Jun 2001 Journal

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Profile - Arnold Paucker

Later this year, the youthful and energetic Arnold Paucker (he celebrated his 80th birthday this year) bids farewell to the desk he has occupied for forty-two years as Director of the Leo Baeck Institute, where he has presided since the Institute’s foundation in 1959. The farewell ceremonials will undoubtedly be the occasion for reminiscence by him and others on a rich and eventful life which began in Berlin in 1921.

Arnold Paucker was born to assimilated parents living in Berlin’s Charlottenburg. The expected pattern of education - Gymnasium and university - was not to be; in 1935, he was forced to leave school. It was only sixteen years later that he was able to continue where he left off, attending evening classes in Birmingham to qualify for university. In 1931, in keeping with his assimilated upbringing, Arnold joined the DRPB, a non-Jewish, Republican youth movement disbanded by the Nazis in the summer of 1933. So it was that when he emigrated to Palestine in 1936, two farewell parties were given for him: one by his Jewish Werkleute friends and the other by Gentile colleagues (in uniform!) who had joined the Hitler Youth.  He recalls acceding to a request to sing the International in Hebrew and despite forgetting some of the words, making the right-sounding noises; his audience was none the wiser!

At the age of twelve, the politicised young Arnold advised his liberal parents to vote for the Social Democrats. During the year which followed – most memorably on 30 January 1933 - he witnessed the frenzied crowds cheering the torchlit parades along Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm celebrating the Nazi seizure of power.

Italian love affairs

Arnold was fifteen when he emigrated to Palestine with his Jewish youth group, not to a kibbutz for training - the norm - but to Ben Shemen, a school having much in common with Kurt Hahn’s Salem and AS Neill’s Summerhill. As an agricultural education establishment, it offered little to Arnold who “abandoned any form of school attendance…and evolved a course of reading to suit myself” during his three years as a student there. Thereafter he spent two years in Jerusalem, working where he could and attending occasional lectures – including those of Martin Buber - as an unregistered student at the Hebrew University. In 1941, he volunteered for the British Army (Royal Engineers), regarding it as his duty to fight against Nazism. He served in the Middle East until 1943 when he was posted to Italy where he remained until 1946, having witnessed the liberation of Northern Italy. His stay in the country contributed in two major ways to his future life: it instilled in him a love of Italy and its culture. But most importantly, he met his future wife Pauline whilst in Florence.

Marrying an English girl meant that Arnold came to live in England where at the age of 30, for two years, working as an export clerk in Birmingham during the day, he studied and took exams to gain entrance to university. It was the beginning of an anglicisation process which included an expertise in tea-making! In 1953 the mature student Arnold entered the German Department at Birmingham University to read German. Ironically, it was this that resulted in Arnold’s first return to Germany since leaving in 1936, namely to fulfil a compulsory requirement to spend one term in the country whose language was the subject of study.

Working with Weltsch

Having attained a First, Arnold went on to Nottingham University to undertake a research degree choosing, for his doctoral thesis, a comparative study of the transfer of German Volksbücher to the Yiddish of the German ghettos. He sees this as the point at which he understood the importance of a broader study of Jewish history. He obtained his doctorate in 1959 and, in the same year, became the first Director of the Leo Baeck Institute, at that time located in north London and relocated the same year to its present home above the Wiener Library. He worked with the Chairman of the Leo Baeck Institute, Robert Weltsch, revered former editor of the Zionist Jüdische Rundschau, who “taught me my trade as editor and initiated me into recent German-Jewish history.” From 1970, he took over the editorship of the Institute’s Year Book, the flagship publication which has gained the Institute enormous academic respect. Throughout his tenure, Arnold Paucker has lectured and written extensively and has held visiting professorships in Germany, most recently at Potsdam University which awarded him an honorary doctorate in philosophy in 1996.

His retirement from the Institute will not mean severing the ties. He will spend the next few months handing over to the new Director and will continue to serve on advisory committees. With a bit more time to spare, he can now devote more time to collecting and cataloguing his large collection of antiquarian books.
Marion Koebner

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