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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sanger, Herman Max (1909–1980)

by J. S. Levi

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Herman Max Sanger (1909-1980), rabbi, was born on 3 July 1909 in Berlin, only child of Rabbi Jacob Sänger and his wife Hilda, née Heimann. He grew up at Breslau (Wroclaw, Poland). At the age of 16 he won a scholarship to study in Paris at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Sorbonne. He also attended the universities of Geneva and Cambridge, and studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Breslau, and the University of Würzburg (Ph.D., 1933). When he was ordained in 1933, seven successive generations of the Sänger family had produced rabbis.

Returning to Berlin, Sänger was formally inducted into his first pulpit on 1 April 1933: he was forced to thread his way to the synagogue on the Oranienburgerstrasse past Nazi thugs bellowing the Horst Wessel-Lied. The German Jewish community made the most of his linguistic and diplomatic skills by using him as a courier in its search for aid and for places of refuge. At the funeral of a distinguished scientist who had died in police custody, he concluded the service with the words: 'Here lies German culture'. An agent informed him that if he gave another such speech he would be taken to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. There were other warnings and Gestapo interrogations until, in 1936, an anonymous call in the middle of the night advised him to leave Germany next day.

Sanger made his way to London where the secretary of the World Union for Progressive Judaism asked him to consider a struggling, non-orthodox congregation in Australia that needed a rabbi. He reached Melbourne on 19 August 1936. The Beth Israel congregation, established at St Kilda in 1930, was on the point of collapse. His impact was immediate and positive. Within two years of his arrival, the congregation was able to build and dedicate its own synagogue in Alma Road.

Given his broad academic and religious training, and his work in Berlin, Sanger was shocked by the bigotry of the Australian orthodox rabbinate. The wider Jewish community quickly recognized him as their most effective rabbinic voice. Among Jewish leaders in Australia before World War II, he was one of the few outspoken Zionists. As founding president (1942) of the Association of Jewish Refugees, he promoted the integration of new arrivals and campaigned against the discrimination implicit in their status as 'enemy aliens'.

Herman Sanger had a profound national impact. A vice-president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, he inspired the groups which established Sydney's Temple Emanuel and Perth's Temple David. He also founded two suburban congregations in Melbourne. While he never forgot the silence of the Churches in the face of the Nazis, he pioneered dialogue between the Christian and Jewish faiths in Australia. In 1962 he was appointed O.B.E. Six ft 1 in. (185 cm) tall, elegant and imposing, he had a superb command of English, which he spoke with a slight European accent. Every speech he gave was carefully crafted. (Sir) Robert Menzies declared him to be Australia's greatest orator.

A lover of books, Sanger devoured them, underlined them and questioned them. He took the rabbi's traditional task of teaching very seriously. At the Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, on 12 June 1962 he married Winifred Eleanor Nathan, née Clements, a widow. In 1974 he retired. Survived by his wife, he died of peritonitis on 24 January 1980 at Prahran and was buried in Springvale cemetery. The hall at Temple Beth Israel was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Rabbi H. M. Sanger (Melb, 1961)
  • naturalisation file, A659, item 1943/1/1056 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Sanger papers (Temple Beth Israel, Melbourne, archives).

Citation details

J. S. Levi, 'Sanger, Herman Max (1909–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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