The Last Bar Mitzvah Before Kristallnacht

At Berlin's Rykestrasse Synagogue, Fredi chanted Moses' song of darkness and redemption

Fredi Bachner and the Rykestrasse Synagogue, the site of his 1938 Bar Mitzvah

At the time of my father’s Bar Mitzvah in Berlin, Hitler had been in power for five years.  It was October 1938 and Jews were prohibited from participating in nearly all facets of German life.  The Bachners desperately wanted to leave Germany, but their attempts to get visas were unsuccessful.

As bad as things were, they could not have imagined that only a few weeks after Fredi Bachner’s Bar Mitzvah, synagogues throughout Austria and Germany would be destroyed on Kristallnacht, including the Rykestrasse Synagogue, where Fredi was Bar Mitzvahed.

The Rykestrasse Synagogue, Berlin. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

His Bar Mitzvah would be the last held at the Rykestrasse Synagogue for many years.

My father was born in Berlin on September 28th, 1925, the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, Yom Kippur.  It was always meaningful to him that he was born on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, for reasons I now understand.

Berlin, early 20th century. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Antisemitism permeated Fredi’s childhood. In 1935, ten-year-old Fredi was stripped of his German citizenship and as a Jew was prohibited from going to public school.  The Bachners continued practicing their religion as observant Jews and Fredi went to school at the Rykestrasse Synagogue.

He joined youth groups, such as Bar Kochba and Makkabi, and participated in their outings, sporting events, and meetings.  Fredi credits the Jewish community with  “being the glue that held us together.  They kept the youth happy and busy.”

Makkabi Berlin event, 1937 (Nadav Mann, Bitmuna). From the Collection of the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Fredi’s Bar Mitzvah took place on the 13th of Tishrei. The Torah portion was “Haazinu”, which he read along with the Haftarah as a small group of friends and loved ones still in Berlin looked on.

“Haazinu” is the Hebrew word for “listen”, and the Torah portion features the famous love poem sung by Moses to God. It is the prophet’s last song before dying. In it, he reminds the people of Israel that at times God punished them for their transgressions, yet he also renewed his covenant, forgave and redeemed them.

My father distinctly remembered the rabbi’s foreboding words to the congregation. Warning them that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better, he said, “It doesn’t become daytime before it literally becomes night.”

As the Bachners posed for the family portrait at Fredi’s Bar Mitzvah, they did not know that this would be their last photo taken as a family.

Bachner family portrait taken at Fredi’s Bar Mitzvah, 1938 (Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg)

In the days and weeks immediately after Fredi’s Bar Mitzvah, nighttime was beginning to fall.  The situation escalated dramatically on October 28th when 17,000 Jews of Polish citizenship living in Germany, including his father, were arrested and forced across the border into Poland.

Kristallnacht – the “Night of Broken Glass” – took place on November 9th and 10th, 1938. It was a violent, destructive, and coordinated attack on Jewish homes and shops and on synagogues.

The following day it was quiet outside and Fredi went to school. He later recalled:

 “The curtains were ripped off the windows and the synagogue in back of the school was in ruins.  The ark was open, the Torahs and books were thrown on the floor and had been set on fire.”

Kristallnacht was a turning point for Jews throughout Austria and Germany.

“A Black Day for Germany” was how The Times of London characterized the events of Kristallnacht, as reported in the Palestine Post a few days after the events. Click image for the full article

Darkness continued to fall.

Fredi and his mother, “Mutti”, were alone in Berlin and were rightfully concerned how they would sustain themselves. They vacated their apartment, sold the family’s belongings, and rented a small room in a neighbor’s apartment. After several months, they were given permission to join Fredi’s father in his hometown, Chrzanow, Poland, a town ten kilometers from Oswiecim, later known as Auschwitz.

As was required, they worked for the Germans until February 1943 when the Nazis rounded them up for deportation. Fredi’s father was sent to concentration camps, Mutti was transported to Auschwitz where she went directly to the gas chamber, and Fredi spent the next 27 months at five concentration camps beginning with Gratiz and then Annaberg.

