Holocaust survivor Paul Spiegel, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, died on Sunday aged 68 after a long illness, the council said.
Spiegel had since 2000 headed the council, which represents some 100,000 Jews in the country that once tried to wipe them out.
In a statement, the council announced “with great mourning” that Spiegel had died early on Sunday in Duesseldorf. It said he had been suffering from leukemia.
Chancellor Angela Merkel was saddened by Spiegel’s death, her office said.
“The late president of the Central Council of the Jews was an impressive personality, who campaigned with great passion and all his energy for a good future for the Jewish community in Germany,” Merkel’s office added in a statement.
Spiegel signed an accord in January 2003 with Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, which gave the council the same legal status as the country’s main churches and annual government support of 3 million euros, or $3.76 million.
Spiegel was, like his late predecessor Ignatz Bubis, a successful businessman who stuck with Germany despite its past.
He survived the Holocaust after his mother found a family of Christian Belgian farmers who agreed to look after her three-year-old son as one of their own.
The Spiegel family had fled across the border from their home in neighboring Westphalia in 1939 to escape the Nazi terror in Germany. But the following year it caught up with them when Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg overran Belgium.
Spiegel was hidden on the farm by his mother, who also survived the war hiding in Brussels. But his father Hugo, a prosperous livestock merchant before the war, and his teenage sister Rosa were seized by the Gestapo secret police.
Rosa was never seen again but Hugo Spiegel survived five years in concentration camps at Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Dachau. When he returned to his home near Bielefeld in 1945, he was one of the rare surviving German Jews who did not decide to emigrate to the new Israel, the United States or elsewhere.
Paul Spiegel said it was the actions of his father’s German neighbors -- he found they had risked their lives to conceal and preserve sacred texts from the local synagogue -- that persuaded him Germany was still “home”.
His own career began as a journalist for the main German Jewish newspaper, the Allgemeine Juedische Wochenzeitung, before he went on to become spokesman for a banking group.
He later set up in business as a theatrical agent and represented some of Germany’s most popular entertainers.