The head of Germany’s Jewish community, Paul Spiegel, died Sunday of complications from cancer. He was 68. Spiegel, who had leukemia and also suffered a heart attack earlier this year, had been placed in an artificial coma in February. He awoke in early April but recently suffered a setback, according to reports.
A small funeral is planned for this week near his home city of Dusseldorf, and a public memorial service will be held at a later date, according a spokesman for the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The council, which Spiegel was elected to lead in January 2000, is the political body representing Germany’s official Jewish population of 120,000.
Dieter Graumann, a council board member, told the news agency DDP that “a light of warmth, welcome and friendliness has gone out.” He called this a black day for the Jewish community in Germany and added, “It hurts.”
Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the council, called the loss ” profound and indescribable.” He said that the organization’s two vice presidents, Charlotte Knobloch of Munich and Salomon Korn of Frankfurt, would continue to represent the council as they have during Spiegel’s long illness. Talk of a successor will begin after a period of mourning.
The news drew immediate condolences from across the political and religious spectrum. German Chancellor Angela Merkel mourned Spiegel as “a very impressive personality,” who “dedicated himself passionately to building a good future for the Jewish community in Germany.”
“Paul Spiegel stood up for the foundations of democracy. He warned when many remained silent. His contribution for civil courage and mutual respect and against xenophobia and anti-Semitism set the standard,” she added.
The leader of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Bishop Wolfgang Huber, spoke of cooperation and dialogue with Spiegel. And the head of the Catholic Church’s commission of German Bishops, Prelate Karl JÃ¼sten, called Spiegel an important moral voice for the entire society and an important partner in Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Spiegel was born on December 31, 1937, in the city of Warendorf near Muenster. He and his mother, Ruth, survived the Holocaust in hiding in Belgium; his father, Hugo, survived Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Dachau.
Spiegel’s older sister Rosa was arrested in 1942 at age 11 while procuring food for the family, deported to Auschwitz and killed.
After the war, the three surviving family members returned to Warendorf. As a child, Spiegel still dreamed that his sister would return, “that one day our doorbell would ring and a beautiful young woman who looked like me and my parents would throw her arms around me,” he said a few years ago in an interview with JTA.
Spiegel described the ongoing pain of this loss in his 2001 autobiography, “At Home Again? Recollections.” His German-language book on basic Judaism, “Was ist Koscher? JÃ¼discher Glaube — jÃ¼disches Leben,” came out in 2003.
Spiegel is survived by his wife Gisele and two daughters, Dina and Leonie.
Spiegel’s engagement with the Jewish community took off in 1967, when he became the Jewish council representative of Dusseldorf. In 1984 he became president of the community, and nine years later was elected one of the two vice presidents of the central council.
Elected president of the council in January 2000, he represented a bridge between the generation of concentration camp survivors like his predecessor, Ignatz Bubis, and the postwar generations of German Jews.
Spiegel took his role as witness seriously. He told JTA that “the special relationship between Jews and Germany will have long aftereffects. It will be a long time before we can talk about normalcy.”
As council head, he presided over several major developments in the post-war Jewish community. In 2003, he signed the first contract between the Federal government and the council, which placed the Jewish community on a legal par with the Catholic and Protestant communities of Germany. He also took part in crafting a reparations agreement for surviving Nazi-era slave laborers, and was a consultant to the creation of Germany’s new immigration law. Germany’s Jewish community has grown fourfold in the last 15 years, thanks largely to the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union.
After a wave of violent xenophobic crimes in Germany in 2000, Spiegel started “Gesichtzeigen” — “Show Your Face” — a campaign in which public figures encouraged Germans to stand up against xenophobia wherever they see it.
Most recently, he worked to repair relations with Germany’s Reform Jewish congregations, paving the way toward their official acceptance under the council umbrella.
Rabbi Walter Homolka, a member of the board of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and chairman of the Potsdam-based Leo Baeck Foundation, called Spiegel’s achievements “a great legacy.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.