JewishGen Danzig/Gdańsk SIG Presents:

Interview of Rabbi Wolli Kaelter z"l
by George Fogelson

20 May 2006, Long Beach, California
Excerpts from the interview, re-arranged according to topic, appear below. Questions asked by George Fogelson are bold italicized, answers by Rabbi Kaelter appear as normal text. Text in green reflects post-interview comments by Rabbi Kaelter. Thanks very much to Rabbi Kaelter for sharing his recollections, to Judith Lentzner for facilitating the interview, and to George Fogelson for capturing these memories. Photos courtesy of George Fogelson. You can read more about Rabbi Kaelter's life in From Danzig: An American Rabbi's Journey. [Logan Kleinwaks, Coordinator]



We're going to be talking about some of the things he remembers about Danzig, his father, life there, and other Jewish people's lives there.

My name is Wolli, originally Wolfgang, Kaelter, born Feb 12, 1914.

How did your father [Rabbi Robert Kaelter] come to be the rabbi in Danzig?

My father was a graduate of the rabbinical seminar in Breslau…his first pulpit was in Potsdam…he met my mother…in 1908, I believe, he came to Danzig and was a rabbi there until his death in 1926.

How did he choose Danzig as his pulpit?

He was elected to the Danzig pulpit after he had served for six or eight years in Potsdam…Danzig was a much larger community, so he went to Danzig, which became even much more of a larger community after World War I, because of the persecution of Polish Jewry, of whom something like 60,000 went through Danzig to migrate to the United States…and my father was very, very active helping them. Our large apartment…had a hall, which we called the "Polish Corridor" — there I heard my first Yiddish…eventually, I made friends with many of the children of the Polish migrants…there was a Lager in one of the suburbs of Danzig, Neufahrwasser…there were many youngsters there…We encouraged the immigrant youngsters to become part of our youth programs…I'm still in touch with some of them.

What do you think was your father's proudest accomplishment in Danzig…and what should he be remembered for the most?

Proudest accomplishment, I think, was his work for the immigrants…actually, his work cost him his life…he was overworked completely and died at 51…but, facilitating the migration of Polish Jews was really the most remarkable piece of his work, I think.

What was your mother's name?

Feodora Cohn. And her family came from West Prussia, Zempelburg.

When did she arrive in Danzig? With your father? Were your parents married when they came to Danzig?

They were married already in Potsdam…21st of June, 1904.

Your father was the rabbi until 1926. What was the role of your mother during this time? What was her role, as the rabbi's wife?

She had a great deal to do with young women. She helped young women…she was not trained as a social worker, she was trained as a society lady, but she cared greatly about these young women, many of whom were immigrants…and she helped them find some fulfillment in life, by helping them get jobs and with their schooling.

And what was her role in the synagogue? Did she go to Friday night services and Saturday night services? Did women go to the services?

She certainly wasn't there Friday night, because the Friday night service was held at the proper time, and she was having to serve a meal. She had a prominent seat in the synagogue…in the balcony where the women were seated, she had a very prominent seat there.

Did people have assigned seats in the synagogue?

No, there wasn't such a meshugas, except for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. On the High Holy Days, people had assigned seats, but beyond that, not.

How would you describe their personalities, your mother and your father?

My father was a very perceptive, intelligent, sympathetic person with a marvelous sense of humor, capable of doing all sorts of pranks. My mother was a very sympathetic woman, with a great sense of dignity about her. Even when she came to this country and she became a cook at the Jewish hospital in Cincinnati, her dignity was unaffected, though she'd never been close to something like that. It didn't trouble her the least little bit. She was independent…not a burden to her children, and that was all she was concerned with. Absolutely a remarkable wonderful person.

Can you describe what your neighborhood was like…how many neighbors were Jewish?

There were no neighbors who were Jewish…in our apartment. It was a large apartment house and there were no Jews in that apartment house…it was not far from the railroad, and not far from the villa of the Ankers, an old time family in the city. We didn't have any intimate friends among the neighbors, people lived very much by and for themselves, quite different from here. Germans tended to be much more formal…I was amazed when I came to the United States that everybody spoke to everybody, young and old, on cordial terms…that was not true for Danzig…I cannot mention the name of one neighbor from that apartment house.

What was your street address in Danzig?

Stadtgraben 5

Did you interact with non-Jews in Danzig? Did you have any friends who were not Jewish?

None. We had no friends that were not Jewish.

Could you tell us about Danzig during the First World War?

I remember that I became eligible to have Quaker Oats from the United States. An organization in the United States, provided them for starving German children, of whom I was one.

