For years, the story of Regina Jonas was lost to the world. Then, in the 90s, scholars began to discover this woman of extraordinary talent and ambition. In this episode of "On The Holocaust" we focus on the fate of the Jewish community in Germany through the remarkable story of Regina Jonas, the first female rabbi, whose life was taken in Auschwitz, but whose place in Jewish history is no longer forgotten.
Featured guest: Guy Miron, Professor of History and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Open University of Israel
The First Female Rabbi - Transcription:
On December 16th, 1931, Regina Jonas [RUH-GEEN-UH YOH-NIS] invited her young students and their parents to a special Hanukkah service.
40 children and their families packed into a room. They lit the candles, and one student recited a prayer for the group. Then Jonas--a woman with big, brown eyes, brown hair and soft facial features--led the children in a joyful rendition of Ma’oz Tzur.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IO0r3cA3O5g (music in the background)
In her sermon, Regina implored the parents to set a good example for their children, and to raise them in the Jewish tradition they held so dear. Finally, she addressed a question which, in one way or another, on everybody’s minds.
With a collapsing economy, worsening political instability and a sharp rise in antisemitism, was it okay to be so joyful as they were on this day?
She proposed that yes, they should enjoy themselves. And so they did, at least for that one day.
Hello and welcome to ‘On the Holocaust,’ a podcast from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I’m your host, Nate Nelson. In this episode of our program, the story of Regina Jonas: a woman who, despite everything going on around her, attempted something never before done in over two millennia of Jewish rabbinic tradition.
The story begins at the turn of the 20th century--a transformational period for German Jews.
Prof' Guy Miron: The Jews in Germany in the beginning of the 20th century, after 100 years, three generations, of the transformation that [inaudible] called from ghetto to villa
You’re listening to Guy Miron, professor of history at the Open University of Israel.
Prof' Guy Miron: from living in the margins of the German society and from living also in the economically and culturally in a very marginal situation to being concentrated mostly in the urban centers. Around half a million Jews, a little more in the beginning of the 20th century lived in Germany. One third of all the Jews lived in Berlin and also most of the others were concentrated in the other urban centers like Frankfurt, Cologne, Munich, and others.
As Jews became more integrated in German cities, their communities thrived. There was antisemitism, of course--hardly anywhere in Europe was there not--but it didn’t stop the Jews from being overrepresented in higher education, culture and upper-middle class professions. And, cosmopolitan as they were, it was a relatively liberal brand of Judaism that dominated.
Prof' Guy Miron: Most German Jews can be associated with what was called then liberal jewry.
It's not exactly like did it form during the United States today, it's more like kind of a moderate conservative jewry today in the United States if one can compare it. Which means coming to Synagogues, having the traditional Jewish prayer but in a more modern way, integrated within a German texts and also integration with the German language in the prayer, and also had a modern rabbinical seminaries which trained the future generations of German rabbi integrating between traditional Jewish studies and modern university studies.
In most ways, then, Wolf and Sarah Jonas were in the minority. They were orthodox and, alongside other orthodox as well as Eastern European Jews, lived in a very poor neighborhood in Berlin. Wolf, a traveling salesman, made little money but still managed to provide a religious education to his son, Abraham, and, less conventional for the time, his daughter.
Regina was born on August 3rd, 1902. We know little about her childhood other than how doggedly she took to her religious studies. She attended a religious girls’ school, and made such an impression that classmates remembered her years, and decades later. One noted that, quote, “when it came to religious topics, she always talked to us with such conviction.” End quote.
Even at that very young age, Regina was working towards a singular goal in life: to become a rabbi.
Luckily, she couldn’t have been in a better place to pursue such a path.
Prof' Guy Miron: German Jewry the 19th century was a pioneer in the Jewish world in terms of modern Jewish education and specifically training of Jewish rabbis. And three major institutions were found, the first one in the city of Breslau in early 1850s and two others in Berlin in the 1870s, and actually were a base for Jewish training of modern rabbis and also for development of modern Jewish scholarship.
Germany was the place to be if you were a budding rabbi. But there was a catch--or, rather, a big, fat roadblock.
This was almost entirely focused on Jewish men
Beginning in Jonas’ time, Jewish education was opening up to women. That there even was such a thing as an orthodox religious girls’ school was evidence of that. But rabbinical training was still exclusive to men across the spectrum. It’s not so much that women were barred from becoming rabbis, it’s that the notion that there could be such a thing as a female rabbi simply did not exist. Never before had a woman owned that title.
It makes you wonder how she got the idea, and where all her drive came from. Perhaps it was the influence of her father. Or perhaps the historical moment had seeped into her subconscious. She was born, after all, one year before the Suffragette movement began in Britain--a time when the role of women in public life was gradually shifting around the western world.
