As Joseph Bamberger remembered it, there was at first a loud stomping of heavy leather boots on the wooden floor in the hallway of the family’s apartment building. It was a menacing, echoing sound that grew suddenly nearer. Then there was loud, insistent rapping on their door.
“Who is it?” ten-year-old Joseph’s mother asked. “Who’s there?”
It was November 9, 1938, at the home of Seligmann and Else Bamberger, and their children, Hannah and Joseph, in Hamburg, Germany. None of them forgot that night, called Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) because of the shards of broken glass from the hundreds of stores, homes, and venerable synagogues that were attacked, looted, destroyed, and burned. It was the first large-scale, organized physical attack on the Jewish community by the Nazi hierarchy all across Germany and Austria.
“Gestapo, ” came the reply. “Open up. “
Two uniformed men barged in and began to search each room, closet, and even the bedclothes. Yet the person they sought was not there. Dr. Seligmann Bamberger, graduate of the University of Wuerzburg, teacher of chemistry and physics at the Jewish Carolienenstrasse school, and devoted leader of his synagogue, had been warned. He was at that moment evading the mobs and making his way through the threatening streets to the Bornplatz synagogue. His mission: To rescue the objects at the very heart of the Jewish community—the Torah scrolls. With the other synagogue leaders, he entered the darkened building and, hoping the scrolls were still there, opened the ark that held them. . . .
For days after Kristallnacht, Dr. Bamberger and the other community leaders hid to avoid arrest. Not all succeeded: more than thirty thousand Jewish and Austrian men throughout Germany were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Anti-Jewish acts had been on the rise, but nothing on this scale had ever occurred. Personal and community objects of all kinds—household articles, works of art, religious objects—were looted or destroyed.
Bamberger was able to return home later. Yet the message was as clear as the crystal: the Nazis had gotten away with their first large-scale anti-Jewish violence.
In the ensuing months, even while new anti-Jewish edicts were promulgated and enforced, Bamberger continued to teach science and to participate in Jewish cultural life. The family was also working strenuously to obtain visas to the United States. However, the restrictive American immigration quotas were already long-filled. To obtain four nonquota visas, Bamberger needed intervention and help in the United States. Fortunately, one of his closest friends, Edgar Frank, had emigrated with his family shortly before Kristallnacht. For a year and a half he persevered, obtaining the endorsement of Congressman Sol Bloom of New York, and even of Albert Einstein, who had immigrated to the United States in 1933. Finally, when Yeshiva College in New York invited Bamberger to join its Department of Chemistry, the family was offered four precious United States visas.
When they sailed from Italy in March 1940 on the SS Washington, they knew that with Europe already at war, and almost all doors now closed to Jews, they were among the lucky ones. Nearly all family and friends left behind perished. His former Hamburg students, who had made Bamberger a personalized farewell Hanukkah booklet, were deported to concentration camps.
Joseph remembered: “The most important item in our suitcases was a Torah scroll … one of the Torah scrolls that my father had rescued from the Bornplatz synagogue on Kristallnacht.”
With this, they reestablished their religious and personal lives, first in Washington Heights, the northern part of Manhattan, where many German Jewish immigrants settled, and then on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Joseph grew up and married Edgar Frank’s youngest daughter, Dorothy, and settled in Patchogue, Long Island, to raise their sons, David and Michael. The Torah scroll was actively in use in their community synagogues.
The Torah has found a new home as part of the Museum of Jewish Heritage- A Living Memorial to the Holocaust Permanent Collection, where it now tells the story of how Seligmann Bamberger risked his life to save the Torah scroll, and how the Torah saved his life.