January 12, 1927, is the birthdate of Ignatz Bubis, a Holocaust survivor who returned to Germany after World War II, where he became a spokesman and leader of the Jewish remnant there. Bubis remained ambivalent about the place he called home, and it was ambivalent about him too. But on the whole, he was respected for being an energetic defender against manifestations of anti-Semitism, and for standing up as well for the human rights of other minorities.
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Ignatz Bubis was born in Breslau, Germany (today Wroclaw, Poland). His father, Jehoshua Josef Bubis, worked in the shipping industry; his mother was the former Hanna Bronspiegel.
In 1935, after the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany, the family sought safety by moving eastward, into Poland, to the town of Deblin. In September 1939, however, the Germans occupied the strategically important city, and a year later established a ghetto there.
Hanna Bubis died of cancer in December 1940, and two of Ignatz’s older siblings disappeared into Soviet-occupied Poland. The rest of the family was confined to the Deblin ghetto, before being deported to Treblinka, in late 1942, where they died.
Coffee trafficking charges
Ignatz, however, remained in the ghetto until 1944, when he was sent to work in a munitions factory at the Czestochowa labor camp.
Bubis, his family’s sole survivor, was liberated from Czestochowa by the Red Army in January 1945. He began supporting himself by trading between the countries now occupied by the Soviet Union and Berlin. When, in 1949, the Russians accused him of illegal trafficking in coffee, Bubis fled to the city’s western zone.
There he began trading in gold, and also became a jewelry importer.
In 1953, he married Ida Rosenmann. When the couple, who had one daughter, moved from Berlin to Frankfurt-am-Main, in 1956, Ignatz began investing in real estate, while Ida took over the family jewelry business.
Bubis became rich as a speculator and developer in the boom years of the German Miracle, and he became involved and influential in the politics of both Frankfurt and Hesse state. He earned his share of enemies too, as he was seen as profiting from the gentrification and development of neighborhoods formerly inhabited by working people and students.
The 'Rich Jew'
It was perhaps inevitable that some of the criticism of Bubis had an anti-Semitic tone to it – or at least that it was perceived as having such a tone by Bubis himself and other Jews.
The most dramatic example of this was the play “Garbage, the City and Death,” by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which featured a character called the “Rich Jew,” whom many assumed was based on Bubis. The night of its planned premiere, in 1985, a group of some 30 Jews, including Bubis, “occupied” the stage of the Kammerspiel Theater and prevented the show from going on.
What transpired instead, that evening, was a three-hour (peaceful) discussion between members of the audience and of the theater company, about the play and its place in post-Holocaust Germany. In the end, the play was never staged.
Bubis, who also had real estate interests in Israel and in pre-revolutionary Iran, headed the Frankfurt Jewish community from 1978 until his death, in 1999. From 1992, also until his death, he was chairman and later president of the Central Committee of Jews in Germany.
With the doubling of the Jewish population of Germany during the 1990s, Bubis’ profile grew, and he became an outspoken advocate not only for Jewish interests, but also against discrimination against other minority groups, including Sinta (Gypsies) and Turks.
Though overall, Bubis was optimistic, and believed strongly in the place of Jews in post-war Germany, in his final years, he sometimes expressed despair. Shortly before his death, he told Stern magazine that Jews could not live freely in Germany, and that, “I have achieved nothing.” He also declared his intention to be buried in Israel.
After his death, on August 13, 1999, at age 72, Bubis’ body was indeed flown to Israel for burial in Jerusalem. Even then, the controversy did not end. During the funeral ceremony, a German-Jewish artist who later told journalists that Bubis was a “bad man” who “exploited his Jewishness,” poured black paint into his open grave.