Jacob Sonderling, This is my Life (Memoirs), Los Angeles, 1961-1964 [Excerpt], p. 3-5.

    A digital facsimile of the source is available at www.americanjewisharchives.org/german-jewish-history/.

    |3 : 3|

    1907. I was chosen rabbi of Solomon Temple in Hamburg, the
    cradle of the reform movement the world over. There I started as a
    rebel. The temple of 1818 had given up the title rabbi, which was
    in those days disreputed, and instead the title preacher was carried.
    I, a young man, protesting, insisted on becoming a rabbi, and finally
    a compromise was established and we carried the title rabbi and
    preacher. Those years in Hamburg I shall never forget. There were
    questions I could not answer. There were problems I could not solve.
    We lived at that time through the storm and stress of the finding
    of ourselves -- what are we, a people or a religion – and official
    Judaism insisted upon that we are not a people, ONLY a religion.

    It happened in 1909 when the Zionists' Congress  The stenographic German transcript is to be found in Compact Memory: http://sammlungen.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/cm/periodical/titleinfo/3476272 was held in
    Hamburg, and Max Nordaeu said publicly, criticizing the reform
    movement – “What have they done, the reformers? They made temples
    out of synagogues, churches without a cross.” The following Saturday
    I took the bull by the horns and said in my sermon, “I differ with all
    |4 : 4|
    my colleagues in the Reich. Of course we are a people.” The Trustees
    present almost fainted, and after service approached my colleague,
    thirty years my senior, -- “Are you under the same opinion?” and
    he said, “We are not a people. We are German citizens of Jewish
    persuasion.” And I replied, “You are right. All Hungarians who
    come to Germany say the very same thing.”

    1914. The first World War. I had met Emil G. Hirsch, the
    famous rabbi from Chicago, in Switzerland, and he prophesied, “One
    day you are going to come to America.” A few weeks after the be-
    ginning of the War, I found my Commission on my desk, and became
    attached to the General Staff of Field Marshall von Hindenburg.
    Then something happened. Herman Cohen, the famous philosopher, my
    teacher, wrote me – “I should answer your letter. Not having
    received a line from you, I have to write to receive an answer.”
    I wrote him back – “Believe me, dear teacher, it is not negligence.
    I have been your pupil, speaking your language, thinking your thoughts
    so to speak – your alter-ego.” But something happened. We crossed
    the borderline from Germany into Lithuania – everything goes topsy-
    turvy – “I don't know where I stand. When I am myself again I will
    write to you.” I never did.

    Here, for the first time, I met people who did not try to give
    a definition of what they are. They were Jews, you did not need
    sermons to be reminded of their Jewishness. Here I found spirit
    knowledge, not restricted to professionals, dignity and inner-
    independence. In Germany we were labled all the time, orthodox,
    |5 : 5|
    conservatives, reformed. Here I was accepted as a Jew without attri-
    butes. Here surrounded by those people, I got the answers to my
    questions. It is more than a jest, and up to this very day, if I
    am ever reborn I would like to be a Litvac. Those four years in
    Russia made me a Jew, and coming home, after Germany was defeated,
    I could not preach any more. My Board came and pleaded – “Rabbi, we
    have been waiting and praying for you for four years.” I said, “I
    cannot stay – you are dead – I want to live.”

    And so, in 1923, a new life opened to me – America. []

    Source Description

    This excerpt from the autobiographical notes by Rabbi Dr. Jacob (Jakob) Sonderling (1878-1964), who worked in Hamburg between 1908 and 1922/23, provides insight into a life shaped by migration and the search for belonging. Those aspects in Sonderling’s transnational biography which are closely linked to his experience during World War I are given particular mention; not only did they intensify Sonderling’s repeated reflection on an adequate definition of Jewishness, they also influenced his decision to emigrate to the US in 1923. Sonderling drafted his planned autobiography “This is my Life” in Los Angeles between 1961 and 1964, it was only published in excerpts posthumously though. It is part of his personal papers held at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio. Some handwritten notes have been added by Sonderling to his autobiographical sketch and there are some subsequent corrections as well.
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    Recommended Citation

    Jacob Sonderling, This is my Life (Memoirs), Los Angeles, 1961-1964 [Excerpt], p. 3-5., edited in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:source-83.en.v1> [July 19, 2024].