Würzburg Before the Holocaust
Memories of the Jewish Teachers Seminary in Würzburg
Samson R. Weiss
My initial reluctance had evaporated under the impact of the students and of the unique challenge the position represented at that specific point in time. The institution itself gave me somehow the impression of a strange mixture of exaggerated rigidity, missing the warmth and soul without which no education can succeed, and on the other hand, of a pride in its traditions and principles which, if carried over to the student could be an invaluable asset in the forming of the student's character and Weltanschauung. Later on I came to realize that beneath the outer rigidity was a core of sympathetic understanding, albeit not sufficiently articulated. The typically German distance between teacher and student further exacerbated the difficulty of dialogue and communication. For a newcomer, however, the first impression was one of coldness and lack of personal involvement of staff in the lives of their charges.
Since 1933, profound changes had taken place in the field of education as far as Jews were concerned. The Nazi government had closed to them all possibilities for academic training. It also had limited the enrollment of the Würzburg Seminary to exactly 96 students, based on the figures of the 1932 roster. The institution was the only one left for Jews in Germany where graduates of High Schools could continue their studies and hope to attain upon graduation some meaningful certificate and title. Suddenly, the Seminary had become a desirable place of study and was swamped with applications for admission from all parts of Germany, for it held out after 2 years of study for holders of an Abiturienten zeugnis (the certificate of graduation from High School) the degree of Volksschullehrer, (public school teacher) and a separate document entitling the graduate to serve as Religionslehrer (teacher of Jewish religious disciplines). In 1934, enrollment in the existing Jewish Day Schools had more than doubled and more teachers were needed. Also, in the wake of the treatment by teachers and fellow students alike to which Jewish pupils were exposed in the German public schools, new Jewish schools were rapidly being established. In all these Jewish Schools, the double qualification to teach secular as well as Jewish subjects was highly desirable for obtaining a full position.
As a consequence, applicants came not only from religious homes but also from non-observant ones, with little or no background of Jewish knowledge. It was mainly for them that the Seminary established the so-called Übergangskurs, an intensive course of studies to facilitate the transit into the upper class of the institution, by bringing the student up to the level of those who had had classes of the Seminary. This Übergangskurs proved to be of great value to the entire institution of which it quickly became an integral part. It offered a challenge to, and widened the horizon of the other students, since the participants in this special course represented an elite group of high intellectual capacity. To be admitted, one had to pass a quite difficult examination. Since the Seminary was so severely limited in its enrollment, only the very best could be accepted. It was a heartbreaking experience to see the sadness and the tears of those who had to be rejected, a number above 50% of the applicants.
Thus, in 1934 the student body of the Seminary was far from a homogeneous group. Sons and daughters from traditional Jewish homes studied and lived together with those from highly assimilated ones, where Shabbos-observance and Kashruth were unknown and regarded as atavistic remnants of a period in Jewish history long brought to an end by cultural and legal emancipation and modern enlightenment. In these homes, contemporary culture at the apex of which stood, of course, German culture was the life-filling ingredient and the source of all values. The young people brought up in them experienced their first Shabbos in the Seminary. They initially kept the Jewish observances like other houserules, simply because they were required of the students.
It was he (Herman Naphtali) who saved the lives of my wife and myself as well as of 23 students, all of whom received affidavits from Ner Israel, enabling us to obtain visas to the U.S.A., the students as accepted enrollees and I as "Professor of Codes." Thus, I was able to apply for a non-quota admission. I was professor by a twist of fate worthwhile relating, for it shows so vividly the hand of G-d, the Hashgachah Pratit. Until 1936, the Lehrerprüfung (final examination) was administered and supervised by professors of the Bavarian Kultus Ministerium (the Ministry of Education) of that German state. In 1936, among the many decrees continuously tightening the rope around the neck of German Jewry, the Nazi regime did not permit non-Jews to give these examinations any longer to Jewish students in a Jewish institution. Still recognizing, however, the need for a teachers' seminary for Jews, they permitted Jewish qualified professors to administer final exams and grant diplomas. Director Stoll, for instance, had the rank of professor. For the Jewish disciplines it was more difficult to find a qualified examiner. The Bavarian Kultus Ministerium therefore notified me at the beginning of the 1936 fall term, that I had been named Studien professor. At that time it was a sad joke-a professor at the age of 26-the result of plain, unvarnished Rishuth (Antisemitism). Two years later, when I applied in Stuttgart for an American non-quota visa, the consul did not want to credit the story, until I verified it by official documents. When I explained to him that my professorship was an outgrowth of antisemitic persecution, he got red in the face with anger and said: "I shall recognize this title. You have had it already for two years now, exactly the time required by our laws for a non-quota academic visa. They meant evil, but we shall make it turn out for the good" or words to this effect. Jews were standing all night long in line in front of the doors of the Stuttgart American Consulate, not to lose their turn for an early "waiting number," the quota of regular visas having long been over-subscribed. The "joke" of my professorship enabled my wife and me to emigrate to the States. Two days after we had left, the Gestapo came to Anna str. 9, our residence, to arrest me…
Thus, we were able to escape. I recall this story in detail, to acknowledge my debt of gratitude to Rabbi Neuberger and to the founder and dean of Ner Israel the Gaon Rabbi J.I. Ruderman, who issued me with the invitation to serve as professor at the Rabbinical College Ner Israel and who also accepted 23 of our students.
Source: Ottensoser M., Roberg A. (eds.), ILBA Israelitische Lehrerbildungsanstalt Würzburg - 1864-1938 by the Alumni of 1930-38, Huntington Woods 1982, pp. 146, 148-149, 154-155.