What was the attitude of the Jews in Danzig towards the First World War? Were they very patriotic?

My father was very patriotic. I remember the name of one of his sermons: "Kraft, Geduld, und Mitgefühl" — Strength, Patience, and Sympathy/Empathy, it was one of the great World War I sermons he preached. When the War ended, I was four years old.

While your father was the rabbi there [Danzig], before WWI, would you say that everyone in the Jewish community spoke German and they were all German Jews?

Yes, right.

During WWI the Eastern Jews came?

After WWI.

Your father became the rabbi in 1908?

1908, 1909, June 26.

So, he was there and he saw all of these Eastern Jews coming into Danzig?

Right…and furthermore, they needed his help.

Were they accepted by the German Jews of Danzig, or were they not happy with their influx?

They were considered foreigners.

Was there any interaction between the two communities?

Certainly. The Jewish community eventually helped them and took care of them…but German Jews were very uneasy about them because they were so thoroughly German and to have these foreigners was a very trying experience for them. But…in the youth group which my sister had founded, which my brother then extended, there were any number of the Eastern European Jewish kids. The name of the group was Jung Juedischer Bund (Bonding Jewish Youth).

Do you remember the Jewish cemetery in Danzig?

Yes, of course…that was totally destroyed during the War.

Was it a very large cemetery?

Yes, I would say. There were two parts to the cemetery. The older part was where I got flowers for our shabbos table, my mother's shabbos table. And then there was a newer part. It was about a 40-45 minute walk from where I lived.

You mentioned that your father died in 1926…do you remember his funeral?

It was a gigantic funeral. I remember it very, very well, and what I remember most about the funeral is the trying experience…namely, one of the dignitaries got up to speak and he got stuck in his speech, and one of my father's favorite shticks was imitating a young girl who recites poetry and gets stuck in it…and all our family could think of was my father's shtick of that girl, and we were convulsed with laughter. Everybody was…absolutely hysterical…my father was right there. It was a terrible, terrible, situation.

That was in the synagogue?

Of course, a very crowded synagogue.

Do you remember any of the eulogies, what they said about him?

Many significant and warm things.

Do you have anything from that period? Any writings by your father or his sermons?

There's a book "Robert Kaelter," which my sister wrote, which is in German…and, if you are interested in it, I can translate some things for you.


When did you leave Danzig?


So, you lived in Danzig while the new rabbi assumed the leadership of the congregation

I was later enrolled in the liberal rabbinical seminary in Berlin and studied there for two years.

What were your impressions of Berlin compared to Danzig? Was Danzig just a very small town compared to Berlin?

Compared to Berlin, yes. Danzig was an old town. It had a lot of style and spirit. Berlin was just a grand metropolis…which I enjoyed very much, because I liked the theatre, loved the music…my friends and I had a wonderful time Berlin.

So, you left Danzig to go to the seminary?

To go to Hebrew Union College, yes. I left Danzig to go to Cincinnati.

When did you leave Berlin?

I think, 1937. I came to the United States for a year. I promised my mother I would go only for a year…

And you came to Cincinnati?


And then you went back to Berlin?

I went to Cincinnati…no, I did not go back to Berlin. We had decided that I had a chance to go to the United States and I should go.

Where were you brothers and sister at this time?

My sister was in Palestine, with her husband. My brother Franz was in Dresden, Saxony, and brother Hans was in Danzig in the grain business.

When did your siblings leave Germany? Did they all get out in time?

Yes, thank God, they got out. My sister went to Palestine already in 1934…Hans came here in 1938, I think.

Your brother in Dresden?

I know that I was working to get him here on a phony rabbinic visa. He was a teacher, so I made him a youth rabbi. My sister, at the same time, was trying to work him into immigration to Israel as a student. He wound up, eventually, in Israel.

Who did your other brother work for?

Hans was in the grain business, and my other brother was a teacher, so was my sister. Hans…worked with the Ankers.

Do you remember where Danzigers escaped to after the Nazi period…their names?

No. My mother came in 1941, with a very guilty conscience, because she had not brought my father's rabbinic library.

So, she left during the War?

Yes. We finally got her here. She had received a very nice pension — the German government provided a pension for the widows of rabbis and ministers…she did not want to become a burden for us, but she became a terrible burden of worry for us, because she stayed throughout the War in Danzig.

When you got the United States, did you read in the newspapers what was happening in Germany, and did you try to get your mother to leave?

Constantly, constantly. But, she didn't want to be a burden to her children, so she stayed, to our dismay.

