It was more of a wistful farewell than a joyful Bar Mitzvah: Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky seemed to be fully conscious of the situation in which his congregants at the Prinzregentenstraße Synagogue in Berlin found themselves. In his address on the occasion of the Bar Mitzvah of 15 teenagers, he captured the mood of this day of celebration: everything clearly bears “the stamp ‘for the last time.’” Many families, whose sons celebrated their Bar Mitzvah on this day, sat on packed suitcases. One family was departing the very next day. The synagoge, in Berlin’s Wilmersdorf neighborhood, had been one of the only synagogues first built during the Weimar Republic. It had also quickly developed into a center of Jewish culture. Now, at the end of September 1938, it was clear to the rabbi that his congregation was facing major changes: “In a few years, much of what’s here today will be gone and perhaps also forgotten.”
It is hard to imagine that the guiding hand of an adult was not involved in writing the toast that Heinz Neumann made at his bar mitzvah celebration on May 21 in Berlin: the way in which the boy expresses his gratitude for having been granted a carefree life by his parents despite the difficult times scarcely comes across as the style of a 13 year-old. Heinz promises to “keep in mind the ethical commandments of Judaism” and wishes everyone health, contentment and happier times. Luckily, in order to brighten things up a bit, one of his grandmothers and an aunt had composed a song with light-hearted lyrics based on the melody of a familiar German oompah tune in honor of the bar mitzvah. It can be assumed that the festive meal, crowned by a “Fürst Pückler Icecream Cake,” also raised the celebrants’ spirits.
In response to numerous requests, the Prussian State Association of Jewish Congregations, a voluntary association founded in 1921, decided to provide gifts to girls in parallel with the religious books given to boys upon becoming B’nai Mitzvah. While the books given to boys were aimed at deepening Jewish knowledge, the book offered to girls, Jewish Mothers by Egon Jacobsohn and Leo Hirsch, offered biographical sketches of the mothers of Jewish luminaries including Theodor Herzl, Walter Rathenau, and Heinrich Heine. As early as the the 19th century, reform-oriented synagogues in Germany began offering a collective “confirmation” for boys and girls. In some places, an individual ceremony for girls was customary, but there was no such thing as the modern bat mitzvah ceremony in 1938.