Arno Hamburger, the longest-serving head of a Jewish community in Germany, died last week at age 90.
The country’s Jewish community and the wider public have lost a champion of solidifying freedom in post- Holocaust Germany.
Hamburger was born in Nuremberg in 1923. He fled his home in 1939 to British Mandate Palestine. He returned to help liberate Nazi Germany as a British soldier.
Hamburger returned to live in Nuremberg after 1945. The US Army employed him as a translator during the Nuremberg Trials of the Nazi top leadership.
In a 2001 interview with Der Spiegel, he vividly recalled Julius Streicher, publisher of the Nazis’ fiercely anti-Semitic Der Stürmer paper, at his trial for crimes against humanity.
Streicher appeared as a pathetic figure who lacked his bombastic presence from the time of the Hitler movement, Hamburger said. “He sat there as if he could not count to three and claimed that he never had the intention to kill Jews, rather he merely wanted them to disappear from Germany.”
Streicher was convicted, and the Allies executed him by hanging in 1946.
Hamburger went to great lengths to combat right-wing extremism in Bavaria. He was a passionate advocate for a ban of Germany’s neo-Nazi NPD party.
He played a key role in bringing Nuremberg out of the barbarism of the jungle and transforming it into a democratic, non-fascist city.
It was a daunting task.
Nuremberg was site of Hitler’s biggest mass rallies. Twelve years of high-intensity fascism was inculcated into the population and the effects continued well after World War II. He had a seat on the board of directors of organization devoted to documenting the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg as an educational tool to combat German fascism.
Hamburger rejected a personal bodyguard offered him as a leader of the German Jewish community – a frequent form of protection for Jewish leaders in the Federal Republic.
“I can take care of myself,” he said, in a clear reference to his gun license.
He was an unwavering supporter of Israel. In 2009, he told The Jerusalem Post that he returned his awards from the German government, including the Federal Cross of Merit, because of its decision to issue the Cross of Merit to hardcore anti-Israel activist Felicia Langer, a former Israeli attorney who moved to Germany and has compared Israel’s policies to those of Nazi Germany.
A number of prominent German Jewish and American Jewish leaders had received the Federal Cross of Merit. Hamburger was the only one to send his back to then-German president Horst Köhler.
Hamburger told the Post at the time that he was “very sad” about the decision to award Langer the Cross of Merit. The nordbayern.de (north Bavaria) news website mentioned his protest in its obituary. “I cannot and will not wear the same award with which Ms. Langer was honored,” the news organization quoted Hamburger as saying in 2009.
Hamburger served as a Social Democratic Party city councilman for more than 40 years.
Nuremberg’s Mayor Ulrich May, a Social Democrat, told the Bayerischer Rundfunk broadcaster that Hamburger was “a political and moral role model.
His tenure as head of the Jewish community started in 1966 and continued until his death. Nuremberg’s Jewish community experienced a growth of 2,000 members on Hamburger’s watch – a remarkable accomplishment for a small city in Bavaria in the post-Shoah period.
He was a maverick leader in the world of German Jewry, breaking away from the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
His community remained independent of the main body.
Hamburger’s daughter lives in Israel.