Thursday, February 16, 2012

In memory of Rabbi Gunther Plaut

Isn’t it strange (and embarrassing and humbling) when you know someone from one context only to discover that he or she has a much larger role in the world? When Shari came to tell me that W. Gunther Plaut died, my first reaction was, “The donor of the orphanage keys!”

The Plaut family is featured in To Life: 36 Stories of Memory and Hope. Jonas and Selma Plaut, Gunther’s parents, ran an orphanage in Berlin from 1922 to 1939. They were progressive educators, believing that society’s “least important” –its orphans—deserved the best of everything: the best living conditions, the best teachers, and an emotionally stable, supportive, and loving environment. Gunther, who had a brother, Walter, 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. Gunther came to America in 1935 to study at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

In February 1939, the orphanage was dissolved. Forty children were placed with the OSE, the French Jewish relief organization. Another small group of boys was entrusted to a Quaker organization, which successfully brought them to the U.S. Two months later the Plauts sent their household items to the U.S., where Gunther was living with his wife Elizabeth. Gunther enlisted as a chaplain in the US Army and served with the 104th Infantry unit that liberated the Dora-Nordhausen Concentration Camp complex in Germany.

Rabbi Plaut is perhaps best known for “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” his magnum opus, published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella organization for Reform Jewish congregations in North America. The Plaut Torah has sold nearly 120,000 copies, according to its publisher. It is used today in many Reform synagogues, as well as in some Conservative and Reconstructionist ones, throughout the United States and Canada.

The New York Times obit painted Rabbi Plaut as a rabbi of the people and some would say his experiences with his “brothers” would help explain that. Clearly, my Plaut frame of reference was much more narrow, but no less important. To me, he was the man who grew up in an orphanage run by his parents, and who donated the keys to that very special place.

May his memory be a blessing.

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