A few months before my family emigrated in 1938 to the United States from Hamburg, Germany, I had the special privilege at the bris of my brother, Micha, to sit on the lap of Chief Rabbi Joseph Carlebach, zt”l, a revered rabbinical giant of his age.
At the time I was just a child, yet I still recall and revere the encounter with this towering personality. While my family was fortunate to escape the Holocaust, Chief Rabbi Carlebach remained with his congregants as they were deported to Riga, Latvia, where he and his wife were martyred by the Nazis.
Chief Rabbi Carlebach presided over an old and large kehilla in north Germany, collectively known as “AHU” – the combined communities of Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbeck. He served as spiritual leader of Hamburg’s Bornplatz Synagogue, where the chazzan was the renowned Yossele Rosenblatt (prior to his departure for New York to accept the cantor’s position at Congregation Ohab Zedek, then located in Harlem).
Bankers like Max M. Warburg, import-export tycoons, shipping magnates and professionals of every stripe were Rav Carlebach’s congregants. As a child I attended the vast and beautiful Bornplatz Synagogue with my father. I recall this impressive structure as a freestanding building with a plaza in front. (The synagogue sanctuary was larger and higher than my synagogue, Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan, or that of Temple Beth El in Boro Park.)
When my father arrived at the Bornplatz Synagogue, the attendants at the coat check desk would hand him his silk top hat, which was stored there, in exchange for the hat he was wearing. Such formal headgear for men was standard fare in this synagogue.
My father liked attending Rav Carlebach’s shiurim as well as listening to his sermons because the chief rabbi was an outstanding orator. Rav Carlebach, I was told, didn’t have to make an appeal; merely mentioning a communal need during his sermon would result in that need being almost immediately filled by his congregants.
Chief Rabbi Carlebach had an uncanny ability to discover and attract outstanding scholars to his community. Rav Shmuel Yosef Rabinow, who became a friend of my family, was approached by Rav Carlebach to accept a position as rosh yeshiva. Rav Rabinow was initially reluctant to accept the position because he was studying at an East European yeshiva while his wife managed a store to support his Torah studies. So Rav Carlebach appealed to the Chofetz Chaim, who persuaded Rav Rabinow to accept the position.
Later, Rav Rabinow became a member of the Hamburg bet din. Fortunately, he was able to leave Hamburg prior to World War II and eventually became a prominent member of London’s renowned bet din.
Rav Rabinow also served as rabbi (klaus rabbiner) of Adas Jeschorim Synagogue in Hamburg until he left Germany in 1938. He was succeeded by my maternal grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Avraham Petrover. Prior to Chief Rabbi Carlebach’s deportation to Riga, he appointed Rabbi Petrover to lead the remaining Hamburg Jews. He served in this position until he, along with my grandmother, Friedericke Falk Petrover, and aunt Mellita were deported to Lodz, where they perished.
Jewish education in Hamburg was conducted in the philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz, defined as the evaluation of the secular by the standards set by Torah and Chazal. Rav Carlebach attracted to Hamburg’s celebrated Talmud Torah Realschule many Torah-observant scholars and educational pioneers – Dr. Arthur Spier, Rabbi Dr. I. Grunfeld, Dr. Hugo Mandelbaum, Naphtali Eldod – as teachers and lecturers. They were on the teaching staff when my uncles were educated at this institution.
Dr. Spier later became founding principal of Manhattan Day School (Yeshiva Ohr Torah) and the author of the Comprehensive Hebrew Calendar. Rabbi Dr. Grunfeld went on to become a highly respected member of the London bet din, author of The Sabbath, and translator of the writings of Samson Raphael Hirsch. Dr. Mandelbaum, who was also a mathematician, became a professor of geology at Wayne State University in Detroit while also teaching mathematics at that city’s Yeshiva Beth Yehudah High School. Unfortunately, Mr. Eldod, a teacher of French, perished in the Holocaust.
It wasn’t surprising that Rav Carlebach seated me on his lap. He was very familiar with my family. My paternal grandmother’s family (the Gumpel-Fursts) lived in Lubeck, Germany, and gave that community many distinguished leaders. My great-grandfather, Meyer Gumpel-Furst, was the parnass in Lubeck. They were friends and congregants of Joseph Carlebach’s father, Rabbi Salomon Carlebach, the spiritual leader of that community.