On September 30th, 1944 Fredi’s transport from Annaberg arrived at Auschwitz.  It was the 13th day of the month of Tishrei.  On that day six years earlier, Fredi had stood on the bima chanting Parashat Haazinu at his Bar Mitzvah in the Rykestrasse Synagogue.  Now he stood at the gates of Auschwitz awaiting his fate.

The main gate to Auschwitz. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Photo: St. Mucha, Publisher: State Museum in Auschwitz)

Would he be sent immediately to the gas chambers with no chance of living or would he be allowed to work as a slave laborer, enabling at least a slim chance to survive?

The rabbi’s ominous words were still fresh in his mind.  It was dark and Fredi prayed it would not get darker.

“I knew I was one step closer to death and I prayed to God to guide me,” Fredi recalled.

Would God save him, as promised to the Jewish people in Parshat Haazinu?

Fredi’s life was spared that day, as it was every day at Auschwitz, during the long death march which followed, and finally at Gross-Rosen and Dachau.

When the war ended in May 1945, my father said, “After what I had been through, I questioned God and did not know if I wanted to practice Judaism.  By the time Yom Kippur came, I was back at synagogue.”  Even though Fredi had been through the unimaginable, he was ultimately grateful to God for sparing his life.

Fred Bachner’s identity card, 1946 (Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg)

Fredi immigrated to the United States in 1947.  He married and raised a family in New York, where religion was an integral part of his life.

Every year he would chant the Haazinu Haftarah as he did at his Bar Mitzvah, and each Yom Kippur he would lead the afternoon services as cantor.

I now understand that he did these things as a testament that both he and Jewish life had survived.

Fred and Ellen Bachner, 1958 (Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg)

It certainly also brought back fond memories of his Jewish upbringing and connected him with his youth and the Rykestrasse Synagogue, where he had found a semblance of normalcy during an abnormal time.

My father passed away on December 9th, 2008.  The last time he was at the Rykestrasse Synagogue was the morning after Kristallnacht when it had been vandalized, its Torah scrolls and books set on fire.  The building was apparently not burned to the ground simply because the Germans were concerned about damage to the adjacent buildings. In a further act of desecration, the German military later confiscated the synagogue, using it as a warehouse.

In 2005, 67 years after Kristallnacht, the Rykestrasse Synagogue was rededicated after a $7 million renovation to the interior, which returned the synagogue to its prewar glory. In front of it is a school, just like when my father was a child.

Exterior of the renovated Rykestrasse Synagogue. From the Center for Jewish Art Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

In photos, the synagogue looks beautiful, showing no signs of Kristallnacht or the dark years of Nazi occupation. My father would have been thrilled that the restoration brought it back to the time of his Bar Mitzvah.

The rebuilt Rykestrasse Synagogue (Photo: Michael Hunter Ochs)

I am in awe of the synagogue’s splendor and at the same time I am reminded of Holocaust survivors and the irreparable damage they suffered.

Like the synagogue, they had been brutalized, tortured, and desecrated by the Germans and emerged from the ashes in various states of disrepair. While the numbers branded on their arms and the physical scars were visible, the damage to their psyche was often never as apparent. Many appeared okay on the outside, but it was often a veneer that could not cover up the destruction deep within.

Unlike the synagogue, they could not be made whole again.

My father’s birthday this year fell on Yom Kippur, only the third time since his birth in 1925. I planned to go to Berlin and be at the Rykestrasse Synagogue for Parshat Haazinu and my father’s birthday, Yom Kippur. I wanted to be in the synagogue where my father was Bar Mitzvahed and envision him standing proudly on the bima with his impish smile.

I wanted to feel his presence.

Ruth and Fred Bachner, 2005 (Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg)

With COVID-19 restrictions, travel from the United States to Germany was not permitted so I was unable to go.  Ironically, I cannot get into the country my father and his family tried desperately to get out of in the 1930s.

