W. Michael Blumenthal is the founding director of the Jewish Museum Berlin. He was born on January 3, 1926, in the town of Oranienburg near Berlin. In 1939 the Blumenthals, who were Jewish, fled persecution in Nazi Germany and emigrated to Shanghai. At the time, the Chinese port city had become an important refuge since other countries of exile that were more popular had begun tightening their entry regulations. These included the United States, Great Britain and British-administered Palestine (present-day Israel).
Two years after the war ended W. Michael Blumenthal immigrated to the US, and in 1952 he became an American citizen. He worked as an economics professor, author and manager of various companies. Between 1977 and 1979 he served as Secretary of the Treasury under US President Jimmy Carter of the Democratic Party.
In 1997 Blumenthal was invited by the city of Berlin to become director of the Jewish Museum Berlin. Until 2014 he played an important role in ensuring that the museum not only focuses on Berlin Jews, but also explores German Jewish history as a whole. He has attached special importance to reaching out to young people, kindling their interest in German Jewish history and thus strengthening their ability to think without bias.
Leo Baeck (1873-1956) played an important role for German Jewry and was a guiding figure for the persecuted and disenfranchised Jews during the National Socialist era.
Baeck was born in 1873 in the town of Lissa (in Poland, Leszno, which was ruled by Prussia at that time due to the second partition of Poland and was thus named Lissa). His father was a rabbi and Leo Baeck followed the same path, studying in Breslau and Berlin and graduating in 1895 with a thesis about the 17th century philosopher Baruch de Spinoza.
"The Essence of Judaism" is Baeck's most famous work, the first version of which was published in 1905. It is a systematic presentation of the Jewish religion created in response to the book "The Essence of Christianity" (1900), in which the influential Christian theologian Adolf von Harnack had denigrated Judaism as seamy and inferior.
In 1907, Baeck began to serve as a rabbi in Dusseldorf and in late 1912, the Jewish Community of Berlin appointed him rabbi where he remained in office for over thirty years. He lectured at the 'Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums' (College for Jewish Studies). During the First World War, he cared for Jewish German soldiers as military rabbi.
As one of the leading figures of German Jewry, respected by liberal and orthodox Jews alike, Leo Baeck held various high offices. In 1933, he was appointed president of the Reich Representation of German Jews. The Jewish communities had joined forces to create this association in the hope of being better able to defend their rights under the National Socialist regime.
Despite countless appeals and opportunities, Baeck refused to escape into exile. He helped others to leave Germany, but he himself remained and represented those who had no way of escaping. His wife Natalie died in 1937 and was buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Berlin-Weissensee. In January 1943, Leo Baeck was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp where he became a member of the prisoners' Council of Elders.
Leo Baeck survived the camp and went in 1945 after the liberation to London, to where his daughter had already emigrated in 1938. The "Council of Jews from Germany" appointed Baeck as its president. This union strove for the representation of Jews who fled Germany to different countries, so for example for the return of property that had been stolen or seized from Jews during the Nazi era.
In the postwar years, Baeck was firmly committed to encouraging dialogue between Jews and non-Jews and he gave numerous lectures in Germany. Federal President Theodor Heuss awarded him the Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1953. In 1955, he became the president of the institute named in his honor, the Leo Baeck Institute – a research institution with an archive on German Jewry. A branch of the archive can also be found at the Jewish Museum Berlin.
Leo Baeck died in London in 1956.