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Penetrating insight tempered by a profound awareness of human worth marked Leo Baeck as an intellectual and spiritual leader. Born in Germany in 1873, his rabbinic career paralleled the flowering of Jewish culture there.
The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Leo Baeck received both a traditional Jewish education and secular training in the Lissa Gymnasium. He continued his dual interest in Judaism and secular thought throughout his studies, and in 1897 received a rabbinical degree from the Hochshule and a doctorate from the University of Berlin.
Rabbi Baeck’s traditional rabbinical experience included tenures at the synagogue in Oppein, Silesia, and the larger synagogue in Dusseldorf. Before Hitler came to power, Baeck was widely respected both as the Rabbi of the Oranienburger Synagogue in Berlin and as one of the foremost Jewish scholars in Europe. No doubt, it was because of Rabbi Baeck’s international reputation that Hitler hesitated to destroy him.
Rabbi Baeck’s reputation and spirit were solely tried during the Nazi years when he served first as leader of the council of German Jews established by Hitler in 1933 and later in Thersienstadt as head of the Aeltestenrat, a council of elders. Both organizations were transparent shams created by the Nazis to suggest that Jewish autonomy existed in Hitler’s Germany. Although Rabbi Baeck was criticized by some for his cooperation with the Nazis in their attempts to mask their atrocities with the appearance of justice – he was nevertheless able to utilize the positions and his international reputation to promote prayers of protest and mobilized Jewish learning as a means of resistance to the Nazi effort to annihilate the Jews.
Rabbi Baeck refused several opportunities to flee Germany stating, “I will go when I am the last Jew alive in Germany.” For those who endured the Holocaust with him at Theresienstadt, Rabbi Baeck was a heroic model of the human capacity to rise above the most degrading experiences. Ignoring his own predicament, he dedicated himself to helping his people in their misery. He lectured to them secretly on Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Kant. Without telling them what was happening at Auschwitz and other death camps, he comforted them, preparing them to face death with composure.
True to his word, only after the last Jew had been cared for at Theresienstadt, did Rabbi Baeck go to live in London. Though physically scarred by his ordeal, he had survived and retained the resilient spirit that characterized his life. Until his death in 1956, he lectured in England, the Hebrew University in Israel and at the Hebrew Union College in the United States, the latter establishing his association with the Reform Movement of Judaism. The Liberal Jewish seminary in London is named after him.
The decency, compassion, and gentle manner of Rabbi Baeck radiate through his powerful teachings, reiterating his affirmation of life and serving as his timeless legacy to the temple that bears his name.