The Nazis who spared a Berlin synagogue on Kristallnacht
By Nadav Shragai, Ha'aretz
On the night between November 9 and 10, 1939 - Kristallnacht - while synagogues across the German Reich were set ablaze and Jews and their property became victims of state-initiated pogroms, a strange sight took place in the heart of Berlin.
German police rushed to 25 Mintz Street, where they used their bodies as shields to protect the synagogue housing the yeshiva headed by Rabbi Avraham Kuperstock from rioters seeking to harm the rabbi, his family, students or property.
This remarkable story was brought to light by Prof. Meier Schwarz, 83, a researcher who lost his entire family in the Holocaust and today runs "Ashkenaz House," a Jerusalem-based organization dedicated to conducting research and preserving the heritage of German Jewry.
Kuperstock and his synagogue were saved thanks to the assistance he provided German authorities during World War II. But his story begins much earlier, in 1914 Warsaw, when the city was still under Soviet control. The Russians were recruiting young people across the region, Jews and Poles alike.
Among those conscripted were some of the rabbi's yeshiva students. Two of them deserted the army, were caught and sentenced to death and were hung by the Russians in the city square to deter other students from following their example. Kuperstock was made to stand beside the gallows while the grim sentence was carried out. The rabbi never forgot the experience and vowed to one day avenge the injustice the Russians had visited upon his yeshiva.
Breakthrough in the East
As World War II dragged on, Germany fought on two fronts, to the West against the British, Americans, Canadians and their allies and, to the East, against the Soviet Union. The Third Reich diverted the bulk of its resources toward the eastern front, but struggled against the tough topographic conditions and the Russians' sophisticated line of virtually impenetrable fortifications. In 1941, in Operation Barbarossa, the German army suddenly penetrated the Soviet lines, smashing through its adversary's fortifications and paving a path to the East.
In his research Prof. Meier Schwarz found that Kuperstock, as revenge for the death of his two students, had transferred intelligence to the Germans on the Russian fortification system, including secret pathways allowing the bulwarks to be breached. The revelation was confirmed by Kuperstock's neighbors, who had heard of the arrangement from the rabbi himself. They said in exchange for the information, Kuperstock was granted the status of "protected Jew," and during the darkest days of the Holocaust sold the Germans leaven his community had thrown out during Passover. Additional confirmation came from a relative of the rabbi now living in Australia.
What remains unclear, however, is how was Kuperstock able to obtain the Russian documents, and whether he had acted alone.
While the war was in full swing, Kuperstock and his students were transferred to East Berlin, where the authorities provided them with accommodations for living, praying and studying on Mintz Street. The rabbi was promised a pension for the rest of his life, German citizenship and financial support of the yeshiva.
When President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor in 1933, the rabbi's special status was registered. Unlike other Polish Jews residing in Germany, Kuperstock and his students were not transferred to Poland, but in 1941, after the rabbi died, his students were sent to the death camps in the East.
Last year Ashkenaz House published a study on the events leading up to Kristallnacht. Key among these was the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old German Jew of Polish extraction.
The traditional account of the shooting holds that Grynszpan acted after his family and 17,000 other Jewish families with Polish roots were ordered to leave Germany for Poland. However, Prof. Schwarz believes vom Rath was actually killed by an envoy of Adolf Hitler himself.
"The Germans, and not Grynszpan, were the ones who murdered vom Rath, but they blamed the Jews. Vom Rath, who seemed to have been seriously wounded, was transferred to hospital, where he was 'treated' by Hitler's personal doctor, who made sure he died," he said.
"Kristallnacht had been planned two months before the second week of November 1939."