Prof' Guy Miron: only in the beginning of the 20th century, one can speak about the process of the beginning of German Jewish swimming, developing careers, and also going to higher education. And this was a graduated process. I think this has to do with liberal and orthodox women alike, which means most of them were still consolidated in the domestic sphere. But some of them began to be more socially active
The likeliest possibility here, of why Regina even thought to be a rabbi, is that she simply didn’t know not to.
Perhaps if it’d been instilled in her at an early age that such a path was only open to her brother, Abraham, she wouldn’t have had such ambitions. As a classmate later recalled of young Jonas, quote: “It never occurred to us that this path was not open to a woman.” End quote.
We can’t say. Maybe it would’ve pushed her even further.
As Regina Jonas entered adulthood, the world around her was being pulled in two opposite directions.
Prof' Guy Miron: So coming to the interwar period, this period was very nuanced and what could be called the yellow space, which means on the one hand the interwar period and the German democracy public brought to a peak, the process of integration of Jews in German society.
Different innovations, like the [inaudible] house, the free Jewish middle-class, the free Jewish house of studies, which was founded in 1923 by [inaudible 00:08:30] offered the new attitudes to a Jewish education and more free thought, and the potential of Jewish life, developments in Jewish and Jewish arts, the Jewish press became much more intensively organized.
On the other hand, it also view the development of much more radical antisemitism than in the pre-World War period and including the Nazi party which was founded with the beginning of the 1920's and brought to the German public sphere [00:07:52] a much more radical and violent antisemitism.
Antisemitism in Germany became more virulent following the events of WWI and Versailles Treaty.
Prof' Guy Miron: I would say that the most important turning point is not the beginning of the war, but rather the very fact that the war continued for a long time and actually created a process of social fermentation in Germany. We're seeing at the beginning of the war, the wave of German patriotism kind of united between Jews and other gentleman. The fact that the war continued lasted much more than planned emphasized the gaps within German society. And made the anti-Jewish movement more prominent.
The nation’s economy was depressed, leading to social strife. Adding to it was the rise of Bolshevism, whose progenitors always believed that Germany was where their revolution would really take hold.
Prof' Guy Miron: I should emphasize most German Jews were partly [inaudible 00:06:48] and did not identify with these movements, but still many of the prominent communist or radical left revolutionists in Germany at the wake of first world war where the Jewish and this made anti-Jewish movements, antisemitic movements much more powerful and actually much more violent than before.
It was amid these opposite forces--thriving Jewish culture and rising anti-Jewish sentiment--that Regina Jonas earned her teaching degree. She took up work educating young students and, by all accounts, thrived at it. One woman recalled attending one of Jonas’ Shabbat celebrations for the children. Quote:
"The celebration was led by a young woman, who radiated extraordinary magnetism through her noble, biblical features and movements, and through the words she spoke to the children and adults. Her personality enraptured me to such an extent that, from then on, I became her zealous listener.
God made Regina Jonas to stand at the pulpit."
End quote. In 1924 Jonas registered to study at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin; perhaps a bit liberal for her tastes, but crucially - it admitted women.
It was there, in 1930, that she wrote her graduation thesis, and what was to become her magnum opus: an 88-page treatise, pulling heavily from history, tradition and Halacha--Jewish law--with the title “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” You can probably guess which side of the argument she was on. Quote:
"The wheel of time turns, moving our world of Jewish thought, and with the general development of humanity and our world, attitudes toward the woman also have developed and changed."
End quote. The paper questions whether the characteristics most sought-after in rabbis--like leadership, wisdom and fatherliness--couldn’t be equally fulfilled by a woman. Quote:
"This brings one to the points […] of so-called “pastoral care”. That women can and do work for others with tact, sympathy, and a sense of sacrifice need not be demonstrated from the historical past and in the present; what the Talmud says and what other passages add on this have been mentioned often in this work. Welfare, care, the ability to speak and hold community evenings already have been enriched by her contribution and her independent actions. That her ability lies particularly in caring for youth almost goes without saying. After all, the Talmud ascribes to her insight into human nature and gentleness, and armed with these abilities she is capable of easing the pains and fears and hardships of their lives."
End quote. The last page of the document concludes in no uncertain terms. Quote:
Almost nothing halakhically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.
End quote. The rabbi who graded her paper gave it a good mark, but he was an exception among his colleagues. He soon died and was replaced by a more conservative man, more representative of the rest of the community at the time, and less sympathetic to Regina’s arguments. She wasn’t ordained, and so she returned to her job as a teacher.
