About Leo Baeck
Leo Baeck (23 May 1873 – 2 November 1956) was a 20th century German-Polish-Jewish Rabbi, scholar, and a leader of Progressive Judaism. He became a spiritual symbol in Theresienstadt, as leader to thousands of Jews from all parts of Nazi-occupied Europe.
Baeck was born in Lissa (Leszno) (then in the German Province of Posen, now in Poland), the son of Rabbi Samuel Baeck, and began his education at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau in 1894. He also studied philosophy in Berlin with Wilhelm Dilthey, served as a rabbi in Oppeln, Düsseldorf, and Berlin, and taught at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Higher Institute for Jewish Studies).
In 1905 Baeck published The Essence of Judaism, in response to Adolf von Harnack's The Essence of Christianity. This book, which interpreted and valorized Judaism through a prism of Neo-Kantianism tempered with religious existentialism, made him a famous proponent for the Jewish people and their faith.
During World War I, Baeck was an army chaplain in the German Imperial Army. In 1933, after the Nazis seized power, Baeck worked to defend the Jewish community as president of the Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden, an umbrella organization that united German Jewry from 1933-1938. After the Reichsvertretung was disbanded during the November Pogrom, the Nazis reassembled the council's members under the government controlled Reichsvereinigung.
His tenure was not free from criticism, as some regarded his decision to cooperate with the murderous Nazis as foolish, as Jews provided an orderly way to be brought to their own deaths, and Jews even helped apprehend other Jews. Leo Baeck headed this organization as its president until his deportation in January 1943
On 27 January 1943, he was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he was one of many illustrious lecturers. Topics of his lectures (translated here) include "Typology and Method in Spiritual Science and Philosophy," "The Messianic Idea," and "The Problem of Body and Soul." After the camp was liberated by the Russians in May 1945, he became the Jewish figurehead as the Elder of the Jews.
Leo Baeck did not play a decisive role in the Jewish administration of the ghetto until its last days. Yet he never ceased to be a symbol to and a leader of the Jews imprisoned in Theresienstadt. In Berlin, he had been a leader of the German Jews; in Theresienstadt, he became a spiritual leader and symbol, leader to thousands of Jews from all parts of Nazi-occupied Europe.
Up until his deportation, numerous American institutions offered to help him escape the war and immigrate to America. Leo Baeck refused to abandon his community in the camps and declined the offers.
Post-war Life and Work
After the war, Baeck relocated to London, where he accepted the Presidency of the North Western Reform Synagogue in Temple Fortune. He taught at Hebrew Union College in America, and eventually became Chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. It was during this time he published his second great work, This People Israel, which he partially penned during his imprisonment by the Nazis.
In 1955, the Leo Baeck Institute for the study of the history and culture of German-speaking Jewry was established, and Baeck was the first international president of this institute. The asteroid 100047 Leobaeck is named in his honour, as is Leo Baeck College, the Reform/Progressive rabbinical college in London.
He died on 2 November 1956, in London, England and has seven living descendants, a granddaughter, a great-grandson, and five great-great-grandchildren (four great-great-grandsons and one great-great-granddaughter.) His daughter and great-grandson are deceased.