Leo Baeck

Theologian who stressed the ethical center of Judaism.

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Baeck was appointed honorary president of the camp's Ältestenrat--the Jewish Council of Elders. He strove to preserve the humanity of those around him and ministered to Jewish and Christian inmates alike. Baeck took every opportunity to continue his work as a rabbi and scholar, discussing philosophy with fellow prisoners as his garbage cart progressed through the camp. In the evenings hundreds of people would crowd into a small barracks to hear Baeck lecturing from memory on the classics of western humanism--Herodotus, Plato, and Kant. When Baeck received word of the fate of millions of Jews in the extermination camps, he made the decision--criticized after the war--not to share this knowledge: "Living in the expectation of death by gassing would be all the harder. And this death was not certain for all...So I came to the grave decision to tell no one."

Following the liberation of Theresienstadt in May 1945, Baeck prevented the camp's inmates from killing the guards handed over to them by the Russians, and then stayed on to minister to the sick and the dying. Finally, he travelled on to London where he eventually served as chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. He also lectured periodically at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Leo Baeck survived the war with his worldview intact. He interpreted the Holocaust as a failure of human morality which only served to underline his ethical commitment and his faith that "the way to our humanity does not lead away from our Judaism, it leads through our Judaism."

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.