And there was never a more necessary time for young Jews to have a teacher like her. In 1933 Hitler rose to power, enacting a series of laws in the ensuing years that restricted Jews’ religious and civic rights. Even the liberal, bourgeoise Jews of Germany became second-class citizens, subject to increasing violence and social isolation.
Many of Regina’s students would become transplants from other schools they were kicked out of because they were Jewish. Certain parents would grow afraid of giving their children a Jewish education at all.
Prof' Guy Miron: for German Jews at the beginning of the 1930s, social exclusion and then economic exclusion, and then later on, the threat on the legal emancipation were a real threat, and they were very aware of it. There is sometimes an image of German Jews as naive people, not understanding where they were living. This is not the case.
the number of Jews in Germany was dwindling. Many, in the face of rapid disappropriation, fled West, or south to Palestine. By 1939, roughly half of German Jewry would emigrate, despite great difficulties in doing so. Still, within the remaining Jewish community, spiritual and cultural resistance continued.
Prof' Guy Miron: there were also a Jewish public sphere Nazi Germany. The Jewish press was published until 1938 and Jewish rabbinical seminars and other cultural and religious institutions continue to function. And even flourished more than before because of the social exclusion of the Jews. Jews were more involved in their internal, cultural and religious life.
By 1935, there were fewer rabbis around, at the precise moment when Germany’s Jews needed guidance more than ever. Luckily, for at least a few of them, the country had one more rabbi than they’d expected.
In 1935, the liberal rabbi Max Dienemann took notice of a woman who was gaining popularity by giving popular lectures about history, tradition, and the woman’s role in modern Judaism. On behalf of the Liberal Rabbis’ Association, he decided to give her the examination necessary to become a rabbi.
The reaction was swift, and largely--though not entirely--negative from both orthodox and liberal leaders. From the “Der Israelit” newspaper, we get a taste. Quote:
"Only a man may be a rabbi; a woman may not. If women step up to the pulpit in a reform community they not only betray Judaism, but also mock it."
End quote. Despite the pushback, Dienemann proceeded. In December, he evaluated Jonas for the position she’d been training for since her father had first introduced her to Jewish study all those years ago. Few people have ever been so qualified for a job. At its conclusion, Dienemann wrote, quote:
"Since I saw that her heart is with God and Israel, and that she dedicates her soul to her goal, and that she fears God, and that she passed the examination in matters of religious law, I herewith certify that she is qualified to answer questions of religious law and entitled to hold the rabbinic office. And may God protect her and guide her on all her ways."
Rabbi Jonas wasn’t given a congregation to start. But she did her work anyway by speaking at more liberal synagogues, and visiting the sick and old in hospitals. As rabbis became fewer and further in between, in the tradition of her traveling salesman father, Jonas traveled to various congregations around the country where Jews were otherwise finding themselves without guidance. One small community noted her impact in a short newspaper article. Quote:
"Recently, the members of our Jewish community met for a program. Whereas our membership before 1933 was about 70, today it has dropped to 12. So we were able to fit comfortably in the living room of one of our community members. Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas of Berlin soon won our hearts with her excellent remarks. She […] receive[s] our most sincere thanks for looking after even such a small Jewish community as ours."
End quote. Even if she had her own congregation, of course, there was no room in Germany anymore for normal synagogue gatherings.
In fact, there was little room for anything resembling normalcy.
The Nazi regime used the onset of war as a primer for all kinds of new, creative and torturous restrictions for every aspect of the lives of Germany’s Jews. No longer could Jews leave their homes after dark, and their freedom of movement was significantly limited. Instead, they were segregated from the rest of the population, funneled into “Jew Houses”--overcrowded, dilapidated buildings where lack of privacy and basic necessities were the norm. Along the way, precious belongings--jewelry, radios, most things of value--were confiscated. Jews were barred even from buying basic foods such as meat, coffee, and some kinds of fruits and vegetables. Enthusiastic shopkeepers took the law into their own hands, refusing service to Jews entirely.
Jews who were forced into welfare were denied coupons to obtain even low-quality clothing and shoes. And yet, they were expected to donate clothing to the German war effort.
As part of the Nazi war machine, Jews were taken to perform forced labor from morning until night, doing everything from constructing buildings to cleaning latrines.
Regina Jonas had to stop traveling the country when she was enlisted in this effort. In 1941 she was made to work at a factory, but somehow still managed to utilize her rabbinical training, leading sermons for all the Jews who were too overworked to practice their regular prayer.
For Regina, this period lasted until November 4th, 1942, when the German government, as with so many Jews that same year, had Jonas list all of the belongings still in her possession. Two days later her property was confiscated, and she and her mother were sent to the ghetto in Theresienstadt, or Terezin, in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a German occupied region of Czechoslovakia.
