Sir Sigmund Sternberg, Sigi, he was always both, was born on June 2nd 1921 into a successful, middle-class family in Budapest, a city which owed more than most to the emancipation of its Jews in the second half of the nineteenth century. Sigi’s sister Susie followed only fifteen months later. But when Sigi was only fourteen years old their father died and he was immediately propelled into family responsibilities. Yet his schooling was dogged by anti-Semitism and his path to university blocked by an increasingly restrictive quota system.
On the very eve of war, he came to London with nothing but some family contacts and immediately set about building a new life. He married Ruth with whom he had two children, Michael and Frances, and later Hazel, aleha hashalom, who brought Ruth and David to the family. He quickly found success in the metal reclamation industry and then moved on to even greater success with his Mountstar group of companies. I cannot think why Sigi chose that name! All this provided the kemach, as Pirkei Avot puts it, the wherewithal, to enable him to devote more than forty years of his life to Torah as he so acutely and perceptively understood it to be.
That is the biography, admirably fleshed out in The Times, more petulantly in The Telegraph, telling you what he did. But who he was.That is for us. Now. It is impossible to believe he is not listening, expectantly. We will try not to disappoint him.
First, as Sigi and I agreed, I will offer a perspective as one of his many partners in the Jewish world for more than thirty years; then Michael and Ruth will offer complementary family perspectives; and finally Rabbi David Rosen CBE, International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, who, despite the proximity of the Chag, insisted on flying here to speak as Sigi wished, and instructed.
This is who we are; this is what we offer; this is what we do. We will not hide our lights under a bushel of English reticence
Sigi was the embodiment of twentieth century European Jewry. He was a refugee from a Hungary riven with profound prejudice and envy, absolutely characteristic of so much of Europe long before the Nazis exploited it in their uniquely vile way. Sigi came to England and was ever more determined to win acceptance for himself and for British Jewry on our terms, as pushy, driven, accented, in-your-face Jews not as fawning and obsequious Englishmen of the Mosaic persuasion, a strategy which the Survivors knew had failed.
Yes, Sigi gloried in every portrait of himself in papal knight’s uniform; in every one of his countless interfaith medallions; every civic honour (how tragic that the peerage he so coveted was denied him); and in every message and meeting with the most senior members of the Royal Family. And it was for himself, so un-British, but it was also for every member of the British Jewish community. This is who we are; this is what we offer; this is what we do. We will not hide our lights under a bushel of English reticence. We will not maintain the tactful low profile expected of grateful immigrants. We will be us, however risky that may prove to be. As a consequence, Sigi worried all his life about family security, fears rooted in his past but still eminently justified in the perennially uncertain present.
a profoundly driven man
Sir Sigmund Sternberg, Knight Commander of the Order of Gregory the Great and Star, was a profoundly driven man. I have never experienced such determination, such a sense of mission. Whether you were a member of his family, a member of his domestic staff, an employee or, like me, someone who led an independent religious organisation, you were on call twenty-four seven and he would brook no argument.
Some of us used to console ourselves with a story to the effect that the police, in London, Rome or Davos, were amazed to see the Popemobile go flashing by at more than seventy miles an hour and only after they had recovered from the shock, gave chase. Finally catching up with the vehicle, they peered in and said: “Who is the gentleman with you in white, Sir Sigmund?” I can see Sigi smiling that nervous smile, hoping I am paying him a compliment but not completely sure. Believe me, Sigi, it is deeply affectionate envy!
Being part of Sigi’s network-become-entourage was tough and some tragically fell victim to his drivenness but it was always for a purpose. And that purpose was Torah, Jewish teaching, Jewish ethics, Jewish values. I think deep down Sigi shared with the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas the conviction that the twentieth most terrible of centuries had demonstrated the abject failure of all other modern ethical systems and it was Jewish ethics that offered humanity the only hope of salvation.
Sigmund Sternberg worked every moment of every day to create the foundations for a peaceful, progressive society, collaborative and egalitarian
We are all, Jew and Gentile, woman and man, black and white, of equal and infinite non-monetary value. After the horrific twenty years from 1933 to 1953 it became crystal clear to Sigi that the only hope for salvation lay in collaboration between people of faith, the leaders of business, and national politicians. Through building unlikely networks and pushing open reluctant doors, Sigmund Sternberg worked every moment of every day to create the foundations for a peaceful, progressive society, collaborative and egalitarian. That was Sigi’s Torah; that was Sigi’s vision and he understood better than anyone I have ever met another famous text from Pirkei Avot: “The day is short and the work is great and the labourers are sluggish [except for Sigi himself] but the rewards are high and the Householder is urgent.”
