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Obituary: Ignatz Bubis

IGNATZ BUBIS was the leader of German Jewry; with his death has died much of Germany's conscience.

All the strange contradictions of post-war Germany came together in Bubis. He had survived the camps of the Holocaust in which most of his family had perished, and came back to Germany to affirm his belief that he was "a German citizen of the Jewish faith". He wanted to work for reconciliation, but only two weeks before his death stated in an interview in Stern magazine: "I have achieved nothing - or almost nothing." It was a statement criticised by both Jewish leaders and by German politicians, who expected positive statements from Bubis.

In one of his books, he described himself thus: "I am a European. I am a German. I am not an Israeli." Yet his last interview specified that he was to be buried in Israel. The grave of his predecessor Heinz Galinski had been bombed in December last year, and he was probably correct in assuming that the same would happen to his tombstone. His position ensured that he received much hate mail, in recent times no longer anonymous but signed.

When in 1992 Ignatz Bubis took over Galinski's role as the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, he became the best-known Jew in Germany. Most of the German papers this weekend carried the simple headline "Bubis is dead" and this sufficed: everyone knew who and what had been lost.

There had been a moment when Bubis was approached to run for the Presidency of Germany. He was wise enough to decline, since he felt that Germany was not yet ready to elect a Jew as its president. He could also assume that he might be assassinated before the votes were counted. One could compare him with Walter Rathenau in the 1920s, another wealthy industrialist, a "German and Jew" who became Germany's Foreign Minister, signed the "Rapallo Peace Treaty" in 1922 and was promptly assassinated. There were always bodyguards around Bubis, and it was strange to see him in London two years ago, addressing a group of Anglo-Jewish leaders at the German Embassy without a guard in sight. On that occasion, his speech, delivered in excellent English, was more hopeful.

Ignatz Bubis was born in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) in 1927, the seventh child of a shipping service official, Jehoshua Josef Bubis, and his wife Hanna. In 1935, the family moved across the border to Deblin in Poland to escape the Nazis. Later, that town became a ghetto and by 1942 his family was sent to Treblinka where his father and two brothers died; a sister and brother disappeared in Soviet Russia. His mother had died in 1940.

Bubis himself was sent to the Czestochowa work camp where many of the prisoners perished. As he noted, his own survival was only a matter of luck. He was freed by the Soviet army in January of 1945 and decided to return to Germany, settling in Frankfurt. Initially, he worked in the jewellery trade and then became a property developer.

In the period of the German "economic miracle", he prospered greatly. He became a target for anti-Semitic attacks as "a greedy Jew in the property market". Some assumed that Rainer Maria Fassbender's play Der Mull, die Stadt und der Tod ("Garbage, the City and Death") was directed against him. Bubis participated in getting the play banned in 1985.

By then, he had already become prominent as a fighter for minority groups - guest workers, Sinti-Roma (gypsies) and the new refugees from Eastern Europe. He involved himself in the reparations struggle for the slave workers whose rights had been ignored after the war. Bubis became a tireless public servant, and by the 1980s was the head of the Frankfurt Jewish community.

He was a traditionalist and felt little sympathy for a re-emerging Reform Jewish life. When Bea Wyler, the first Reform woman rabbi, was appointed in north Germany, Bubis wrote: "We in Frankfurt would never engage a woman as a rabbi - not as long as I have a say in the matter." When he became the head of the Central Council in 1992, he fought against the neo-Nazis and for the rights of the Jewish community with the same zeal as Galinski but in his own ruthless, more charming fashion.

He also served as the first German president of the European Jewish Congress. Basically, he was a conciliatory politician, who continued the ancient pattern of the relationship of the Jewish community to the German government through stadlanut (the stadlan was the leading Jew of the community representing them in private negotiations). During his leadership the German Jewish community increased to more than 80,000.

In the German community, Bubis was a member of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the liberal business-centred party, for almost 30 years. They urged him to run for political posts and he agreed to represent them on the Frankfurt City Council and became the president of the Hesse Radio Broadcasting Authority. As a friend of Helmut Kohl and of most German politicians including Chancellor Schroeder (but not the Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer who had been hostile to him in the early Frankfurt days) Bubis achieved many of the goals for a just society which he had set for himself.

His German identity showed itself in other ways, particularly in his sharing of all aspects of German culture - and as a passionate football fan. The victories of Germany's national football team gave him great joy; and Bubis had a friendship of many years with the long-time trainer of the team, Helmut Schon. Bubis had little time for a private life, but his wife Ida, whom he married in 1953, and his daughter, Naomi, gave him great support in times of loneliness.

Certainly, he stood alone through most of his life, under the shadows of the Holocaust which he could not forget. He was always exposed to attack, and it is unlikely that this will cease with his death. His memory will not be left undisturbed. When the novelist Martin Walser accepted the Frankfurt Book Fair Peace Prize in October 1998 with a disturbing speech, Bubis confronted him and asserted that the speech contained much unconscious anti-Semitism and supported Holocaust denial. This brought Bubis new enemies.

In public, Bubis generally appeared relaxed and cheerful, preferring to speak without a prepared text, relying upon his wits and encyclopaedic knowledge. Chancellor Schroeder spoke of Bubis as an untiring fighter for reconciliation who "made the shadows of the past grow smaller", of a great personality which made a Jewish future in Germany once again possible. The mayor of Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen, mourned "a personal friend and advisor"; and leaders of the Jewish community who recently attacked Bubis now publish paeans of praise.

One negative obituary from the Jewish scholar Julius Schoeps already indicates that the successor to Bubis can no longer be part of the German establishment, but must be totally and only Jewish. What will happen is open to question. Perhaps Ignatz Bubis was right: Germany was not ready for him.

Ignatz Bubis, community leader, businessman and politician: born Breslau, Germany 12 January 1927; married (one daughter); died Frankfurt, Germany 13 August 1999.