Where did she finally go, when she left?

She went to Cincinnati, where my brother was.

What year were you ordained to be a rabbi?


Where was your first pulpit?

Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

What kind of a Jewish community did they have there?

It was characterized as an orthodox community with conservative leanings and reformed tendencies. Whoever you asked, if it was Reformed, it was said to be an orthodox congregation…if it was Orthodox, it was a Reform congregation. It was all that. I was to be the only person who was to be observant, and I was.

How long did you remain there?

Four years.

Where did you meet your wife and when did you get married?

I met my wife on May 6, 1937…in Cincinnati, at the German Refugee Club, where professor Jacob Marcus gave a talk on his recent trip to Soviet Russia. She entered the room, and I turned to my friend Werner and said, "My God, she looks exactly like my favorite aunt, Flora." And, then, I somehow managed to walk back with her and that started it all.

When did you get married?

July 14, 1938…in Pittsburgh, Sarah was from Pittsburgh.

Have you been back to Danzig? Did it look similar to how it did before the War?

Sure, I shlepped my wife through Danzig. She saw everything.


Do you remember, from the Synagogue, the Cohanim and Levites?

Yes, they were definitely given their proper place…to be called to the torah, the Cohen first, Levi second.

Have you heard of the Mattenbuden synagogue for the orthodox? Did you ever visit it?

I went there regularly on Simchat Torah, because they had a very lively Simchat Torah service. Everything in the Danzig synagogue was very solemn, and so, if you wanted to have a good time, you went to the Mattenbuden synagogue.

Do you remember what it was like inside?

Quite ugly. Cramped and really — you didn't go there for the building, to be sure. But the spirit of Simchat Torah was wonderful.

Do you know if there are any Jewish sites in Gdansk today that survived the War?

I understand that there is a sign where once the Synagogue stood.

Talking about the Great Synagogue, here's a picture of it. Maybe, if you could describe what the inside looked like…

Absolutely magnificent. The offices were located in here…in the tower. The Synagogue was unbelievably beautiful. I have encountered very few like it in my lifetime, and I have seen lots of synagogues.

Was this stained glass?

It was a stained glass window, beautiful. The fire department was right here, right next to the Synagogue. Very, very practical. The Jews knew what they were doing. It gave you a sense of religiosity. It was a beautiful worship room. I was Bar Mitzvah at age 14. The proper age fell within a year after my father's death and it would have been too sad to have it then.

Your father, how much time did he spend at the synagogue? Was he there every day?

Hardly any time at the synagogue. His office hours were at home, in the house. Quite different from the United States.

Were the services on Saturday mornings only?

No, they were Friday night services, but no meshugas like the late Friday night service. We went to services at the proper time, and came home and had our shabbas dinner.

And then Saturday, were there services, as well?

Of course, there were services and often bar mitzvahs. Saturday was really the main service.

When people had bar mitzvahs, did they have parties afterwards?

None. They were all private, none were held at the synagogue. The synagogue had no facilities for it.

Did bar mitzvah boys get a lot of presents?

They got presents, but nothing compared to "present" practice here.

Have you seen the Danzig collection at The Jewish Museum in New York?

Yes, the torah scroll with which I became bar mitzvah is there.

They were all housed in the synagogue?

Yes, in a very small room. They were not exhibited as they would be here. It was a small room next to the bimah, I went there many times.

How long were the services, would you say? How long was a Saturday service?

For me, always too long. The same as it would be in any Conservative congregation.

Was religion taught [in school]?

Yes. Religion was taught in the public school?

Were the Jewish children taught separately?

Yes, we were divided into Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.


I knew the Boss family, was very good friends with the Boss children, they lived about a half a block from me.

Can you recall the names of your childhood friends and schoolmates in Danzig?

One is related to you…Franz Anker. In fact, they were among the few people in the community who had a villa…a house…which was not far from my apartment, and they had private Hebrew lessons there, which I attended…they were very well to-do and a very accomplished family…I remember Hans*, Herbert, and of course Franz. [*Note: Anker family member Lelo Carter believes Rabbi Kaelter is mistaken in referring to Hans, and that he means Rudi, instead.]

I am showing him a picture of the Anker home…you recognize it?

Sure, sure, I spent many hours there.

Can you describe what the inside of the house looked like?

It was unusual in so far as most of the people in Danzig lived in apartments. Having a house was quite exceptional…it was a beautiful house.

Do you remember the neighborhood? It was near the train station.

It was my neighborhood.

You lived nearby?

