Whoever rears an orphan, it is as if he has brought him into the world.” — Joshua Ben Karha, Tractate Sanhedrin, Babylonian Talmud
The boys and girls, ages six to sixteen, whom Jonas and Selma Plaut looked after in Berlin in the fall of 1938, were in grave danger. Jonas Plaut, with help from his wife, Selma, was the director of the Baruch Auerbach Institute for the Education of Orphans, and their wards were both orphans and Jews.
After holding positions as a teacher and principal in Jewish secondary schools in Muenster, Germany, Jonas Plaut assumed the directorship of the Auerbach orphanage in Berlin in 1922. Established in 1838, it was a pioneering institution, one of the first modern Jewish orphanages in Europe. The Auerbach’s progressive policies were a model not only within the Jewish community, but also throughout the child-welfare world in Germany and abroad.
The Plauts, who lived in a comfortable apartment on the premises, carried out an enlightened policy that was informed by the notion that society’s least—its orphans—should have its best: the best teachers and living conditions, as well as an emotionally stable, supportive, and loving environment. There were modern facilities; substantial theater, literary, and cultural activities; and up to 125 residents. There was even a synagogue in the building. To build character and leadership, the boys ran the services on their own. As if they were their parents, the Plauts also sent all the children to Jewish religious schools in the community.
The Plauts had their own children, W Gunther and Walter. Gunther Plaut was among the last Jewish students to earn a doctorate at the University of Berlin before the banning of Jewish students and the firing of Jewish professors.
In German society, which was increasingly dominated by Nazi racial ideology, the Auerbach’s commitment to children was well known and widely respected. The high standards, demanding curriculum, outstanding physical plant, and even an alumni association that in 1936 numbered three hundred members made the orphanage more like a private school than an institution for the poor. It attracted significant financial benefactors in the community and as a result was well funded.
If the Plauts discovered students at the orphanage with intellectual potential, they also provided for academic high school and university education as well as specialized training. Girls also went on to productive lives, and the Plauts even provided a dowry, if necessary. Students from the Baruch Auerbach Institute for the Education of Orphans would grow up to become unusually accomplished people—among them ambassadors, photographers, and renowned musicians.
By the fall of 1938, the terror campaign to force Jews to emigrate had resulted in the departure of tens of thousands of Jews from Germany. Many with means left the country if they were able to find relatives or an employer in a host country to sponsor them. Still, Jonas and Selma Plaut continued to run the orphanage. The Plauts even began to admit nonorphan boys in 1937 and 1938, since Jewish boys who had come to Berlin to go to public school suddenly found themselves, by order of the Nazis, not permitted to attend. Jewish schools were now under a severe strain because of the extra numbers of students.
On the same day as the Kristallnacht pogroms in Germany, Jonas and Selma Plaut’s son Gunther, who had gone to study at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1935, married Elizabeth Strauss. For the Plauts, the joy of the day was mixed with agonizing family discussions about the sustainability of the orphanage and the fate of its children. Where could they all go?
In February 1939, with many Jewish institutions banned by the Nazis, the orphanage was finally dissolved. This step was not taken, however, until arrangements had been completed for forty boys to go by train to a home run by the French branch of the Jewish relief organization Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE) near Paris. Another small group of boys was entrusted to a Quaker organization, which successfully brought them to the United States. Two months later, the Plauts were able to send their household items to their son in Cincinnati. Then they fled to England.
Of the forty children protected by the OSE, most were sent out of Paris in 1940 to the tiny village of Chabannes in Vichy-controlled France. The children lived in a chateau near the village and were among hundreds sheltered by the courageous
citizens even after the war came to Chabannes and the act of sheltering Jews became a serious crime.
In America, W Gunther Plaut enlisted as a chaplain in the United States Armed Forces. He served with the American infantry unit that liberated the Dora-Nordhausen Concentration Camp complex in Germany. Jonas and Selma Plaut, who worked with refugee children in England throughout the war, joined their sons in the United States in 1945, Walter having immigrated in 1937. Most of the boys from the Baruch Auerbach Institute for the Education of Orphans who were hidden in Chabannes survived the war. Rabbi W Gunther Plaut, inspired in part by the experience of his family, devoted himself unceasingly to Jewish and human rights causes. Walter, too, became a rabbi and won great renown as a freedom rider.
Jonas Plaut died in 1948 at the age of sixty-eight. Selma, having received her B.A. at the University of Toronto when she became a centenarian , died at the age of 103.