Hopefully I will be able to travel to Berlin next year for Yom Kippur to honor and remember my beloved father, stand in the place he became a Jewish man and listened as his rabbi spoke of unforeseeable darkness – and redemption.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

“It Could Never Happen Here”: Before the Bolsheviks Came

Most in Nikolaevsk-on-Amur had felt safe in one of Russia's most isolated corners

In the fall of 1919, rumors of approaching Bolshevik partisans circulated through the city of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur in the far eastern corner of  Siberia…

“We are not moving to Japan,” Ilya threw off the sheets and sat up, shrugging his wife off as if she were a snowflake on his collar. The tender mood of their morning tryst had evaporated.

“But…once the Amur freezes, there’ll be no getting out until May.” Luba pulled the cover back over herself. “It’s September and the river’s already covered with a layer of ice some mornings. Once the Amur freezes, we won’t be able to get out.” She swallowed hard. “My brother thinks it would be best if we move to Japan for the winter.”

Ilya sighed and shook his head. “What will I do in Hakodate? I have no business there. I barely speak the language.”

Luba knew he was right on one level, but their safety was more important to her. “Meyer’s offered for us to live with him. He has plenty of room in the house he rented. The two of you can work together.” With political tension on the rise, many of their friends talked of moving, but Ilya didn’t feel the need.

“I don’t want to be his lackey.” He scowled.

“What are you talking about? Meyer’s my brother.” Luba tugged on her husband’s shoulder. “And your closest friend.” She pressed her lips into a firm line. Why did Ilya always have to be in charge? His take-charge nature impressed her when they first married, but why couldn’t he at least consider her opinions?

Ilya pulled away. “Yes. When we’re here, on equal footing. But I don’t want to be beholden to him.” Confronted by his back, Luba grazed her fingertips lightly across it as she knew he liked. Ilya turned toward her.

Ilya Kaptzan just before the Nikolaevsk Massacre in 1920

“I know you’re used to being your own boss, Ilya moy.” She raked her hand through his chest hair and played with the brown tufts that sprouted in different directions. “But it would only be for the winter months. Until the trouble blows over.”

Luba hoped her touch would assuage her husband. Ilya leaned in and she thought he was capitulating; but then he pulled away, resisting the urge to soften. “The winter months make up more than half the year. And nobody else is moving away.”

“Nobody else has a place to go,” Luba pointed out.

Her husband rubbed his neck. “The trouble’s not here. It’s in the west. In St. Petersburg. Moscow.”

“Not anymore. You yourself told us the revolution was moving east.”

“A little. To Irkutsk…”

“You said Vladivostok. That’s about as far east as you can get.” She pictured the layout of the country on the globe in Ilya’s study.

“Vladivostok is 500 miles south of here. And Vladivostok is not Nikolaevsk.”

“Why is Meyer moving if there’s no cause for concern? Don’t you read your own newspaper?”

“Meyer and I have spoken. With his boys of high school age, he thinks they’ll get a better education abroad.”

Luba huffed in frustration.

“Stop being silly,” he whispered into her ear.

How she hated when he said that. She faced him squarely. “What if they take over, the Bolsheviks?”

Leon Trotsky and other members of the Bolshevik leadership, early 1920s. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Publisher: YIVO)

“What if, what if…!”

Luba’s blood pulsed like a volcano in her core. She took a deep breath. “Stop treating me like a child. I’m—”

Ilya lay back down and stared at the ceiling. “You sound like a child. You worry too much.”

Not another lecture. Why did they always have to argue lately? Once Ilya started, there was no stopping. The lawyer in him took over. She wished she could plug her ears.

“Haven’t I told you that our way of life here in Nikolaevsk represents what the revolutionaries are seeking? Freedom, business opportunities. Why would they want to cause trouble?”

Leaning on one elbow, Luba looked into her husband’s eyes. “Because we’re Jews?”

“The Jews hate the Tsar as much as the revolutionaries. Nobody’s going to take over our city.” Ilya threaded his fingers through his wife’s falling tresses, pushing some curls behind her ear. She could tell he wished she were still the adoring girl he married.

