Karl Richter, Tampa rabbi, "a prophet for our times'

Published Sept. 28, 2005|Updated Oct. 24, 2005

A combination of faith, optimism, luck and good genes _ such was the life of Rabbi Karl Richter.

Throughout nearly a century of life, he saw the best and worst of people. He outlived the Nazis who killed 25 members of his extended family, fled his native Germany during the Holocaust and survived two world wars. He also found love with his wife of 66 years and his two children, led a successful career and touched the lives of countless congregants.

The auxiliary rabbi of Tampa's Congregation Schaarai Zedek, Rabbi Richter, 94, died Sunday (Sept. 25, 2005) at his home in Canterbury Tower.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Rabbi Richter was a prophet for our times," said Richard Birnholz, senior rabbi of Schaarai Zedek. "He was a symbol of Jewish vitality. . . . He survived the dark night and went on to light the beacon of hope for the Jewish generations to come."

Stuttgart-born Rabbi Richter was a 28-year-old rabbi in Mannheim, Germany, when the Nazis launched Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, on Nov. 9, 1938. Thousands of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were destroyed. Among the 30,000 German and 8,000 Austrian Jews taken to concentration camps were 400 men from Rabbi Richter's synagogue.

The rabbi had evaded arrest, he learned, because the Nazis drafted the list a year earlier, before he arrived in town.

He escaped Germany in 1939 with his wife, Ruth, and their 2-year-old daughter, Esther, and secured a job as a rabbi in the tight-knit Jewish community of Springfield, Mo.

"If I wouldn't have gotten out of Germany, I would have perished," Rabbi Richter told a St. Petersburg Times reporter in an April 2005 interview. "I had the feeling of abandoning the people who were still there."

His first experiences in the United States were mixed. Because he arrived with a German passport, he became an enemy alien when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941. But, Springfield was good to him, he said. Until arriving there, no Christian priest or minister had ever shaken his hand.

Rabbi Richter later served long stints as a rabbi in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Michigan City, Ind. He and his wife retired to Sarasota in 1976.

In 1988, Rabbi Richter traveled to Mannheim for the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht to see the rebuilding of his old synagogue.

He and his wife moved to Tampa in 1991 to be near their son, David, and his family.

At Congregation Schaarai Zedek, "he held no official rabbinic position and yet filled every official rabbinic role," said Birnholz. "He taught by word, and he taught by example. He was a presence, and when you were with him, you knew you were in the presence of something special."

The rabbi lost his wife in 2001. In April, he told the Times how much he missed her.

"Together they were a tremendously strong team. The last few years were hard because only half the team was left," said his son David Richter.

Rabbi Richter died surrounded by his family. "Up until his last breath, he was still a teacher," said David. Even though he was in a coma, in his last moments "he raised his left hand as if giving a blessing."

Survivors include his son and daughter-in-law, Dr. David and Rudina Richter of Valrico; a daughter, Esther Blumenfeld of Tucson, Ariz.; grandchildren, Joshua Blumenfeld, Samara and Nathaniel Scheckler, and Ari Richter; a sister, Ruth Fox of Buffalo, N.Y.; and a niece and three nephews.

Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at Congregation Schaarai Zedek, 3303 W Swann Ave. Rabbi Birnholz will officiate. Interment will follow at Schaarai Zedek Cemetery. Instead of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Rabbi Karl and Ruth Richter Holocaust Remembrance and Education Fund, c/o History, Heritage & Hope Fund, 55 Fifth St. S., St. Petersburg, FL 33701.

Times staff writer Amy Scherzer contributed to this report.