- Leo Baeck (1873-1956), German liberal rabbi and leader of German Jewry. Born in Lissa, Germany, Baeck was the son of Rabbi Samuel and Eva (Placzek) Baeck. He received both a traditional Jewish upbringing and a humanistic gymnasium education. In 1891 Baeck began his rabbinical studies at the Juedische Theologische Seminar [Jewish Theological Seminar] in Breslau and enrolled in the philosophy seminar at the University of Breslau. Baeck transferred to the University of Berlin in 1894, where the following year he completed his doctoral dissertation on Spinoza under the direction of philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. Baeck also completed his rabbinical studies at the Lehranstalt fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums [School for the Scientific Study of Judaism] in Berlin, and was ordained in 1885. He was then appointed rabbi of a congregation in Oppeln, where he met and married Nathalie Hamburger. In 1905 Baeck published the work that established his reputation as the leading representative of liberal Judaism in Germany, "The Essence of Judaism". The book was written in response to Protestant theologian Adolf von Harnack's characterization of Judaism in "The Essence of Christianity". In 1912 Baeck became rabbi of the new Fasanenstrasse synagogue in Berlin, where he also joined the faculty of the liberal rabbinical seminary, the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums. During WWI Baeck served as an army chaplain on both the eastern and western fronts. His experiences with soldiers in battle convinced him of the necessity for Jewish-Christian dialogue. After the war Baeck returned to Berlin where he took on numerous leadership roles, serving as liaison between the Berlin Jewish community and the Prussian provincial and Weimar national governments. As chairman of the Union of German Rabbis, Baeck played a central role in fostering cooperation between the orthodox and liberal wings of German Jewry. In 1924 Baeck was elected president of Bnai Brith. He was also a member of the governing boards of the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbuerger juedischen Glaubens [Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith], the major Jewish self-defense organization, and the Zentralwohlfahrtsstelle der deutschen Juden [Central Welfare Agency of German Jews]. He served, as well, as the non-Zionist member of the executive boards of the Jewish Agency for Palestine and the Jewish National Fund. On September 17, 1933 Baeck became the president of the Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden [National Representation of German Jews], the council mandated by the Nazis. Through the Reichsvertretung and its successor organization, the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland, Baeck facilitated the emigration of approximately one third of the Jewish population of Germany, and organized educational and welfare services for those who were unable to leave the country. Despite many opportunities to emigrate, Baeck refused to abandon his fellow German Jews, and remained in the country until the dissolution of the Reichsvereinigung and his deportation to Theresienstadt in June 1943. After his liberation from Theresienstadt in May 1945, Baeck refused to return to Germany. Instead he settled in London, where he founded the Institute for Research on the History of Jewry in Germany since the Enlightenment. In 1945-1946 Baeck served as president of both the Council of Jews from Germany and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. From 1948 until his death he taught in Europe and the United States, most notably as a member of the faculty of the Hebrew Union College reform rabbinical seminary in Cincinnati. Leo Baeck died on November 2, 1956 in London. After his death the research institute he founded in London was renamed the Leo Baeck Institute. Headquartered today in New York, with branches in London and Jerusalem, the LBI is the major archive for the history of German Jewry.
Norbert Wollheim (1913-1998), German Jewish social welfare worker, who administered the Kindertransport program; postwar leader of Jewish DPs in the British zone of Germany; and Auschwitz survivor who won a lawsuit against the I.G. Farben corporation. Wollheim was born in Berlin on April 26, 1913. During his youth he attended public school and was active in the German Jewish Youth Alliance until its dissolution by the Nazis in 1935. Intending to become a lawyer, Wollheim began law school in 1931. However, before he could complete his degree legislation was enacted barring Jews from the study of law. Instead, Wollheim went to work at a Jewish-owned, import-export business, hoping to make contacts that would provide him a way out of Germany. His main focus of activity, however, was social welfare work for the Jewish community. In the mid-1930s Wollheim became involved in organizing groups of Jewish youth to attend summer camps in nearby Denmark and Sweden. Shortly after Kristallnacht, he was asked by the leadership of the Jewish community (Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden) to administer the new Kindertransport program, a plan to send thousands of children (mostly Jewish) from Nazi controlled central Europe to the United Kingdom. He was responsible for the application process, communication with parents, reserving special trains and finding escorts for the transports. He met with each group at the train station and personally escorted many to Britain, before returning to Germany to organize the next transport. In all, Wollheim arranged for over 7,000 Jewish children on 20 transports to reach safety in the U.K. The last Kindertransport left Berlin on August 29, 1939. Wollheim did not accompany this group fearing that if war broke out, he would be separated from his family. Both of his parents remained in Berlin. In addition, he had a young wife, whom he had married in 1938, and a baby born the following year. After the start of the war, Wollheim continued to work for the Jewish leadership body (now renamed the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland) as the administrator of its vocational school. In 1941 he severed his relationship with the Reichsvereinigung and reported for forced labor. Wollheim's parents were rounded-up for deportation in December 1942. Though his father had been decorated with the Iron Cross for military service in World War I, he received no exemption, and both were sent to the gas chambers after their arrival in Auschwitz. Four months later in the last major deportation action in Berlin, Wollheim and his family were arrested and taken to the Grosse Hamburger Strasse assembly center. On March 11, 1943 they, too, were deported to Auschwitz in a transport of over 1,000 Jews, only six of whom survived the war. Wollheim, his pregnant wife and his three-year-old child squeezed into a car with one hundred other people, including several friends from his youth group. Since it was Friday night, they sang Hebrew songs, and one woman lit Sabbath candles. The following day they arrived in Auschwitz, where Wollheim's wife and child were immediately gassed. Wollheim was selected for forced labor. Claiming experience as a welder, he was sent to the Buna synthetic rubber plant at Auschwitz III (Monowitz), where he was put to work in construction. In Monowitz, Wollheim befriended a group of British POWs who shared their Red Cross parcels with him and relayed news of the war gleaned from BBC broadcasts. When Auschwitz was evacuated on January 18, 1945, Wollheim was put on a forced march to Gleiwitz. From there, the members of the evacuation transport were loaded without provisions on a train that traveled to Czechoslovakia, Austria, back to Czechoslovakia, and finally to Germany. Of the 6,000 prisoners who began the trip only 2,000 remained alive when the train arrived in Berlin on January 31. They were then taken to Heinkel, a satellite camp of Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg. During the bombing of Berlin on April 20, the camp was evacuated and the prisoners were marched out under SS guard. On the night of May 2, Wollheim fled to nearby Schwerin, where he met up with American troops. Not wanting to return to Soviet-controlled Berlin, Wollheim went to Luebeck, where he helped to organize a community of 800 Jewish DPs. After hearing that 30,000 survivors were living in nearby Bergen-Belsen, he arranged a visit. He met with DP camp leader Joseph Rosensaft, and together they organized the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone, a democratically elected body in which Rosensaft served as chairman and Wollheim as vice-chairman. Wollheim subsequently remarried a German Jewish survivor who had belonged to his youth movement. They resided in Luebeck where they had two children. Wollheim continued to serve in a leadership role until his immigration to the United States in 1952. In 1953 he won a lawsuit against the I.G. Farben corporation for compensation for his two years of forced labor at the Buna plant in Auschwitz III (Monowitz). This legal decision paved the way for the establishment of a $6.4 million fund to compensate other Nazi-era slave laborers. Wollheim died on November 1, 1998.