Yes, only about, maybe, 300 yards from the railroad depot.

Can you recall some of your other childhood friends?

My closest friend came to Danzig around 1919, Bert Woythaller, who also became a rabbi, and with whom I'm in constant touch. Franz Anker was a close friend, a very close friend. Herbert [Anker] was not particularly accessible…but Hans [Anker] was very close.

Do you remember their parents, Simon Anker and Henrietta?

I remember Simon Anker very well. He was an impressive man, a model patriarch with a stunning long white beard.

Do you remember his personality?

No, there was no interaction, really, between children and grown-ups, like that. A totally different world than here.

Are there any stories you remember with Franz [Anker]?

First of all, every Sunday, we went to Oliva, which was a suburb and had wonderful forests…and hiked…we did a lot of hiking. Thrilling, in many ways.

Have you ever heard of the Kaminsky family?


Maximillian Kaminsky was the father of Mel Brooks, the comedian.

Mel Brooks, oh my goodness. That's a joke in itself.

Do you remember Max Kaminsky?

No, just heard the name. Much too young.

How about the Echt family? Did they go to Canada?

I think so, yes. Samuel Echt was an outstanding educator.

Do you remember the names of any Danzig Jews who are alive today?

One name that comes to mind…Rabow.

Where did they move to?

I think they came to America. Georg Rabow was my brother's closest friend.

Moshe Landau and Meir Shamgar became Justices of the Supreme Court of Israel.

Moshe Landau, yes.

Did you know him?

I went to school with Moshe Landau.

What do you remember about him?

I remember him. He always had the best grades, and I didn't. So, I envied him. I think his father was a doctor, but I am not sure.

Are there any other Jews from Danzig we should interview?

I don't know if they're alive…Alice Rabow, but I'm sure she's dead a long time.

Who was that?

A good friend of my brother's.

Were there any famous rabbis that you remember from Danzig besides your father?

Tiferes Yisroel [Rabbi Yisroel Lipschutz (1782-1860, Danzig)] wrote a commentary on the Mishnah, which is a very renowned and very acknowledged commentary…he lived in Danzig.

When your father died, who was the next rabbi?

Ivan Grün.

Was he living in Danzig already?

No, he came from somewhere else. He had also been a graduate of the Breslau seminary.

How was he received by the community?

He suffered from "succeeditis"…when you follow someone who is very beloved, you encounter great difficulty to be accepted, and he was totally different in his approach to the rabbinate…not very personal.

I have a question about one of my relatives, Erwin Lichtenstein. Do you know the name?

Very, very close friend of the Kaelter family. Originally, an attorney, and very active in the Jewish community. He was what today would be called "Executive Secretary."

What do you remember about him, what did he do for the community?

He was a very well organized, very intelligent, a perceptive man, who was totally community-minded…and, did a lot for the Jewish community of Danzig.


Did any Jewish organizations exist in Danzig?

There was the Zentralverein…I forget the full name…which was a sort of assimilationist organization…there was the youth organization Blau-Weiss…there was a Zionist organization, I forget the name exactly…especially, after World War I, the presence of so many East European Jews changed the Danzig Jewish community completely…there was OSE…

What kind of organization was that?


The first organization you mentioned, an assimilationist…

Central Organization of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith

Do you remember the officers of any of these organizations?

Hardly, but there was somebody by the name of Samuel Echt, who wrote a book on the Jews of Danzig.


During Kristallnacht, World War I veterans supposedly guarded the synagogue…did you ever hear that story?

Yes, Jewish War veterans guarded the synagogue. The organization of Jewish veterans guarded the synagogue and nothing ever happened. Also, the Langfuhr synagogue was not burned down.

When was the first time you saw the Nazis live? Were you in Danzig or in Berlin?

In Danzig. They were running loose in the uniforms with the swastika, all over the place. They were in Danzig, alright. As a matter of fact, I remember my Abitur (final exam)…in Germany, you take what is known as the Abitur…so, one of the professors who was a rabid Nazi, whom I knew, and…he was in the SA uniform for the exam. And, he asked me some questions, and I answered. Then, he looked at me, and I looked at him, and he turned around and walked out. I was absolutely delighted, because I know that I had upset him much more than he had upset me.

Did you have any anti-semitic incidents in Danzig?

Minor. Nothing major, no beating up, nothing like that.

When you left Germany in 1937, did you know that there was no future for the Jews in Germany?

No, I do not think so. But, I knew that I did not want to be there. In 1937, you could not predict. 1938 was the turning point.

Rabbi Wolli Kaelter