Head of Germany's main Jewish organization dies aged 68

Paul Spiegel, hailed by Merkel as an "exemplary diplomat," succumbed to cancer at a Dusseldorf hospital.

paul spiegel 88 (photo credit: )
paul spiegel 88
(photo credit: )
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 organization, has died. He was 68. Spiegel died overnight of cancer in a hospital in Duesseldorf, where he had been seriously ill for some weeks, Nathan Kalmanowicz, a senior official in Germany's Central Council of Jews, said 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." 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 3 million Euros. Germany's Jewish community of 500,000 was decimated in the Holocaust, in which 6 million European Jews were murdered. From some 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 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. Spiegel urged the government to officially define who is Jewish, provoking outrage from liberal Jews, who wanted to draw the newcomers to the reform tradition. Spiegel was born in the northwestern town of Warendorf on Dec. 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. 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 organization. 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. 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 civilized 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. 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. Spiegel is survived by his wife and two grown daughters.