Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What one can get on Ebay: Jacob Sonderling and the German Jews in WWI

This picture was brought in by Joel Silberstein, a collector, historian, congregational secretary and Cohen at the BRJC. Joel, who was born in Germany and got out before World War II, often speaks of how the Jews were courteously treated in Germany and the corresponding positive Jewish attitude towards Germany during WWI and after the war. Joel's private collection of curiousities contains post cards and other print material that show Jews proud of their German heritage and demonstrate how the Germans, at that time, treated the Jews fairly as equals. Of course, Joel would insist, some of that was just surface pleasantry and that deep down there was resentment and antipathy; but at times, such as that which is depicted here, certain German institutions seemed to accommodate Jews.

This is a picture of a Jewish prayer service out in the field. One of the amazing things about, of course, is that this occurred during World War 1, in Germany. This service took place, as stated here, by order of the Army of His Magesty the German Emperor on 29/30 September 1914 which corresponds to the 10 of Tishre, 5675-- Yom Kippur. The field Rabbi was Dr. Sonderling, in Hamburg.

I am not sure what the formal arrangement was here. I am not sure if the man standing in front of Dr. Sonderling (who I assume is the man in front) was reading Torah or davenning or giving a dvar Torah. Perhaps this formation is some kind of military ritual? If anyone knows, it would be interesting to hear. If he was reading Torah, its curious that there is no one else next to him (gabbaim) and if he is davenning, perhaps he is doing so in the German Reform style instead of as many do today, facing the same way as the congregation.

Looking for more information about Dr. Sonderling, I began to learn what a remarkable life he led and what kind of impact he had in the Jewish world. I was particularly interested in how broadly he approached his Jewish life, becoming involved in scholarship, communal affairs, and even in cultural patronage.

While still in Germany, he had a synagogue in Hamburg, serving in the New Dammtor Synagogue with Dr. David Leimdorfer. He had originally worked in the Neustadt district of Hamburg starting in 1908.

According to one site (see citations below): "He was army rabbi during the First World War and after the war described the horror. He emigrated to the USA in 1921. A synagogue attender later related that the sermons of both preachers were well structured and were masterpieces of oratory. Many members of the Synagogue Society also attended the New Dammtor Synagogue to experience these sermons."

He eventually made his way to America and served as the Rabbi at Temple Beth Israel, in Rhode Island, installed around Oct. 3rd, 1929. He seemed to have been loved and revered in the Reform movement. Sometime after Rhode Island, he made his way to Los Angeles where he served at the Temple of Fairfax. There, he commissioned music to be written by Ernst Toch (the rabbi wrote the libretto), which resulted in the Cantata of the Bitter Herb. He also wrote the text for Schoenberg's Kol Nidre. (see links below if you would like to hear some of this)

Sonderling was mentioned in a commencement speech in 2004 by Alfred Gottschalk at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles:

Sondering had "a small congregation of German refugees in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles.... He died on Simchas Torah and was born on Simchas Torah some 93 years apart, hardly a coincidence..... One day, (towards the end of his career as Rabbi of Fairfax Temple, which eventually was sold with the proceeds coming to support the fledgling new campus of the Hebrew Union College going up at the University of Southern Calimfornia) Sonderling arrived at the Appian way campus, huffing and puffing his way up our sole staircase. He had in his arms a thin tall scroll wrapped in an antique frayed Torah cover. I met him as he reached the top of the stairs and he said, "This scroll it was in my ark for over forty years. Take it! Now it is yours! I give it to the college to preserve."

It was a parchment scroll of the prophets. A rarity. In the first world war Rabbi Sonderling served in Kaiser Wilhelm's army on the eastern front. He was a Jewish Chaplain and moved with the troops, one night as the army was pushing eastward, Sonderling realized he was in a shtetl. There was a light on in the small synagogue he was passing in his vehicle. He ordered hsi driver to stop. Sonderling entered the synagogue. In a corner in the dim light he saw a man cowering. Sonderling approached him and said, "Ich bin oycha yid was tust du hier is a sakanah nfashot."

The man replied, "Ich bin der shames von der shiel und wir hoben a sefer im open hakodsh."
Sonderling said, "Ich bin a rav und ich will sein shomer for seder" I am a rabbi and will become guardian of the scroll in your stead.

The Shames handed it to him carefully. Sonderling took the scroll and said to the shammes, "Yetzt loif." Run, it's dangerous here.

He once remarked, "The seminary made me a rabbi. The university made me a doctor. But my experience in Eastern Europe made me a Jew."

On Sonderling and music:

If you want to hear the Schoenberg Kol Nidre, the Schoenberg Center has made some original recordings, with Schoenberg's voice available here:

Gottschalk's commencement speech:
On Sonderling in Hamburg:
( documents old German synagogues


Diane said...

I just came upon this article and photo about my grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Sonderling. Do you have any other photos or information? By the way, he also commissioned a musical piece by Eric Korngold. The Toch music,The Cantata of Bitter Herbs is now on CD. Thanks, Diane

Micah Kelber said...

Unfortunately, I don't. But if you call the shul, I can put you in touch with the person that bought the post card. I also told R. Alfred Gottschalk about the post card and he sent a very nice letter of thanks to us. I am sure you have talked to him already, but if not, there's a great place to get information. I look forward to hearing all of his music.

Crackerjack said...

My name is Daniel, I live in Los Angeles. I have a photo like the one shown above including additional relics, letters and materials that Rabbi Sondlinger left with my grandmother just prior to his death. They were placed in a time capsule with instructions not to be opened until 50 years after his death. It was discovered while renovations were being done at my grandmothers house. I figured that he had no living decendants.



Diane Sonderling Gray said...

Dear Daniel: please call or email me: phone: 310-472-6247; email:

Hoping to hear from you.

Diane Sonderling Gray
My brother also, Don Sonderling, in Woodland Hills.

Diane Sonderling Gray said...

To Daniel who is trying to find Diane Sonderling Gray... my email is:; my phone is: 310-472-6247. I am in L.A. also; my brother is Don Sonderling, Woodland Hill, CA.

Andrea said...

How interesting. What was the name of Rabbi Sonderling's synagogue? And where was it?
I think he lived in Carthay Circle on Commodore Sloat. My grandparents lived on San Vicente in the house that abutted it. And I remember him as an old man.

Diane Sonderling Gray said...

Dear Daniel
I would like to contact you. I never saw this reply in your message 5 years ago. I am Rabbi Sonderling's granddaughter