Screening in Marin to honor Nazi Germanys Last Rabbi

Rabbi Leo Trepp once thought he would die in a concentration camp. Instead, he is a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor who belongs to a club so exclusive that he is its only member: the last living rabbi who led a congregation in Nazi Germany.

In honor of that unusual distinction, German filmmaker Christian Walther made a 45-minute documentary in 2009 about Trepp’s life.

And in honor of Trepp himself, a longtime San Francisco resident, the Osher Marin JCC had the film, “Der Letzte Rabbiner,” translated from German into English for a March 28 screening in San Rafael. The star of the film, “The Last Rabbi” in English, will be in attendance to answer questions after the screening.

“The documentary is a tribute to re-educating people toward greater humanity,” Trepp said during a phone interview from his San Francisco home. “And in all of the disorder, [the audience] gets a brief view of what German Jewry was like.”

Though he has resided in the United States since 1940, Trepp is well known throughout Germany, said his wife, Gunda Trepp. He has won many honors and taught at a university there for more than 20 years, allowing him to connect with thousands of students and make just as many fans.

Leo Trepp as a young man

“I think it’s a very interesting story that should be told,” Gunda said. “I don’t know so many people who were kicked out of their country, had their whole family murdered, only to come back later and say, ‘I really need to educate these people.’ It’s just amazing to me.”

Trepp was born in 1913 in Mainz, Germany, 26 miles west of Frankfurt. He grew up in a religious but integrated family. In 1936, he finished his rabbinic education and was ordained.

Trepp, then just 23, took a job overseeing 15 synagogues in the district of Oldenburg, whose Jews were poor and persecuted.

“I had to keep the Jewish community from breaking down, while at the same time give many fellow believers the possibility to emigrate,” Trepp says in the film. “I saw those who returned from the concentration camp destroyed and rotted in spirit.”

Recognizing that Jewish children had no opportunity for a normal education, Trepp went to the local Nazi officials to ask if he could take the non-Aryan children out of classrooms in Oldenburg and put them in a separate school housed in a synagogue.

Not only did a Nazi official agree to Trepp’s plan, but he also promised that the government would pay for supplies, such as desks and chalkboards, and would even pay the synagogue rent for providing space for the Jewish school.

“I’m amazed at what chutzpah he had, that he actually went to the Nazi authorities and said that he wanted to start a school for Jews,” Gunda says in the film.

But on Nov. 9, 1938, Trepp was awakened with the news that one of his synagogues was in flames, along with other Jewish institutions and businesses burned and smashed during Kristallnacht. Within a day, SS soldiers led Trepp and his fellow Jews through the city streets and to the local jail.

Trepp was then transported to Sachsenhausen, the main concentration camp for Berlin. He stayed 18 days.

Leo Trepp and his wife, Gunda, in “The Last Rabbi,” documentary about Trepp’s life.

With help from Dr. Herman Hertz, chief rabbi of the British empire, Trepp and his first wife, Miriam, received a visa for England on the condition they leave Germany within 14 days.

In “The Last Rabbi,” Trepp and Gunda, who married in 2008, visit sites from Trepp’s past: the Berlin library where he once studied, the restored synagogue he once prayed in, the Mainz high school he attended.

But there is one place the film crew visits that Trepp will not: Sachsenhausen.

“I could not go back, because my experience would not let me — I would collapse,” he said.

Trepp moved to the United States in 1940 after a year in England. He eventually moved to Northern California, where he helped to start three synagogues, including Beth Ami in Santa Rosa and Beth El in Berkeley. For 40 years, he served as the Jewish chaplain at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville.

Trepp and his wife are members of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. They continue to spend their summers in Germany so Trepp can teach a course at the University of Mainz. He has lectured about Talmud, Jewish mysticism and Jewish history.

“Germany is the country the Nazis stole from me,” he said. Yet “I go back primarily, and I think with success, to spread the idea of Germans learning to bear what their ancestors have done, and committing themselves to becoming  fighters against anti-Semitism and racism.”

“The Last Rabbi” premieres at 2 p.m. March 28 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Free. Information: (415) 444-8000 or www.marinjcc.org.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.