Ignatz Bubis, longtime leader of Germanys Jews, dies at 72

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BERLIN — A man who witnessed the near destruction of German Jewry in the Holocaust but survived to help preside over its renaissance died last Friday. He was 72.

In keeping with his wishes, Ignatz Bubis was buried Sunday in Tel Aviv.

That the outspoken and respected leader of Germany's Jewish community chose to be buried in Israel illustrates a failure he said he felt toward the end of his life.

It was a failure to convince his fellow Germans that they cannot escape their past and that they bear a unique responsibility to be a light unto other nations in remembering and preventing another Holocaust.

Bubis' death came just weeks after he said he would rather be buried in Israel than in Germany because he feared that his grave would be desecrated like that of the previous head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

A bomb destroyed Heinz Galinski's marble gravestone in December.

On Sunday, Bubis' request was fulfilled in the Kiryat Shaul cemetery in Tel Aviv, where German President Johannes Rau and Israeli President Ezer Weizman led some 200 mourners at his funeral.

Rau called Bubis a fighter for democracy "who dedicated his life to making sure the shadow of German history would not extend over the future." He called Bubis a "German patriot."

But even in Israel, Bubis could not escape grave desecration. Moses Mendelssohn, a Tel Aviv resident, squirted black paint onto Bubis' grave as his body was being covered with earth Sunday.

Mendelssohn later told reporters that Bubis was "a bad man" who took advantage of his Jewishness in post-Holocaust Germany to make real estate deals.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany was expected to file a lawsuit claiming defamation by the end of the week in a Frankfurt court.

"It is unacceptable that some crazy person could dirty the name and the person of a man like Ignatz Bubis. Mr. Bubis did not deserve it," said Paul Spiegel, council vice president.

Bubis died at a hospital in his home city of Frankfurt. The exact cause of death was not given, but Bubis had suffered a series of illnesses in recent months. He is survived by his wife, Ida, and two daughters.

Across Germany, Bubis was mourned as a man who brought his own experience as a Holocaust survivor to bear on behalf of all minority groups there.

In Berlin, the public was invited to write words of condolence in a book in the JCC. Flowers were placed there and at another Jewish center.

Bubis was born in 1927 in Breslau — now Wroclaw, Poland, but then a part of Germany. He lost his father and two siblings in the Holocaust. He was liberated from a labor camp in 1945 by the Russian army and called his survival an accident. He later settled in Frankfurt, where he became a successful, if sometimes controversial, real estate investor.

In 1985, Bubis and other members of the Frankfurt Jewish Community prevented the performance of a play called "Garbage, the City and Death," in which one character, "the rich Jew," was rumored to be modeled after Bubis.

Because he survived the Holocaust, part of Bubis' job was to warn his fellow Germans not to stray down the path of intolerance again. But he was also one of those eyewitnesses whose jobs have been increasingly replaced by memorial stones and museums.

Germans are marking with fanfare their metamorphosis into a time when they're not branded by the crimes of their elders. They want to be considered a normal nation, even using the term "Never Again Auschwitz" as a slogan behind which their soldiers joined the NATO forces in Kosovo.

When Bubis came to believe his fellow citizens had failed to learn from their tragic history, he blamed himself.

"I am ashamed for you," he said from a podium in Berlin when neo-Nazis threw stones and tomatoes at Germans demonstrating against racism in 1992.

Jewish leaders in Germany and abroad and German politicians from across the political spectrum — some of whom had verbally sparred with Bubis — mourned his death.

Although Bubis recently expressed sadness about the gaps between Jews and non-Jews in Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Germany had lost someone who "helped to make it possible for fellow Jewish citizens to again see a future in Germany."

Today, through immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, Germany's Jewish community has more than doubled to 75,000 since Bubis took leadership of the German Jewish community in 1992.

Despite the fact that he often stood at odds with Bubis, Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen mourned the loss of a "personal adviser." Diepgen had fought bitterly against the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, which Bubis had backed.

Bubis was known for outspokenness when he believed his fellow citizens needed to be criticized. Last year he took German writer Martin Walser, expressing an opinion held by many postwar Germans, to task for saying it was time to stop using the term "Auschwitz" as a whip against Germany.

Be it in favor of the integration of new citizens, or against right-wing extremism, Bubis let his opinion be known.

In 1996, he met with Yasser Arafat in Germany, where he asked the Palestinian leader to have more patience in the struggle for peace.

Bubis said he supported a Holocaust memorial in Berlin, but not at the expense of protecting the memorials at concentration camp sites. Germany's culture minister, Michael Naumann, recently promised to nearly double the funding available to such memorials.

Always active in Jewish communal life, Bubis said his goal as head of the Central Council was to focus on the problems of today. But, as the generations drifted into the future, he increasingly found himself grappling with issues of the past.

Bubis' most recent words — presaging his own death — chilled many Germans to the core and reminded them that for many members of Bubis' generation, the wounds of the past have not healed.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.