Théo Klein, former chairman of the World Jewish Congress affiliated Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (Crif) and a seminal figure of liberal Judaism in France, has passed away at the age of 99. Born on 25 June 1920 in Paris, Théo Klein was a great grandson of the former chief rabbi of Colmar, Salomon Klein, and became a leader of the Jewish Resistance in France during the Nazi occupation in 1942-1944.
Théo Klein served as chairman of Crif from 1983 to 1989, during which he pioneered the organization’s annual dinner, bringing together government officials from across the political spectrum, including high profile politicians such as the prime minister and president of the country. This dinner has become one of the most highly regarded political events in France, for both the Jewish community and the nation at large. During his tenure, Klein also established a new concept of dialogue with public authorities, to ensure that as president of Crif, he was able to speak on equal footing with high-level interlocutors. This concept has since become a model for public meetings for Jewish communities both in Europe and around the world.
Klein aspired to create a structured and independent European Jewish entity, which he believed was necessary for proper representation and unification of European Jewish communities. In 1986, he founded and served as chairman of the result of that vision: the European Jewish Congress. Klein also initiated the transfer of certain World Jewish Congress components to the Paris office, which once served as the European Branch of the World Jewish Congress.
Earlier in life, at the end of WWII, Klein also founded the Union of Jewish Students of France (UEJF). Klein later served as a member of World Jewish Congress Executive, as European Regional Chair.
As an accomplished lawyer in France and in Israel - and a bearer of dual citizenship for both countries - Klein was notably quoted as saying: "The place of my culture is France, the place of my spirituality is Israel."
Klein authored a number of books, including the 1991 edition on the Carmelite Affair of Auschwitz, an international conflict that erupted over the establishment of a convent on the grounds of the former Nazi death camp. In 1987, he initiated and organized Judeo-Catholic negotiations, with the goal of resolving this affair; this led to Klein later co-chairing, together with the Archbishop of Lyon Cardinal Decourtray, a series of bilateral negotiations.
In 1985, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Relations (IJCIC) froze all relations with the Holy See and Catholic Church, pending implementation of the Carmel transfer. In the subsequent years of discussions and meetings, Klein chaired the Jewish delegation, serving as a bridge between world Jewry and the Catholic Church to enable the development and execution of bilateral agreements and to move the Carmelite institution off of the Auschwitz grounds.
An agreement was signed between the Jewish delegation and the Catholic Church in Geneva in February 1987, with participation in the delegation by WJC Secretary General Dr Gerhart M. Riegner, Tullia Zevi of Italian Jewish Community, and Markus Pardes and Georges Schneck of Belgian Jewish community.
In his later years, Klein embraced his life-long interest of studying Hebrew texts and the history and geography of the Holy Land and remained an avid follower of political life in Israel and in France. His last public letter was dated 2012.