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Profile German Jewish Community Head Traveled Long Road to the Spotlight

March 15, 2002
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When Paul Spiegel breaks the bread of affliction at his seder table in Dusseldorf this year, he likely will be thinking of the Jews of Argentina.

Far away as they are, the Argentine Jews are like an extended family to Spiegel, the 65-year-old head of the Central Council of German Jews. The council recently pledged an undisclosed contribution to help bring Passover food to Argentina, where the Jewish community has been devastated by the country’s economic collapse.

The German funds are part of an international Jewish emergency fund that the North American Boards of Rabbis will distribute to some 40 Argentine Jewish communities during the week before Passover.

In extending this help, Spiegel is making a statement beyond the obvious one of solidarity with Jews in need. He also is demonstrating that the German Jewish community is an equal partner in the Diaspora.

“There was a time when Jews in Germany were not seen as equal partners outside Germany,” Spiegel recently told JTA. “I think it has changed very much. We work very well with all the Jewish communities in the world.”

For Spiegel, who is in the third and final year of his term as council president and is expected to run again, playing this public role is both natural and difficult.

It’s natural because his profession as a talent agent requires him to hobnob with entertainment stars. It’s difficult because Spiegel’s childhood years hiding from the Nazis left an indelible mark on him.

He protects his daughters, Dina and Leonie, from publicity, and wishes he could shield his wife of 37 years, Gisele, from the spotlight.

“I’m no longer the private person that I was,” Spiegel acknowledged, but neither is he a “moral institution. I am simply a representative of the Jewish community.”

It was not an easy decision for Spiegel to run for the leadership of the Central Council, the body that has overseen the workings of Germany’s Jewish community since 1950 and represents the community to government leaders.

There are some 90,000 Jews in Germany today. That’s more than three times as many as there were 12 years ago, due to an influx of ex-Soviet Jews. Yet it still is a far cry from the more than 500,000 Jews who lived here before 1933.

Spiegel felt too humble to try to fill the shoes of the late community leaders Ignatz Bubis — whom he served as vice president for seven years — and Heinz Galinski. He also was concerned about his family’s privacy and security.

In the end, driven perhaps by the sense that the late Bubis would have wanted him to do so, Spiegel entered the fray. Elected in January 2000, he represented a bridge between the generation of concentration camp survivors like Bubis and Galinski and the postwar generations of German Jews.

Spiegel takes his role as witness seriously.

“This special relationship between Jews and Germany will have long aftereffects,” said Spiegel, whose autobiography has been read by many German schoolchildren. “It will be a long time before we can talk about normalcy.”

Spiegel and his mother, Ruth, survived the war in hiding in Belgium. His father, Hugo, survived Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Dachau.

Paul’s older sister Rosa, arrested in 1942 at age 11 while procuring food for the family, deported to Auschwitz and murdered.

After the war, the three surviving family members returned to their home town of Warendorf in Germany. They managed to start life again.

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.”

Shortly after he was elected to head the council, Spiegel finally let go of this dream. A journalist friend had found the files on Rosa’s deportation: “The hand-written note next to her name indicated that she was gassed in Auschwitz, between the 9th and 13th of April, 1942,” Spiegel wrote.

In a daze, he wrote, he went home, took out his prayer book and kippah, and recited the Jewish prayer of mourning.

Spiegel’s communal involvement began in 1967 when, after starting a career in Jewish journalism, he was asked to run for the Dusseldorf Jewish council. Since then, he has served in various communal and regional positions.

In 1986, Spiegel co-founded an international talent agency — where he still works — with German entertainer Hans Rosendahl in Dusseldorf.

When he was elected president of the council, Spiegel’s primary goal was to promote the spiritual and economic integration of the more than 50,000 former Soviet Jews in Germany. This remains a chief long-range concern, requiring more funding, teachers and rabbis. Full integration can be achieved in 20 years or less, Spiegel said.

Spiegel also would like to see stricter immigration rules applied, so that immigrants falsely claiming to be Jews will not end up the responsibility of the Jewish community. He estimates that at least 30,000 people have been admitted into Germany by falsely claiming Jewish identity.

“If the German government wants to include the others as refugees, that is okay, but the non-Jewish community should help take care of them,” said Spiegel, who is one of many consultants to the government commission designing the law.

Meanwhile, a new worry has entered the scene: With the deteriorating Mideast situation, more taboos against anti-Semitism in Germany have been broken. Well-respected journalists have compared Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Hitler, giving extreme views a seal of approval.

“Naturally, criticism of Israel is not a sacrilege. But criticism has to be based on facts, and not based on anti-Semitism,” said Spiegel, who hopes President Bush will become as involved as former President Clinton had been in pushing for Mideast peace. “The whole situation in the Mideast is terribly depressing for Jews and non-Jews.”

Spiegel has hesitated to comment on whether the extreme right-wing National-Democratic Party of Germany should be banned — as has been proposed — but he did say that “if a party is anti-Semitic and fights against the German constitution, it must be banned.”

Spiegel feels it is essential to speak out against anti-Semitism, xenophobia and Holocaust denial, even if the gesture is purely symbolic. He was shocked when, at a dinner discussion in 2000, no one challenged an elderly lawyer who questioned whether Jews were systematically murdered in Auschwitz.

“I felt attacked,” said Spiegel, who had just finished speaking about Jewish life in Germany, and who had mentioned the murder of his sister in Auschwitz. “I was supposedly among friends who have high-level cultural and political positions. I was shocked that no one stood up and said anything against it. My wife really suffered. She left, broke down in tears. It was a very, very unpleasant situation.”

At the same time, Germans are showing a deep thirst for knowledge about Jews and Jewish life. The new Jewish Museum in Berlin, one of the most visited museums in Germany since it opened in September 2001, “is one of the most important instruments” to combat ignorance, Spiegel said. “It does not shut out the Holocaust, but that is not the main theme.”

Meanwhile, he said, the media can play a bigger role in educating the public about Jewish life — if newspapers are interested.

“Last year, a German Press Agency journalist wrote about the holiday of Yom Kippur, and only one newspaper printed the story,” he said.

Despite challenges and problems, Jews in Germany are more open than ever today, 57 years after the end of World War II.

The “united Jewish community,” once exclusively traditional, has evolved to include more expressions of Reform Judaism. With the integration of the ex-Soviet Jews, “we are standing on the brink of a renaissance of German Jewish life,” Spiegel said. “I think we can be proud to be Jewish in Germany.”

Paul Spiegel has been rebuilding that sense of pride ever since his own “liberation from bondage,” 57 years ago this spring. Before placing him with the Christian family that saved him, his mother told Spiegel never to reveal his heritage until he saw American or British troops.

And so, as an American tank rolled through the streets of his Belgian town in the beginning of 1945, the 8-year-old Spiegel shouted up to his liberators, “I am a German Jew,” again and again.

This year as every year, when the stories of enslavement, liberation and rebuilding are retold, Paul Spiegel will think of his own bitter and sweet days past, of the challenges ahead for Jews in Germany and elsewhere — and of one lost girl for whom a cup of wine will always wait.

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