well as leading Shabbat and other religious services for teachers and convalescent home guests in the home’s little basement synagogue.
“Erwin was busy with his studies. So we didn’t see each other very often. Still, everyone noticed the spark between us.”
In October, 1938, Erwin and his father were deported to a no-man’s land camp on the Polish border. On November 9, the little basement synagogue of the Jewish Convalescent Home was smashed during Kristallnacht. And a few weeks later, Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop appropriated the villa housing the Kaliski School for his own use, forcing the school to close its doors. Lotte Kaliski made her way to New York City, where she opened the Kaliski School for Special Students in Riverdale, a suburb along the Hudson River. She would run the Kaliski School for Special Students for almost fifty years.
Even before Kristallnacht, Martin Buber determined that life was no longer viable in Germany and reluctantly accepted a post at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he would be among a minority of settlers pressing for dialogue with the Arabs.
The Destabilization of Jewish Schools Under Nazi Rule
Since the Jewish schools that Buber initiated remain relatively unknown, there is only impressionistic evidence of their prevalence and success. What we do know is that, in 1937, about 65 percent of all Jewish children remaining in Germany attended a Jewish school, a fairly high percentage given the stress on families who no longer had regular incomes and were seeking ways to escape Germany.
In Lilli’s memory, the concerns and content of Judaism was seamlessly integrated into students’ learning at the Kaliski School—as they would be in the Jewish Day School that for some years was part of Poughkeepsie’s Beth El. However, there are suggestions of difficulties in Germany’s Jewish schools. In general, they suffered from crowding, large classes, and insufficient supplies. As important, even experienced teachers—usually Jews laid off from the German school system—were often inadequately prepared to weave Jewish concerns into the regular curriculum, and those who could teach Hebrew were generally not trained as teachers. In the Zionist schools, where Hebrew had long been a core subject, some secular and socialist teachers taught the religious aspects of Judaism with great reluctance.
Waves of Nazi repression followed by Jewish flight also made teaching difficult by destabilizing the student body. During the year after Hitler became Chancellor, for example, Berlin’s Theodor Herzl School swelled from 200 to 600 students, even as many left, some for Palestine. “The school was thus in a continuous state of flux,” writes a former teacher. “Children arrived and left, classes had to be organized, re-organized, and apart from all this, there was a terrible shortage of [qualified teachers and] accommodation.” Moreover, teachers were often asked to help make difficult decisions about whether children should be put on the Kindertransport trains to England or take a rare British certificate for Palestine, leaving their parents behind.
A Meaningful Jewish Existence
In September 1937, on Irma’s twenty-first birthday, her father put her on a northbound train. A distant cousin in London, an Orthodox Jew with a large family, had enabled her departure by hiring her as a domestic.
Lilli’s brother had made his way to South Africa in 1936; in 1939, she left for London, where she found work as a governess in a private family.
Erwin Zimet and his father were released in March 1939, and Erwin would visit Lilli in London on his way to New York City, where Rabbi Milton Steinberg had hired him as associate rabbi at the Park Avenue Synagogue. Erwin and Lilli would marry in New York in 1940, and in 1941 Lilli was able to help her parents leave Germany. However, Erwin’s parents were united in Holland, only to perish in Auschwitz.
Working as a counselor for boys arriving in England on the Kindertransport, my mother met an Austrian refugee, a socialist intellectual, ten years her senior; six weeks later they were married. Though our father would teach his three daughters never to deny that we were Jews, the Holocaust had left him an uncompromising atheist and our home was devoid of even a menorah. I was a freshman at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie when Lilli and Erwin invited me to break the Yom Kippur fast in their home. Loyalty to my father may have made the melancholy and longing in the Hebrew melodies and prayer so upsetting. After a few uncomfortable holidays with the Zimets, I would wait another fifteen years before venturing my own private exploration of Judaism, and I didn’t return to the Zimet’s home for nearly forty years.
Although no spiritual education can prevent systematic genocide, there is little doubt that Martin Buber gave countless German Jews moral and spiritual strength by awakening them to a “meaningful Jewish existence.” As an émigré and former Kaliski School student explained during a 1992 reunion of seventy alumni in New York City, “We all had to learn to become Jewish…. It was a wonderful place in this terrible time in Germany.” With her warm memories of the Jewish schools, first as a student and later as a teacher, Lilli echoes this view. “Somehow Nazism and Buber worked together to give a lot of us a much deeper feeling for what Judaism offers.” And her suddenly youthful smile makes me wonder, with a tinge of regret, how my life would have gone had I grown up in an observant family.
(Note: In addition to Lilli Zimet, who gave generously of her time, this article draws on Maurice Friedman’s book Martin Buber’s Life and Work: The Middle Years and Aubrey Hodes’s book Martin Buber: An Intimate Portrait, as well as several articles by witnesses to this period, Hans Gaertner, Nahum Glatzer, Ernst Simon, and Louis Harap, all collected in the 1956 Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook. Finally, a 1992 New York Times article by Joseph Berger quotes Kaliski alumni during the school’s reunion.)