Theresienstadt was a terrible place to be. Living conditions were near-intolerable, disease was rampant due to insufficient sanitation, and hunger was the norm. It functioned as a transit camp, which meant that men and women were separated, and forced to live in constant fear of being deported. As a result, children were separated as well, living in designated living quarters. And yet, for this camp in particular, that’s not the whole story.
Theresienstadt was also meant to serve as a so-called “model ghetto”, purely for German propaganda purposes. In fact, ahead of a visit of the International Red Cross, fake stores, a coffee house, bank, school, and kindergartens were opened; even flower gardens were planted.
One of the populations forcibly taken to Theresienstadt were Jews designated as having “special merit” - notable communal figures, intellectuals, scientists, and artists. And so Jews in Theresienstadt managed, for a time, to maintain a relatively extensive cultural life. In spite of everything working against them, Jewish artists--some amateurs, some who were already renowned before the Holocaust--put on concerts, theatrical performances, and poetry readings for children and for adults. They produced catalogues of original music, and artwork.
And religious life was practiced more or less in the open. Regina Jonas, for example, was able to continue her rabbinical work even during this time of imprisonment. In fact, she was as prolific as ever during this period.
The famous neurologist Viktor Frankl, also a prisoner, took to Regina and had her join his effort to aid in the mental health and suicide prevention of the other Jews. Her role was to intercept new arrivals--greeting and comforting them at their moment of greatest shock and despair.
In addition to the artistic and religious life taking place in Theresienstadt, there was also an intellectual culture among the many well-educated inmates. The ghetto library had more than 10,000 Hebrew books, and men and women who previously held positions in academia and other high professions gave lectures on everything from economics to medicine. According to a record of the time, there were more than 2,300 of these lectures--more than the number of days the ghetto-camp was even in operation.
Regina took part in earnest, delivering sermons and lectures on everything from the Talmud to ethics to the role of women. A handwritten record survives to this day--its title, “Lectures by the only female rabbi Regina Jonas”--in which she reflects on the beliefs that stayed with her even during the worst of times. Quote:
"Our Jewish people were planted by God into history as a blessed nation. ‘Blessed by God’ means to offer blessings, loving kindness and loyalty, regardless of place and situation. Humility before God, selfless love for His creatures, sustains the world. It is Israel’s task to build these pillars of the world— man and woman, woman and man alike have taken this upon themselves in Jewish loyalty. Our work in Theresienstadt, serious and full of trials as it is, also serves this end: to be God’s servants and as such to move from earthly spheres to eternal ones. May all our work be a blessing for Israel’s future (and the future of humanity) … Upright ‘Jewish men’ and ‘brave, noble women’ were always the sustainers of our people. May we be found worthy by God to be numbered in the circle of these women and men … The reward of a mitzvah is the recognition of the great deed by God.
Rabbi Regina Jonas, formerly of Berlin."
End quote. Regina’s intellectual and religious service to the Jews of Theresienstadt continued for the two years she was imprisoned there.
In 1944, with the tide of war decidedly against them, the Germans nevertheless pressed ahead with the widespread murder of Jews. Between April and November, over half a million Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau -- most of them from Hungary, as well as from other locations, including prisoners from Lodz and Theresienstadt. And so, on October 12, 1944 Regina boarded one of the trains with her mother. They died later in the gas chambers. In all, 35,440 Jews died in Theresienstadt. and 88,000 more were deported.
When Regina Jonas was a young girl, she dreamed of being a rabbi--of leading a congregation every week, with loyal followers from her community who could come to learn and work out the problems facing their daily lives.
She never quite achieved that dream. She never got her congregation, never lived the life of all those rabbis she’d seen growing up. But all the difficulties she had to put up with made her impact all that much greater. Early on, she challenged norms inciting a discourse many in the community didn’t want to have. Later, she was there to help the Jews of Germany at their hour of greatest need
One can only imagine what she might’ve accomplished, if not for her murder at such a young age. Or what might’ve happened to the vibrant, multicolored Jewish communities of Germany, if not for the Holocaust.
At least we have record of it today. For decades, the story of Regina Jonas threatened to be lost to history. Just one or two photographs of her survive; few people mentioned her in their own writings. It was only during the 90s that scholars began to discover her. Today, no doubt, her legacy is cemented in the annals of Jewish history.
And with that, this episode has concluded. If you’d like to learn more about Regina Jonas, visit yadvashem.org.
This has been On the Holocaust, from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Our program is produced by Itamar Swissa, Dani Timor and Ran Levi. Research and content management by Jonathan Clapsaddle, Irit Dagan and Dafna Dolinko. The story you heard was written by me, Nate Nelson. Thanks for listening; hit ‘Subscribe’ for more episodes just like this one.