“How do you know?” Luba wanted him to convince her, to hush the whirring that rushed through her veins making her hum like a telegraph wire.

“We’re nestled way up here in the north. Like bears in a cave.” Ilya nudged his wife and tented the comforter over themselves. “Hibernating for the winter,” he joked as he nuzzled her neck.

Luba was tempted to succumb. “But what about the rumors? All the upheaval everywhere?” How could her husband be so blind?

“That’s been going on for years now. Up and down, up and down. In recent months, things have calmed considerably. Remember last year? It looked like the Reds were going to take over. And then, poof! We expelled them like that!” He snapped his fingers in Luba’s face. She flicked them away. He lay next to her on the pillows, and ran his finger softly down her arm.

Couldn’t he tell that she knew he was trying to distract her?

Luba with her five children after surviving the 1920 Nikolaevsk Massacre and the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake in Yokohama

Finally, he gave up. “If you’re so worried,” he said, “why don’t you take the children and move to Hakodate yourself?”

That caught her off guard. “Without you?”

“If it makes you happy.” Oh, was she tempted. She pictured the family living in surroundings akin to their dacha, but far from the reach of encroaching partisans. Could she live without Ilya for seven months? What would people say? And to leave him behind with his mother who surely would not desert her son like her? Luba would never hear the end of it.

Ilya got out of bed. “I have to get to work. You wouldn’t have me arrive late, would you?”

“Of course not,” she grumbled under her breath. She watched him dress and leave, then plunged into her feather pillow. She didn’t really want to move to Japan where none of them spoke the language and the only people they knew were her brother and his family. She just didn’t want to remain in Nikolaevsk.

Luba shook herself.  Was she being silly after all? Could Ilya be right that the threats would melt like snow in Spring? That nothing bad would ever happen here?


Nikolaevsk-on-Amur, ca. 1900

The account above is a fictionalized exchange between my grandparents, Ilya and Luba Kaptzan, in the midst of a violent and unpredictable time. It appears in Red Winter, a novel inspired by the true story of what happened to my grandmother Luba during the winter of 1920. Her family was living in Nikolaevsk-on-Amur, a thriving city on the far eastern coast of Siberia.

My grandfather Ilya was a businessman, lawyer and editor of the local newspaper, The Amursky Liman. He and Luba were born and raised in the city which was known for its natural resources—salmon, lumber, furs and mines—and also for its lack of religious persecution. The town had its own synagogue, mosque, church and cathedral and because it was frozen from the rest of the world for half of every year, all the occupants celebrated one another’s holidays together.

The residents were aware that trouble was brewing in the west since the Russian Revolution of 1917, but most felt safe in their remote location. Because my grandfather refused to leave, he ended up being one of the first to be imprisoned—and ultimately murdered—by the Bolshevik partisans who entered Nikolaevsk once the river froze, cutting the city off from all possible aid.

“Russians were murdered by the Bolsheviks in the thousands, their property plundered. Hundreds of human corpses were strewn outside the city, unburied.” From a description of the Nikolaevsk Massacre published in the Haaretz newspaper shortly afterwards. Click for the full article

Luba was left on her own with five young children, her mother-in-law and epileptic sister-in-law. At first, the family lived under house arrest when the Reds conscripted their home and relegated them to servant status. Later, they managed to escape, only to spend the winter months hiding in pigsties, warehouses and opium dens while the bloodthirsty intruders tried to track them down. By the end of the winter, ninety percent of Nikolaevsk’s population had been killed.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

For more “Jewish Journeys”, check out our online exhibition launched in collaboration with AEPJ as part of European Days of Jewish Culture 2020.

180 Years of Australian Jewish Newspaper History Going Online

Some 200,000 pages of historic press will be fully searchable as part of new global initiative

(Courtesy: National Library of Australia)

A new initiative will digitise and open free digital access to 180 years of Australian Jewish newspapers, including over 200,000 pages from Jewish communities across the continent. The project is a collaboration between the National Library of Australia (NLA), the National Library of Israel (NLI) and the Australian Jewish Historical Society (AJHS).

