New leader of German Jewry reaches out to Russian emigres

BERLIN — German Jewry is entering a new era of leadership at a critical juncture for the community.

Five months after the death of Ignatz Bubis, the Central Council of Jews in Germany has elected a Dusseldorf theatrical agent, Paul Spiegel, as its new president.

Sunday's election of the 62-year-old by the nine-member council is seen as a bridge between the aging generation of Holocaust survivors and the younger generation of German Jews who, to a great extent, want to put the past behind them.

Bubis became a major public figure in Germany since serving as president from 1992 until his death in August. He had reportedly wanted Spiegel, who was vice president, to succeed him as the head of the group that oversees religious, communal and financial matters for Germany's 80,000 Jews.

Attesting to the importance of the Jewish community in Germany, some 100 reporters attended a news conference Spiegel held Sunday upon his election. Spiegel, head of Dusseldorf's Jewish community since 1984, was chosen by a 6-3 vote over Charlotte Knobloch, 67, head of Munich's Jewish community since 1985.

Like Knobloch, Spiegel survived the Holocaust as a hidden child.

At the news conference, Spiegel said his top priority would be the integration of the 50,000 Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union who have come here during the past 10 years.

As a result of their influx, Germany has Europe's fastest-growing Jewish community.

They need financial and spiritual sustenance, Spiegel said. "They know they are Jews, but they don't know what Judaism is."

Spiegel told reporters he hopes to heal the rifts between observant and liberal Jews in Germany.

He also said he will attempt to bring German Jews and non-Jews closer together — a task that Bubis, in an interview shortly before his death, said he had failed to accomplish.

At the news conference, Spiegel said the normalization of relations between German Jews and non-Jews "has yet to happen," but he is hopeful that it will. Spiegel said that unlike Bubis, he was "relatively optimistic" about the future of the Jewish community in Germany, despite an increase in xenophobia in recent years.

On the other hand, he applauded youth exchange programs between Germany and Israel and said the interest of young Germans in learning about Judaism and the Holocaust has "never been as great as it is today."

Spiegel's family comes from the village of Warendorf in the state of Westphalia.

During World War II, he was hidden, along with his mother, Ruth, by Belgian farmers. His father, Hugo, and his older sister, Rosa, were discovered and deported by the Nazis. Rosa never returned. Spiegel's father survived Buchenwald and Auschwitz and was liberated from Dachau.

After the war, the family was reunited in Warendorf and decided to stay in Germany. Spiegel's father renovated the town's tiny Jewish chapel and led the first services there.

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.