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Paul Spiegel, a Holocaust survivor, who returned to Germany and rebuilt the country's Jewish community, died Sunday in Dusseldorf.
Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, was 68 and had been suffering from cancer before experiencing a heart attack in February. He had spent much of the intervening weeks in the hospital before succumbing.
Chancellor Angela Merkel mourned an "exemplary democrat" and a passionate supporter of Jewish life in Germany.
"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.
Jewish leader Stephan Kramer called Spiegel a "moral institution." Kramer, secretary-general of the German Jewish council, said Spiegel "did not hesitate" to speak out against injustices or criticize attitudes towards Jews when he felt moved. But Kramer also recalled Spiegel's affection for his native country and his "great confidence and trust in German democracy and society."
Kramer pointed out that Spiegel was one of the last German Jewish leaders who experienced the Holocaust. "This is a great loss [for] Jews and non-Jews," Kramer told The Jerusalem Post by telephone. "He was a bridge-builder beyond religious or social borders."
Lutheran Church leader Bishop Wolfgang Huber said Spiegel was "an important interlocutor in the common engagement for a free society."
Spiegel was among those to accompany German-born Pope Benedict XVI on his historic visit to a Cologne synagogue in 2005.
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 liberations of Auschwitz, tripled the annual government funding for the council to â‚¬3 million.
Spiegel's sister died in a concentration camp, but Spiegel survived thanks to Catholic farmers who hid him in Belgium beginning in 1939.
He returned to his hometown of Warendorf once the war ended and was reunited with his parents. Most of the country's Jewish community had been slaughtered during the war. Of the 500,000 Jews living in Germany before the start of World War II, only 15,000 remained in the country after the war ended.
Kramer began his career as a journalist, volunteering at the Jewish newspaper, the Allgemeine Juedische Wochenzeitung, today published as the Juedische Allgemeine, before becoming an editor there. In 1965 he became assistant to the secretary-general of the Central Council of Jews and editor of the Jewish Press Service before taking a hiatus to work in public relations.
After years of work with the Jewish community in Dusseldorf, Spiegel was named a vice president of the council in 1993 and president in 2000.
He was outspoken during his presidency, in 2001 criticizing attorneys who represented former Jewish slave laborers for taking "immoral" fees for their work in winning reparations. "Earning money should not come before moralistic intentions," Spiegel said at the time.
During his lifetime, the Jewish community grew to 100,000, thanks in large part to an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Spiegel was involved in an ongoing debate about absorbing these newcomers, many of whom are not Jewish according to Halacha.
He drew criticism in 2001 with complaints that many of those immigrants were claiming they were Jews simply to exploit German laws that promote Jewish immigration and were not practicing Jews.
But Kramer stressed that Spiegel "fought very intensively to improve the situation for the immigrants," pushing for greater resources and integration of the population.
Kramer also noted Spiegel's willingness to speak out at events such as the 2005 dedication of the national Holocaust memorial, which he criticized for being "artificial" and failing to push its visitors far enough.
"The remembrance of those who were murdered lets visitors avoid the confrontation with questions of guilt and responsibility," he told the audience. 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.
He received numerous awards for his work, including the Order of Merit of the State of Northrhine-Westphalia in 1993, the Federal Order of Merit 1st Class in 1997 and the Heinrich-Albertz peace prize in 2001.
He leaves behind his wife and two grown daughters.
"We are all in grief and all our sympathy goes to his family," Kramer said. "I've lost a great friend and teacher and a very strong personality."
AP contributed to this report.