The new digital collection will be openly accessible and fully searchable from anywhere in the world through Trove, Australia’s free online research portal and the Historical Jewish Press Project (JPress), the world’s leading digital collection of Jewish newspapers and journals. The new digital collection will offer scholars and the wider community the opportunity to understand centuries of Jewish life in Australia as never before.

According to Dr. Marie-Louise Ayres, Director-General of the National Library of Australia, “The project continues the work being done by the National Library to connect culturally and linguistically diverse communities with their history. This global initiative supports international scholarship and enables those interested in the study of Jewry in Australia to freely access this wealth of information. The National Library’s unparalleled digitisation capabilities will once again unlock important sources for researchers and enable generations to connect with the treasured voices, stories and opinions of the people from their collective past.”

Jewish newspapers waiting to be digitised at the National Library of Australia (Courtesy: National Library of Australia)

“The National Library of Israel’s commitment to offer access to historic Jewish press from all communities and in all languages via its JPress platform receives a tremendous boost here with the massive digitisation of Australian Jewish press. We appreciate the close partnership with the National Library of Australia and the Australian Jewish Historical Society toward this shared mission,” said Oren Weinberg, Director of the National Library of Israel.

The history of Jewish press in Australia goes back to 1842, when, despite the very small Jewish population, a local edition of the London-based Voice of Jacob (what would later become The Jewish Chronicle) was published in Sydney. As the local communities grew and established themselves in the twentieth century, the number of publications and their variety grew immensely. Most of the publications were in English, but there were also some in Yiddish and Hebrew.

The Yiddish Australian newspaper “Australier Leben” is one of the titles being digitised as part of the initiative (Courtesy: National Library of Australia)

“Jewish people have been in Australia since 1788 and, while prominent members of our community such as Sir John Monash are well known, the history of those who came before him remains largely unknown. From a Jewish community standpoint, these newspapers represent a rich source of contemporary history and to have access to the information for historians, genealogists and interested members of the public is immense”, according to Peter Philippsohn OAM, President of the Australian Jewish Historical Society. “It’s not just about uncovering genealogical information and family history either, but revealing the arcane and the attitudes of society at a particular moment in time—the insights that can be gleaned from the community’s attitudes towards immigration, the Holocaust, and the World Wars.”

With permission from the Australian Jewish News and their publisher, Polaris Media, all issues of the Australian Jewish News will be digitised, as will all other Australian Jewish newspapers published up to the copyright date of 1954. According to David Redman, Chief Executive Officer of Polaris Media, “With a history that extends over 125 years, the Australian Jewish News has been an important part of not only the Jewish community but also the wider Australian community. Polaris Media, as the publisher of The Australian Jewish News, is very excited to be part of this project to preserve this history as well as make this unique record of our past available digitally to future generations.”

This joint initiative would not have been made possible without financial assistance from philanthropic supporters, including the David Lesnie Foundation, the Embassy of Israel in Australia, the Besen Family Foundation, and Eitan Neishlos and Lee Levi.


Project Partners

The National Library of Australia

The National Library is charged with preserving the nation’s memory for future generations. The NLA is committed to connecting with communities, and connecting communities with their national collections. While the Library’s mission has long been to collect, connect and collaborate, the ways in which we have carried out that mission have changed dramatically. The digital era has seen creative and research practices, knowledge production and community expectations being fundamentally reshaped through the opportunities, new technologies offer. The Library has responded to and anticipated these changes, building an astounding collection, developing world-leading digital platforms, connecting with more Australians than ever before, and collaborating with other agencies to develop digital research infrastructure on which the nation relies. We are committed to continuing this proud record of service to the Australian people.

Trove is a collaboration between the National Library of Australia and hundreds of partner organisations around Australia.


The National Library of Israel

Founded in Jerusalem in 1892, the National Library of Israel (NLI) serves as the vibrant institution of national memory for the Jewish people worldwide and Israelis of all backgrounds and faiths. NLI has recently embarked upon an ambitious journey of renewal and is now opening access and encouraging meaningful engagement with the treasures of Jewish and Israeli culture as never before through a range of innovative educational, cultural and digital initiatives. Its iconic new home is currently under construction adjacent to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem, on schedule to open its doors in 2022.

