Obituary: Heinz Galinski
Tuesday 21 July 1992
HEINZ GALINSKI, the pugnacious leader of the small but important German Jewish community, never sought popularity but won widespread respect for his unbending devotion to Jewish communal life.
The death of his first wife and his parents in the Holocaust and his own bitter experiences in Auschwitz coloured Galinski's entire adult life. At international Jewish gatherings he always spoke with deep feeling and a striking intensity, in German, admitting to an inability to speak English, which he had tried but failed to learn. To anyone less pugnacious this would have been a handicap when other Jewish leaders spoke fluent French or English, but he always managed to put across his point of view. Physically somewhat slight, he established himself as an unchallenged leader first of the West Berlin and then of all German Jewry.
He was exceptionally energetic and straightforward in his methods, and would not accept any half-measures or delay. But his tough leadership among the pitiful remnants of the German-Jewish community - once half a million strong, reduced to less than 30,000 by the end of the war - was probably necessary. He won admiration for his courage in denouncing a revived neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism.
The son of a German-Jewish businessman in what is now Poland, Heinz Galinski was sent by the Nazis to Auschwitz and Buchenwald but survived the horrors of the death camps. He was moved to Bergen-Belsen and it was there that he was freed at the end of the Second World War by the British army. His parents and his wife were less fortunate and were among the millions of Holocaust victims. He had gone to Berlin as a young man from his native town of Marienburg and experienced at first hand the rise of Nazism. His father, who had been wounded fighting for Germany in the First World War, died in a police station soon after his arrest by the Gestapo.
When Heinz Galinski emerged from the death camps, shattered and almost broken, he made a decision which most of his fellow Jews could not understand or appreciate. The vast majority of survivors either chose to leave, if given the opportunity, for liberal- minded Western countries, or for the new State of Israel. But Galinski decided to remain in Germany and help to rebuild the Jewish community.
He became head of the tiny Jewish community in West Berlin in 1949 and concentrated his efforts on ensuring that the few thousand Jews who survived should not be lost among the German population. He organised Jewish old peoples' homes; rabbis and cantors were trained to lead the congregations in prayer and provide spiritual leadership. These methods, which preserved the Jewish communities, resembled those of Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen in Romania, who had an even harder task because he had to work with a Communist government, while Galinski had a co- operative German administration always apprehensive that it would be accused of insensitivity to the Jewish Holocaust survivors.
Both Galinski and Rosen were occasionally criticised by Zionists who felt that there was no place for Jews in Germany or Romania. But both men in the end received tributes from Israeli leaders for their foresight and devotion.
When he took over the leadership of the National Council of Jews in Germany, after a crisis in its affairs, in 1988 - at the same time retaining his position in Berlin - Galinski spoke out fearlessly and with even greater authority about the dangers of a reviving neo-Nazism and Fascism. In 1975 he narrowly escaped a bomb attack from the extreme-left Red Army Faction who objected to his criticism of extremism whether on the right or the left, but the attack in no way affected his attitude.
Despite being a strong supporter of Israel, Galinski objected to the strictures uttered in 1981 by the then Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, against the German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, feeling that Begin was not being fair to the German leader. But he was very critical of the German government for what he saw as appeasement of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
When Germany was reunited in 1990 Galinski warned that a wave of radical rightist violence against foreigners could mean a return to widespread persecution in which the Jews would suffer. Germany, he insisted, should never be allowed to forget its crimes against humanity, though he also pleaded for understanding and reconciliation.
His work as a member of the Jewish Memorial Foundation helped ensure that Jewish communities world-wide did not forgo their cultural heritage, and his activities within the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany were vital in obtaining essential and rightful funds.
Determined that Germans, and particularly young Germans, should always be aware of the terrible crimes perpetrated by the German nation, he was glad that last January a national memorial was dedicated at the Wannsee Villa in Berlin, where Nazi leaders had held a conference 50 years before to plan the extermination of European Jewry. 'The voices are not yet stilled of those who want to minimise the crimes of the Nazi regime,' he said. The memorial has exhibits of documents from the conference and photographs of death camps. It is designed as a study centre to be visited by schoolchildren to combat neo- Nazi claims that the Holocaust did not occur.
In the death of Galinski, as Manfred Stolpe, the State Governor of Brandenburg, has said, Germany has lost 'one of the great witnesses of German history in the 20th century'.
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