August 11th, 2005

Life

LEO BAECK (1873-1956) – A life devoted to religion and people

Rabbi Leo Baeck was one of the great intellectual figures of pre-war liberal German Jewry. He was born in Leszno (Poland) in 1873, the son of rabbi Dr Samuel Baeck and his wife Eva, and grew up there with four sisters. When he was 18, having received his first religious instruction from his strictly devout father, Leo Baeck left home for nearly Breslau (Wrocław) to begin training as a rabbi at the conservative Jewish TheologicalSeminary. From 1897 he continued his studies at the Academy for the Science of Judaism in Berlin, where he was ultimately appointed to the teaching staff. The liberal Academy was inspired in its educational approach by a desire to study and impart Judaism in its diverse manifestations. In parallel to this Leo Baeck worked as a rabbi in Oppeln (Düsseldorf) and from 1912 in Berlin. During the First World War he served on the western and eastern fronts as rabbi to the troops.

From 1919 to 1933 Baeck held various key functions in the Jewish Community in Berlin. He developed links with political representatives of the Weimar Republic and initiated discussion forums for Christians and Jews to encourage religious and cultural understanding between these two faiths in Germany. As Chairman of the German Association of Rabbis, Baeck also mediated between the orthodox and liberal wings.

In 1933, by now a reputed scholar, he was chosen to preside over the Reichsvertretung, the body that then represented Jews throughout the German Reich. During the Nazi regime he was the spiritual leader of German Jewry. In this capacity he undertook a number of journeys abroad to draw attention to the plight of Jews in the Third Reich. Although he had several opportunities to emigrate, Baeck remained with his community, preferring to help other Jews to leave the country. In 1943 he was deported to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt along with his family. There he preached and lectured untiringly to offer his fellows succour in their hopeless situation. Although severely ill-treated, he survived, finally emigrating to London in 1945.

In 1945 Leo Baeck became President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, henceforth working for reconciliation and dialogue between Jews and Christians. The resumption of talks was more important to him than punishing those who caused the genocide.

Apart from his representative functions, Baeck taught at several universities in Europe and the United States. In 1955 he became the first international president of the Leo Baeck Institute, which was named after him and set up to research into the history of Jews in German-speaking territories from the mid-18th century until the devastation wrought by National Socialism.

Leo Baeck died in London on 2 November 1956.