Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gottshall, Benjamin Béla Vojtech (1907–1978)

by Sophie Caplan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Benjamin Béla Vojtech Gottshall (1907-1978), rabbi, was born on 30 August 1907 at Szeged, Transylvania, Hungary, eldest of five children of Rabbi Samuel Gottschall and his wife Jenni Eva, née Schayer (Scheuer). In 1908 Samuel became rabbi to the `status quo' community at Eperjes (from 1919 Presov, Czechoslovakia). Benjamin began his education at the local Catholic Gymnasium, proceeded to the theological seminary of `status quo' Judaism, Budapest, and studied Egyptology at Lorànd Eötuös University. While reading medicine for eight terms at the Comenius University of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, he also attended an orthodox yeshivah. He supported himself by training and conducting the Bratislava synagogue choir. Deciding on a rabbinical career, he entered the seminary at Breslau, Germany (Wroclaw, Poland), thus studying in turn in Hungarian, Czech and German, as well as Hebrew and Yiddish. In 1936 he received his rabbinical diploma at Breslau.

Posted next year as rabbi to Louny, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, Gottschall married Margereta Glässner on 1 September 1938 and ministered there until 1942 when the Jews of Louny were sent to the ghetto camp of Theresienstadt. He worked in the morgue and secretly conducted religious services. For this `offence', on 18 December 1943 he and his wife were transported to the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, and sent to `Family camp BIIb'. Gottschall distinguished himself by teaching survival techniques (such as always marching in the middle of a column) to his group of inmates and ministering to their psychological and spiritual needs. Discovery would have meant instant execution. On 1 June 1944 he was sent with 999 others as slave labourers to a synthetic petrol plant at Schwarzheide, near Dresden, where he continued his forbidden ministry. His wife was moved to Bergen-Belsen where she died. He was liberated in May 1945, suffering from tuberculosis. The monks at Louny had safeguarded his books, papers and furniture.

Late in 1945 Gottschall became communal rabbi to the surviving Jews in Prague, and assistant successively to Dr Deutsch and Rabbi Sicher, chief rabbis of Czechoslovakia. On 24 November 1946 in Prague he married Johana (Jana) Práger—daughter of a rabbi from Topol'čany—whose entire family had also perished in the Holocaust. In July 1949 the Gottschalls fled the communist regime, and reached Sydney in the Surriento on 6 September with one child and another soon to be born.

While learning English, Gottschall worked in a factory. In May 1950 he succeeded Isack Morris as rabbi to the Newcastle Hebrew Congregation. The family was naturalized as Gottshall in 1955. From 1958 to 1962 he ministered to the Wellington Hebrew Congregation in New Zealand. As chief rabbi of Queensland (1963-67), he enjoyed representing the Jewish community at official functions; the diminutive rabbi was seen on television blessing the towering President L. B. Johnson. Returning to Sydney in 1967, Gottshall served at Kingsford-Maroubra synagogue from that year until he retired due to illness in 1973.

Both he and his wife were active in communal and civic endeavours during all his ministries. His decision to serve small congregations strengthened those communities. In March 1950 he had organized a memorial service for Czechoslovakian Jewry, which he repeated whenever he resided in Australia (and which was to continue in tribute to him). Survived by his wife, and by their son and daughter, Gottshall died of cancer on 28 April 1978 at Woollahra and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. Four decades after their release, his fellow inmates from the camps recalled with warmth his influence on them.

Select Bibliography

  • S. S. Caplan, ‘Psychological and Spiritual Resistance in Nazi Concentration Camps: The Example of Rabbi Benjamin Gottschall’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 31, no 1, 1985
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Mar 1979, 26 June 1985
  • taped interviews, 1980-82, with Dr E. Morgan, Messrs P. Lom and K. Neubauer, and Rebbetzen J. Gottshall, all of Sydney (held by author)
  • naturalisation file, A446/123 items 55/10718-19 (National Archives of Australia)
  • information from Terezin Archive, Israel.

Citation details

Sophie Caplan, 'Gottshall, Benjamin Béla Vojtech (1907–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gottshall-benjamin-bela-vojtech-10680/text18985, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 September 2017.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gottschall, Benjamin
Birth

30 August 1907
Szeged, Hungary

Death

28 April 1978
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation