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Ignatz Bubis; Holocaust Survivor Headed Jewish Council in Germany

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ignatz Bubis, a Holocaust survivor who returned to his native Germany to champion tolerance and lead fellow Jews through times of conflict and resurgence, died at a Frankfurt hospital Friday after a short illness. He was 72.

Bubis’ tenure as president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany over the last seven years coincided with the community’s stunning growth from 30,000 to nearly 100,000, as the ranks devastated by Nazi atrocities were swelled by the arrival of newly liberated Jews from Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Bloc.

But in an interview last month in the weekly magazine Stern, Bubis lamented the current state of tension and distrust between Jews and Germans and expressed fear that the country is too eager to erase memories of the Holocaust.

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“Everyone in Germany feels responsible for Schiller, for Goethe and for Beethoven, but no one feels responsible for [Nazi ideologue Heinrich] Himmler,” Bubis told the magazine, contending that his work as a Jewish leader had achieved “almost nothing.”

But German leaders spoke with one voice in grief over his passing and in praise of his contributions to the postwar era.

“In Ignatz Bubis, our country loses an eminent personality who worked, as few others have, so that his fellow Jewish citizens could once again imagine a future in Germany,” Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in a statement. “Despite the suffering inflicted upon him and his family by the Nazis, he fought tirelessly for reconciliation and development of the Jewish community in Germany.”

Bubis lost most of his family in the Holocaust. His father was killed at Treblinka, and his sister and brother fled to Soviet-occupied Poland. He never saw them again. His mother died in the family’s apartment in 1940.

“Ignatz Bubis contributed with indefatigable strength to making the shadow of the past smaller,” Schroeder’s spokesman, Uwe-Karsten Heye, told ARD television.

President Johannes Rau said Bubis had fought for reconciliation so that “the shadows of German history did not extend into the future.”

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But it was precisely those efforts by Germans to step out of the shadows of the Nazi era that worried Bubis and propelled him to the center of a bitter debate about how much remembrance and remorse is enough.

Last autumn, during events commemorating the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” that signaled the start of the Holocaust on Nov. 9, 1938, Bubis vehemently denounced noted writer Martin Walser for his comments that Germans were wallowing in guilt over the Nazi era and letting the crimes of past generations be used as a cudgel against them.

Bubis responded by observing with regret that anti-Semitism was becoming increasingly prevalent in Germany despite more than half a century of efforts to destroy it.

“Right-wing extremists used to come from the lower classes, but now there are also intellectuals in their ranks,” he said, in a clear slap at Walser.

Bubis was born Jan. 12, 1927, in what is now the Polish city of Wroclaw and was then the German city of Breslau. He spent much of the war years in the Deblin and Czestochowa labor camps, from which he was liberated at age 18 by the Soviet army. He moved to Frankfurt and worked as a jeweler before getting into real estate, where he prospered in the booming market spawned by Germany’s postwar “economic miracle.”

Bubis’ moral authority as one of the few Jews to survive the Holocaust and return to Germany accorded him a prominent role in negotiations over government compensation to Nazi victims, including the ongoing talks about restitution for tens of thousands of slave laborers conscripted by Adolf Hitler.

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Bubis had voiced support for building a national Holocaust memorial in this newly restored capital of reunified Germany but had also appealed for dignified reconstruction of other sites commemorating those who died at the hands of the Nazis.

Many of Germany’s former concentration camp memorials have fallen into disrepair, especially those in what used to be East Germany. The Communist authorities who ruled for more than four decades after fascism was vanquished often cast their supporters, not Jews, as the primary victims of the Nazis.

Bubis defended his decision to return to Germany after the war as a necessary sacrifice for social justice. “If all Jews had left Germany, Hitler would have been proved right,” he told interviewers.

Gary Greenebaum, Western regional director of the American Jewish Committee, said he first met Bubis in Germany and later introduced him when Bubis spoke at the Town Hall in Los Angeles five years ago.

“He was a very thoughtful, outspoken, straightforward man who represented the Jewish community in Germany very, very well,” Greenebaum said. “It was not an easy position to be the main spokesman for the Jewish community in Germany. He was considered in many ways a conscience of the country. Whenever there was any sort of hate crime against anyone--not just Jewish people--the media went to him for his opinion.”

Although Bubis chose to spend his life in Germany, he asked to be buried in Israel for fear that his resting place would become a target for right-wing extremists, as has been the case for his predecessor, Heinz Galinski. Bubis will be interred in Jerusalem on Sunday, Israeli Radio announced.

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The marble memorial for Galinski, who died in 1992 and was buried in Berlin’s Tiergarten park, was damaged by a bomb blast in December that authorities suspect was the work of neo-Nazis. No one has been arrested in the incident.

Bubis, a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party in Germany for 30 years, is survived by his wife, Ida, and their daughter, Naomi.

Times staff writer Henry Weinstein in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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