Alexandre Safran

Ousted Chief Rabbi of Romania
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Alexandru Safran (Alexandre Safran), rabbi: born Bacau, Romania 12 September 1910; Chief Rabbi of Romania 1940-47; Chief Rabbi of Geneva 1948-2006; married 1936 Sarah Reinharz (deceased; one son, one daughter); died Geneva 27 July 2006.

As the great and the good of Romania's million-strong Jewish community gathered in the choral synagogue in Bucharest one Sunday in March 1940, few could have realised the enormity of the responsibility they were placing on the shoulders of Alexandru Safran. Installed as the country's chief rabbi, he was just 29, the youngest chief rabbi in the world.

As such he became ex officio a member of the Senate, despite being below the required age of 40, and his inaugural parliamentary speech that month drew prolonged applause - to his abiding surprise. Yet, within months, the diminutive and scholarly Safran was having to fight for the community's very survival.

Safran had been born in Bacau in northern Romania to a distinguished rabbi who brought him up to follow in his footsteps. After completing school in the town he went to Vienna University, gaining a doctorate in 1933. But soon after his return his father died, and the young Safran took up the role of Bacau's rabbi when only just 23.

After the death in 1939 of Romania's chief rabbi, Jacob Nemirower, Safran's wife Sarah persuaded him to allow himself to be nominated. Safran was certain his election was due to the respect for his late father.

When the Fascist Iron Guard seized power in September 1940, latent anti-Semitism soon turned into physical attacks on Jews and Jewish property. Safran needed all his powers of persuasion and pleading to try to mitigate these attacks. During a pogrom in Bucharest in January 1941, the Iron Guard seized and threatened Sarah as they sought to track down her husband. Carrying his daughter Esther in his arms, Safran hunted feverishly for her. As news spread of their disappearance, his and his wife's deaths were reported on Soviet-controlled Radio Czernowitz. But the relieved couple was reunited two days later.

Refusing to emigrate to British-controlled Palestine, Safran was among the senior Jewish leaders arrested in July 1941 after Romania entered the Second World War. Safran again used all his diplomatic skills to have them freed, telling the Bucharest police chief they would be "official hostages" for their community's good behaviour. Safran lobbied the Orthodox Patriarch Nicodim (whom he remembered as a "grim, ruthless old man of the anti-Semitic priesthood") in his successful campaign to have the Yellow Star badge abolished soon after its introduction.

In December 1941 all Jewish organisations were abolished, and Safran helped set up a Jewish Council which worked underground. Despite the dangers, he lobbied tirelessly to try to prevent successive waves of deportations of Jews to the death camps. He worked closely with the Vatican nuncio Andrea Cassulo, sympathetic members of the royal family and even the dictator Ion Antonescu's wife.

"In my contacts with the Jewish public during those alarming times," Safran recalled later,

I tried to maintain a balance between my duty not to hide the cruel reality from them and my wish to inspire faith and hope in their grieving hearts.

When a government-controlled Centre for Romanian Jewry was set up in 1942, its leader ousted Safran from his office. By the time of the Soviet invasion of autumn 1944, only half the country's Jews were still alive. That so many had survived was testament to Safran's tenacity. "The first Passover after the liberation was a true celebration of freedom," he later recalled. The Soviet deputy foreign minister Andrei Vyshinsky received him in Bucharest that November. The violinist Yehudi Menuhin brought great encouragement to the traumatised community when he visited Bucharest's choral synagogue and Safran's home in 1946.

But Safran soon realised that one dictatorship was being exchanged for another and was thinking hard about the future. "We realised the ineluctable necessity of an independent Jewish state," he recalled, but found the British mission in Bucharest hesitant about mass emigration of the surviving community to a troubled Palestine.

Safran had a brief respite from his community's woes in summer 1947, when pioneering Christians and Jews gathered in the idyllic Swiss village of Seelisberg to overcome centuries of mistrust and the traumatic wartime legacy.

On his return to Bucharest, Safran could see his days there were numbered, especially after the Communist authorities had established a "Democratic Jewish Community". In December 1947 - for the second time in his life - he was ousted from his office and his home and forced into exile with his wife and children. He would not see Romania again for 50 years. With government backing, the controversial Moses Rosen usurped his place as chief rabbi.

After fleeing Romania, Safran went to Switzerland, where he already had friends. The Jewish community in Geneva soon elected him chief rabbi. In 1961, as Alexandre Safran, he took Swiss citizenship.

In the late 1940s, Safran had travelled to the United States, where he met Albert Einstein at Princeton University (Einstein gave him a photograph of himself with a personal dedication, which Safran kept on his desk).

As well as his duties at the synagogue in Geneva, Safran taught at the city's university and published a stream of works, mostly on the Kabbalah. A chair of Kabbalah studies was inaugurated in his honour at Israel's Bar Ilan University in 1980, the year of his 70th birthday.

Safran was an early pioneer of Jewish-Christian relations, building on the contacts forged at Seelisberg. He maintained warm relations with Cardinal Augustin Bea, the leading Catholic advocate of better interfaith relations. Indeed, Bea travelled to Geneva to consult him many times during the Second Vatican Council.

In meetings with Pope John Paul II in 1984 and 1985, Safran urged the Vatican to establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel (something not achieved until 1993). Safran's book Israël dans le temps et dans l'espace: thèmes fondamentaux de la spiritualité juive (1980; translated as Israel in Time and Space: essays on basic themes in Jewish spiritual thought, 1987) was well received by the Dominican theologian Yves Congar and the Archbishop of Marseilles, Roger Etchegaray.

Influenced by currents in Christian and secular thinking, Safran published in 1997 a collection of his earlier essays on ethical principles in Judaism (Esquisse d'une éthique religieuse juive), seeking to move beyond the Ten Commandments and the book of Leviticus to find inspiration in the work of Talmudic scholars. In 1987, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem published Resisting the Storm, Safran's memoirs of his time as Romania's chief rabbi.

Safran also took initiatives in the political world, intervening during Israel's wars in the 1970s to try to gain better treatment for captured Israeli prisoners of war in Egypt and Syria.

Despite his tumultuous life, Safran remained pre-eminently a scholar, working right up till his death. Asked once if he was preparing another book, he responded with a smile: "I'm always working on a new book."

Felix Corley