Alongside and in partnership with peer institutions across the globe, NLI is carrying out significant digital initiatives to open access, generate research, enhance user experience and exponentially expand the quantity and quality of materials available for user communities interested in its core subject areas. One such example is the Historical Jewish Press Project (JPress), the world’s leading initiative for preserving and opening digital access to Jewish newspapers and journals across centuries and continents, allowing users to search and browse nearly 3,000,000 pages from over 400 titles in a range of languages from the late 18th through the 20th centuries. JPress is an initiative of the National Library of Israel (NLI) and Tel Aviv University (TAU), in cooperation with institutions and collections around the globe.

JPress is a collaboration between the National Library of Israel and Tel Aviv University.


The Australian Jewish Historical Society

Founded in August 1938 by Rabbi Leib Falk, Sydney Glass, Hirsch Munz and Percy Marks, the Australian Jewish Historical Society is dedicated to promoting the study of Jewry in Australia from 1788. Since its founding the Society has sought to compile and make available unique and authentic records relating to the Jewish people in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands via the acquisition and preservation of historically significant documents and materials. Equally, the Society has pursued the conservation of places of Jewish interest and continues to foster the interchange of information through lectures, discussions and exhibitions of historical interest or value.

The Society is now working to make a range of materials available online.

Sukkot During World War I: Open Roofs and ‘Mysterious’ Ditches

Photo taken by an Austrian soldier provides a rare glimpse

Sukkot in Ivanovo, 1916. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Publisher: Verlag fur allgemeines Wissen)

Ditches at the entrances to all of the homes. Opened roofs. The year 1916 appears under the photograph featured on an aged postcard.

The setting: Seppl Alley, a Jewish street in Ivanovo – known as “Yanov” in Yiddish – a town then in the Russian Empire, near Pinsk in modern day Belarus.

The photo was taken during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, two years into the Great War.

Two elements stand out in particular: the houses’ opened roofs and rectangular ditches in front of every home.

Sukkot in Ivanovo, 1916. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Publisher: Verlag fur allgemeines Wissen)

The roofs can be rather clearly understood.

When the Jews of Ivanovo built their homes, they included a distinctly Jewish element found in many communities: roofs that opened up. When the holiday of Sukkot came every year, they would open up the roof, lay the traditional skhakh (covering for the sukkah made of natural materials) and live in their sukkah in accordance with Jewish law without having to fully leave the warmth and protection of their homes.

It was October in Russia, after all.

The ditches in front of the homes seem a bit more mysterious, though given the historical context it becomes clear that they are actually protective trenches, dug to safeguard the town’s residents from gunfire, a clear and present danger during this time of war.

The image is part of a series of photographs taken by the Austrians as they advanced into Russian-held territory during that particular stage of the war. It’s interesting to note that the photographer almost certainly had no idea what he was looking at and was likely confused by the locals opening their roofs in the middle of the chilly Eastern European autumn.

The postcard was published by “Verlag für allgemeines Wissen” (“Publisher of General Knowledge”), which distributed various images of the areas occupied by the Central Powers, particularly in Eastern Europe. It was part of the larger wartime propaganda effort.

This rare photo was captured by an anonymous Austrian soldier, perhaps providing the only surviving evidence of what Sukkot was like in Ivanovo in 1916.

Thousands of other soldiers on both sides carried private cameras into battle with them throughout the First World War. Some of the photos they took were kept in private hands, other were published in unit books or commemorative pamphlets. Some found their way onto the auction block or into public collections, while others – like this one – were featured on postcards, sold for pennies in markets and shops across Europe.

While the experiences of life during that cold Sukkot over a century ago will remain in the realm of the unknown, the residents of Seppl Alley certainly tried – despite the difficult circumstances – to fulfill the ancient commandment to “rejoice in your feasts” during the festival of Sukkot.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.