Paul Spiegel, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, died early on Sunday, aged 68, after a long battle with illness, the council said.
Paul Spiegel was considered a strong moral and conciliatory voice in Germany
"The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dr Paul Spiegel, died in the early hours of this morning, aged 68, in Düsseldorf after a long, hard illness," the council said in a statement. It added that he had been suffering from leukaemia.
Spiegel, who served as the vice president of the Central Council of Jews since 1993, took over the top post in 1999 after the death of Ignatz Bubis. He thus served as the highest political and religious representative for the estimated 110, 000 Jews in Germany including immigrants from the former Soviet Union, making it the third-largest Jewish community in western Europe.
"This is an almost indescribable loss," Stephan Kramer, the general secretary of the Central Council, told AFP. "Paul Spiegel was a builder of bridges who was well-respected beyond religious circles. He will be very difficult to replace."
Born on Dec. 31, 1937 in Warendorf in Münsterland in the German state of NorthRhine-Westphalia, Spiegel's family fled to Brussels to escape Nazi persecution. Spiegel went into hiding with a farmer's family in Flanders. His father survived the concentration camps of Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Dachau. Paul Spiegel's older sister, Rosa, was captured by the Nazis. The last known news of her was that she had been taken to the death camp of Bergen-Belsen. Paul Spiegel wrote about the events in his book "At Home Again?"
Spiegel's professional career began in 1958 as an editor with the Jewish newspaper Allgemeinen Jüdischen Wochenzeitung. From 1960 onwards, Spiegel worked as a political correspondent for a number of German and foreign newspapers. In 1973 and 1974, he worked as editor-in-chief of the magazine Mode und Wohnen or "Fashion and Living." For the next 12 years he worked as a public relations executive and entrepreneur. Spiegel was married and had two daughters.
A strong moral voice
As the President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Spiegel was known for his frank style. During the angry protests in the Muslim world triggered by a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper, Spiegel strongly criticized violence and at the same time urged "more sensibility for the religious feelings of Muslims." Spiegel also praised new German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying she had managed to "win back the faith of the people in the political leadership of the country."
Spiegel with Chancellor Merkel
On Sunday, Merkel paid warm tribute to Spiegel. "He spoke out when others stayed quiet. His commitment to moral courage, tolerance and mutual respect and his rejection of xenophobia and anti-Semitism set new standards," Merkel said in a statement.
German President Horst Köhler called Spiegel a "great German patriot."
"Our country has lost a man who made an important contribution to the communities living in Germany," Köhler said.
Indeed, Spiegel was a tireless proponent of the Jews in Germany and a strong moral voice, warning Germans of indifference and silent acceptance of anti-Semitism in the face of increasing far-right acts of violence and xenophobic attacks.
He urged Germans to give out "clear signals that the non-Jewish majority wants to have us and our Jewish communities in this country."
Spiegel signed an accord in January 2003 with then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder which gave the council the same legal status as the country's main churches and annual government support of 3 million euros.
The Central Council said it expected discussions about electing Spiegel's successor to begin after a month's mourning.