Sigi did not have a comfortable childhood and he became an uncomfortable, restless man, utterly devoid of sitzfleisch, never satisfied, a characteristic which stemmed not just from his personal history but from his deeply valued Jewish identity. Jews are very often restless and striving, never satisfied, a trait which history has also given to our Judaism and the Torah we teach.
Sir Sigmund Sternberg KC*SG was the embodiment of the Survivors of twentieth century European Jewry, determined to remember and learn from the past, establish the equal place of Jews as Jews and teach the Torah of genuine respect, mutual acceptance and collaboration.
Sigi was also an archetypal Jewish patriarch, more perhaps in the mould of Jacob than Abraham, a patriarch from whom has stemmed a clan of Sternbergs, Perlmans and Tamirs, committed to the self-same Torah he taught. Dear Sigi, you can rest assured that though you can no longer control it, the future is in the best of hands.
I never began to appreciate just how very difficult these days following my Father’s death were going to be for all of us.
I think the whole family all rationalised what we imagined would happen after he died. We thought that my Father had an amazing life, that he was largely, universally admired, loved and respected, and that he was a figure on the national, if not on the world stage.
We thought that at the age of ninety five my Father’s departure would be a sad but inevitable conclusion: it would be a leaving that would be easy to understand and to tolerate, causing us little future difficulty.
Before these recent days, I thought that my Father would just slip away. We would leave the funeral and nothing much would have changed for us. He had after all been ill and very diminished sadly for some years already, so in some respects he was already gone.
I was wrong.
One of the many plays by Shakespeare which my late mother Ruth introduced my Father, my sister and me to was King Lear. In that play Edgar at the end of a series of terrible tragedies speaks the penultimate closing lines. He says,
“The weight of this sad time we must obey.Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
So I thought I would tell you how I felt. But, I have to tell you that I find it very hard to say what I feel about my father’s death.Perhaps this difficulty I have in articulating my feelings is in part caused by the newness and rawness of the experience. After all, it was reported, when Chou en Lai the Chinese Prime Minister was asked by President Nixon, in 1972, what he thought the effects of the French Revolution were in Europe, he replied that it was “Too soon to say.”
However, if I cannot articulate how I feel, I can certainly tell you exactly what my Father would want you to do now. I can see him in my mind’s eye (as I speak now) sitting in his favourite armchair at Branksome with an intense expression on his face, wagging his finger at me at saying “Here is what you must do.”
Here is what you must do
He would want you to regard his passing not as an ending, but as a beginning, and his death as an opening for pursuing and advocating his interfaith and charitable work; also as an opportunity for reminding everyone just how important and relevant those causes are today, even more than when he began them.
My father would, if he were standing here, remind you in his thick guttural Hungarian accent (which got stronger and stronger as he got older) of the need for dialogue, even with those who seem strange, foreign and hostile to us.
He would castigate those who intensify prejudice and oppress minorities.
He would remind us of the maxim of the Latin author Terence of holding little that is human completely alien to us.
He would emphasise the need to defend the weak and needy and to look after the vulnerable.
He would tell us of the absolute folly of building up worldly riches and possessions, without using at least part of those riches to help the poor and needy.
He would tell us never to be surprised by human cruelty and depravity, yet also never to let the despair caused by that awareness become a reason for ceasing to pursue causes which aim to understand hatred, and then to dilute if not completely remove its effects.
Above all, he would tell us never, ever to despair of human nature.
He would remind us too that however gloomy things might seem to us now, they were incomparably worse when he arrived in England in the last weekend of peace in August 1939: also incomparably worse than in 1940, when he stood on the top of a building in Regent Street, a member of the Civil Defence Corps, as Nazi incendiary bombs rained down on the West End, reporting to the fire services where a profusion of devastating fires were springing up.
a man who although he would never have admitted it, suffered much
My father would, if he were standing here, remind us that, as Chekov has said, the secret of life is knowing how to endure things. In this respect, I have to tell you I never heard my Father never, ever complain about any of the many terrible things that had happened to him in his life.
In this way and in so many others my Father was a hero and in some respects a tragic hero, as when from time he would reflect to me privately on his failures and what he had not been able to achieve in both the public and most importantly in so many of the private areas of his life.
My father was a man who although he would never have admitted it, suffered much and who had lived through much.
The very final words of King Lear now I think suddenly seem hugely appropriate to me:
“The oldest hath borne most.
We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
My Father may now have departed in physical form but his work cries out to be done. We shall I know do our best to do it. I know too that we will do it very well.