Germany honours 'rebuilder'

Peter Held (centre) with his wife, German Ambassador Georg Boomgaarden and his wife and Leipzig Mayor Burkhard Jung

Peter Held (centre) with his wife, German Ambassador Georg Boomgaarden and his wife and Leipzig Mayor Burkhard Jung

A man who left his German birthplace as a teenager to escape Nazi persecution has been honoured by its mayor 75 years later for helping to rebuild its Jewish life.

Peter Held, 88, was born in Leipzig and in 1936 celebrated his barmitzvah in the city's synagogue. But as life became increasingly difficult for the Jewish community, his parents that year sent him to live in Britain.

They followed two years later and the Leipzig Jewish community, which numbered 14,000 before the Nazis took power, totalled just 19 in 1945.

Mr Held made a life for himself in London, becoming a successful businessman, marrying and having four children.

In 1992, after the reunification of Germany, he returned to the city with one of his sons.

To escape the cold, they went inside the St Thomas Church, where a pastor, Christian Wolff, happened to be addressing the congregation about the links between Christianity and Judaism.

Mr Held and Pastor Wolff struck up a friendship and over the coming years worked together to revive local Jewish life, at one point hiring an opera singer to teach the growing Russian immigrant Jewish population how to run a shul service.

He also helped finance and secure political support for the restoration of the town's home for the Jewish elderly, which had been in a dire state after being occupied by both the Nazis and the Russians. He additionally backed the establishment of a Jewish cultural centre and was involved in the opening of a music school celebrating the work of Leipzig's most famous resident, Johann Sebastian Bach.

In recognition of more than two decades of service to Leipzig, he was given the city's golden badge of honour by Mayor Burkhard Jung at a ceremony at the German Embassy in London. He said that while his work in Leipzig had reminded him of some awful times, he wanted to make sure "it has a better future.

"Some of my experiences there were very unpleasant," added Mr Held, who said that visiting the site of the synagogue he had been barmitzvah in - destroyed during the war - was particularly emotional.

"But when I saw what Pastor Wolff was doing, I was so deeply touched. I thought if they could do this, I'm going to join in heavily."

As for the award, he said that "when you give something, you do it with your whole heart and soul and not for recognition.

"However, I'd be a liar if I said I didn't enjoy it very much."

    Last updated: 3:07pm, November 3 2011