'He warned, where others remained silent'

Paul Spiegel, who fled the Nazis as a child during World War II and returned to Germany to eventually become the influential—and at times contentious—head of its main Jewish organisation, has died. He was 68.

Spiegel died overnight of cancer in a hospital in Duesseldorf where he had been seriously ill for weeks, Nathan Kalmanowicz, a senior official in Germany’s Central Council of Jews, said on Sunday. Spiegel had suffered a heart attack in February.

Chancellor Angela Merkel mourned a passionate supporter of Jewish life in Germany, where it was all but wiped out under the Nazis, and an “exemplary democrat”.

“He warned, where others remained silent.
His engagement for civil courage, for tolerance and mutual respect and against hatred of foreigners and anti-Semitism set standards,” Merkel said.

President Horst Koehler described Spiegel as a “German patriot” who helped ensure that “we Germans learn the right lessons from the Nazi crimes”.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav sent a telegram to Spiegel’s widow, praising her husband as “one of the outstanding leaders of German Jewry” who also strengthened the community’s ties with Israel, Katsav’s office said.

Kalmanowicz said the council had ordered a month of mourning. A successor will be elected in November.

In 2003, Spiegel and then-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder sealed a historic agreement that put the Jewish community on a legal par with Germany’s main Christian churches.

The accord, signed on the 58th anniversary of the Auschwitz death camp’s liberation, tripled the annual government funding for the council to â,¬3-million.

Germany’s Jewish community of 500 000 was decimated in the Holocaust, in which six million European Jews were murdered. From about 15 000 Jews living in Germany after the war, the community grew to 30 000 a decade ago and has since swelled to 100 000 with immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Spiegel was born in the north-western town of Warendorf on December 31 1937. To escape persecution under the Nazis, his family fled to Belgium in 1939—the year Germany invaded Poland to start World War II—where Spiegel was hidden by Catholic farmers.

His father, a cattle dealer, was captured during the war but managed to survive Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Dachau. His older sister, Rosa, however, was not as fortunate. She was captured in 1942 and was last heard of in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

After the war, Spiegel returned with his mother to Warendorf, where they were reunited with his father.

There, he started working as a volunteer journalist on the newly founded weekly Jewish newspaper the Allgemeine Juedische Wochenzeitung, which is today published as the Juedische Allgemeine.

He began work professionally with the newspaper in 1958 as an editor, staying in the job until 1965 when he became assistant to the secretary general of the Central Council of Jews and editor of the Jewish Press Service.

In 1973 he became editor-in-chief of the magazine Mode und Wohnen (Fashion and Living) but left in 1974 to work in the public-relations department of the Rhineland Savings Bank. In 1986 he quit the bank to found a talent agency that bore his name.

After years of work with the Jewish community in Duesseldorf, Spiegel was named a vice-president of the council in 1993 and president in 2000.

He took on the role of Germany’s main Jewish leader at a difficult time for the council, which was undergoing a generational change that made Holocaust survivors a minority in the organisation.

He was outspoken during his presidency, in 2001 criticising attorneys who represented former Jewish slave labourers for taking “immoral” fees for their work in winning reparations. “Earning money should not come before moralistic intentions,” Spiegel said at the time.

At the 2005 dedication of the national Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Spiegel said the abstract monument failed to address a key question: “Why were members of a civilised people in the heart of Europe capable of planning and carrying out mass murder?”

“The remembrance of those who were murdered lets visitors avoid the confrontation with questions of guilt and responsibility,” he said at the ceremony. He said the memorial and a wrenching debate that delayed its erection showed that it was less a place for Jews to recall the Holocaust than for Germans.

Spiegel was on hand in Cologne in 2005 when German-born Pope Benedict XVI chose to visit a synagogue in the city on his first foreign trip, calling it “an event that is not just significant to Germany and the Catholic community, but also for the Jewish community in Germany and around the world”.

Kalmanowicz said Spiegel would be buried in a small private ceremony in the Duesseldorf area and that an official memorial service would be held later. Details were not immediately available.

Spiegel is survived by his wife and two grown daughters.—Sapa-AP

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