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 Posted Thursday, September 30, 1999

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Ignatz Bubis, the German Jewish community leader

The Jewish Chronicle,
London, September 3, 1999


Passing of a man of his time that has itself passed

by Norman Lebrecht


ADOLF USED TO BE a common name among German Jews, the equivalent for Avraham, until circumstances rendered it unusable. Ignatz was another popular name, approximating to Itzhak, but its affectionate diminutive carried something of a stigma after January, 1933. Not many Jews felt comfortable being addressed as "Natzi."

It speaks volumes for Ignatz Bubis, the leader of German Jewry, who died last month, that, like our forefathers in Egypt, he changed neither his name nor his language. He stood, at the heart of modern Germany, as an awkward testament of an obliterated past -- a Jew called Nazi whose mother tongue was German and who professed himself proudly to be a "German citizen of the Mosaic faith."

Bubis came to the fore at a critical moment for Jews in Germany, and perhaps in Europe altogether. He led protests in 1985 against the staging of a play by the prominent film-maker Rainer Werner Fassbinder in which Jewish property-developers were accused of exploiting Holocaust guilt to despoil German cities.

Anyone who has spent time in Frankfurt, where Bubis made his fortune in property, will recognise that there was some substance in this allegation. Germany has some of the ugliest cementscapes in Europe and many of its post-war developers were identifiably Jews. Bubis felt personally besmirched by the Fassbinder libel, perhaps with good reason.

'Standing tall, he shamed the German left into sharing responsibility for the past'
It was not so much the play itself, however, as the timing and context which made its presentation so dangerous. Fassbinder, who died not long before, was an icon to the German intellectual left which, recovering from its duplicitous role in the Baader-Meinhof years, was looking for a rallying cause and might well have found it in a play which made anti-capitalist anti-Semitism politically respectable for the first time since Hitler.

Those who remember the anti-Zionist hysteria being whipped up in radical sectors of unreformed British Labour at that time will have cause to thank Bubis for stopping the poison at its source and preventing its spread across receptive borders. Standing tall, he shamed the German left into sharing responsibility for the past.

He was able to do this by dint of being a German-born Jew who, alone of all his family, had survived the camps and elected to spend the rest of his life seeking dialogue between Germans and Jews.

There were never more than a minyan of his kind. Visiting Frankfurt 20 years ago, I attended synagogue on Shabbat and was appalled to find that only the cantor and I seemed to have prayer in mind, and neither of us could make our voices heard above the hubbub of business conversations. When I remarked upon the indecorum to my hosts, a pair of non-Jewish lawyers who had been active in refugee camps after the war, they shrugged sadly and said, "but of course these are not our Jews."

The community in Frankfurt, once the seat of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and the fount of rational Orthodoxy, was made up of dispossessed Polish Jews and disillusioned Israelis, occupying a place on the margins of their society. Much the same was true of sister-communities in Berlin, Hamburg, Düsseldorf, and Munich.

Among some 40,000 Jews, there was neither the demand nor the desire to employ ritual functionaries. When a boy was born, they would fly in a mohel from Switzerland. Kosher meat, for the few who required such refinements, was imported in packets. This was not a religious community by any stretch of the spiritual imagination.

What made Bubis so remarkable was that he, a secular Jew, voiced for the first time in modern Germany a distinctly religious Jewish view of tolerance and co-existence. He embraced the post-Oslo Yasir Arafat and spoke up for foreign workers attacked by neo-Nazis. Such was his moral stature that he was seriously wooed as a candidate for the federal presidency. He was not short of enemies either, and he went to his grave bewailing his failure at making Germans understand what Jews are all about. Facing his final journey, he opted to get buried in Israel.

That he cannot be replaced is self-evident. The last pre-Hitler German-born Jews are past the age of leadership; the rest of German Jewry is a motley of exiles, mostly from the former Soviet Union. The community has doubled during the 1990s, amounting to 80,000 souls, but still lacks basic religious amenities, apart from those proffered with strings attached by Lubavitch.

It is both the fastest-growing and the most insecure assembly of Jews to be found anywhere in the world. There is no shortage of talent or energy, and second-generation Jews are starting to play a role in German arts and society. The next leader of German Jewry will be younger and pan-Europeanist. I detect a new willingness among young professionals to devote themselves to building a stable community, rather than a night-shelter in a charnel-house.

What German Jews need now is not effective secular representation but the kind of visionary religious leadership that Hirsch provided in the last century, defining German Jewry unto itself. Hirsch was an outsider, Hungarian by birth. Another is needed now.

Perhaps London, with its surfeit of rabbinical courts and kashrut commissars, could export a dayan or three to conduct a mission among the Jews of Germany. Better still, if I were Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, returning to London to resuscitate Yakar, I would make my first priority the establishment of links and exchanges with Berlin and the hub of our European future.

Related file: Ignatz Bubis, A Memoir, written for Action Report in 1997 while he was still alive


Daily Telegraph,
London, September 15, 1999

Schröder tribute to Bubis

CHANCELLOR Schröder paid tribute yesterday to the German Jewish leader Ignatz Bubis at his official memorial service in Frankfurt.

"His death is a painful loss for the whole of society," Mr Schröder said. "He was a moral authority and an advocate on behalf of minorities and the persecuted." The service was also attended by Mr Bubis's widow, Ida, German presidents, past and present, Jewish leaders and more than 1,000 other mourners.

Mr Bubis, who lost most of his close family in the Holocaust, died last month aged 72.--Andrew Gimson, Berlin

For an honest view of Herr Bubis: The Jewish Chronicle, London, September 3, 1999

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