Leo Trepp, Holocausts longest-surviving rabbi, dies at 97

By all accounts, Leo Trepp was the world’s oldest European-born rabbi to have survived the Holocaust. With his death last weekend at age 97, he became the last.

A respected scholar, author, lecturer and promoter of interfaith understanding, Trepp called the Bay Area his home for many decades.

He played a role in the formation of three Northern California synagogues: Congrega-tion Beth El in Berkeley, Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa and Temple Beth El in Eureka. For 40 years, he served as the Jewish chaplain at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, and worked over the years to get the facility a Jewish chapel, which was named in his honor.

Before any of that, the German-born rabbi had to endure one of the darkest chapters in Jewish history.

In 1938, Trepp, then a 25-year-old rabbi, oversaw 15 synagogues in the German district of Oldenburg. One November afternoon, he began receiving calls from rabbinic colleagues, each telling him that synagogues across Germany were being burned to the ground.

Kristallnacht –– the Nazis’ notorious Night of Broken Glass –– had begun.

An hour later, the doorbell rang. Six SS men stood on the doorstep to tell Trepp, “You need to get dressed; it is all over for you.”

The rabbi was arrested. The next morning, he and other Jews were led through city streets, past Trepp’s smoldering synagogue, where he saw German citizens laughing at what they considered a victory over the Jews. He was transported to Sachsenhausen, the main concentration camp for Berlin.

“It was the most horrible place you could imagine,” Trepp told j. for a November 2008 cover story commemorating Kristallnacht. “There were other rabbis there, and it was the most inhumane kind of treatment.”

Trepp was released three weeks later, provided he would leave Germany within two weeks. By 1940 he was living in America. Eventually he made his way to Northern California, where he relaunched his distinguished career. Clearly his brush with the worst of humanity had an impact on the direction of his life.

“The older I get, the more I come to the conclusion that the entire Holocaust was for us to proclaim the greatest and holiest bond that God has made with Jews,” Trepp once said. “And if called upon, we must be prepared to die. In this way, the Holocaust has never lost its significance.”

He wrote books on Judaism and Jewish topics. He lectured frequently at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El (to which he and his wife belonged) and other local synagogues. He was also the subject of a 2009 German documentary “Der Letzte Rabbiner (The Last Rabbi).”

Well into his ninth decade, Trepp would travel to Germany every summer to teach Jewish studies at Germany’s University of Mainz. He always believed Germany had an obligation to lead the fight against anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination.

“My main concern,” Trepp told j. two years ago, “is making Judaism more meaningful for many more people.”

He is survived by his wife, Gunda Trepp, of San Francisco; daughter Susan Lachtman of Napa; brother Gustav Trepp; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.