“Words have always played a great part in my professional life,” wrote Willy, just four years ago. “In the first place when I was a journalist for the English Daily Press, then later and now as a rabbi. But I have always refused to write anything autobiographical. There is a limit to the interest I have in myself.”
The emphasis on words places Willy within the classical Rabbinic tradition; the silence about his background identifies him as a survivor. My puzzling failure to recognise Willy as a survivor – despite knowing him for 40 years and working with him so closely on our quarterly journal MANNA – says a lot about my lack of sensitivity. But it also says something about the way Willy not just chose to present himself but how he saw himself.
from an early age, he had thoughts of pursuing the rabbinate as a career
Willy Wolff was born into a middle-class Berlin Jewish family on the 13th February 1927. He’d been preceded two years earlier by his sister Ruth and was followed minutes later by his twin brother Jo. His mother Charlotte adored him and Willy reciprocated that love and cared for her throughout her long and difficult life. His father, who was well into his forties when Willy was born, was not much interested in his children and remained, for Willy, a distant, troubled and troubling figure.
Alfred Wolff was an observant Orthodox Jew, a member of the Adass Yisrael community in Lessing Street, Berlin which had boasted Einstein and the liturgist Elbogen as members. Alfred was responsible for Willy’s early experience of synagogue and it clearly rubbed off since, from an early age, he had thoughts of pursuing the rabbinate as a career – despite his mother’s life-long hostility to religion.
Charlotte Wolff was a regular customer of a Mrs Friedlander, a seamstress. And Mrs Friedlander had a daughter called Magda who was married to a young politician by the name of Joseph Goebbels. When the Nazis were – democratically – elected in 1933, Mrs Wolff was concerned that the connection with Mrs Friedlander might bring the Wolff family to “early attention”. So, on the 27th September 1933 she, Alfred and the three children took the night train to Amsterdam.
The family liked Amsterdam – all, that is, except Alfred who was unable to cope with the new environment, had a nervous breakdown and then left for England where he knew he could get work in the medical rubber industry. However, it was Alfred, to his great credit, who phoned in August 1939 and told his wife and children to come to London immediately. He settled them in Shirehall Avenue in Hendon – even then an orthodox enclave. I remember the house and the dark, heavy furniture and the – by then – severely disabled, but smiling, Mrs Wolff.
The War years were pivotal for Willy. First, they saw the final collapse of his parents’ marriage and his father died in 1946. Second, for Willy’s feelings of displacement and loneliness, which were intense and profound. And third, for working harder than anyone else except, perhaps, his twin brother at Hendon County Grammar School.
Willy also resumed synagogue attendance – in the new and splendid building of Hendon United Synagogue, where the cantor was a young David Koussevitzky. Willy observed that the singing at Raleigh Close was far better than the sermons – which was not true of Willy. But it underlines part of the appeal of the synagogue and the rabbinate for him – it was the ritual, the solemn ceremony. Willy approved of the top hats at West London more even than members born into the congregation.
all he would eat was boiled fish, plain pasta, melon and bananas
Willy enrolled at the London School of Economics – choosing International Relations and Economics – but after little more than a term was struck down by severe illness, which lasted for three years and almost killed him. His recovery only began with the chance recommendation of a homeopath to give up eating meat – which brought about a notable improvement but his inability to cope with dairy produce took longer to identify.
I kick myself again when I think how lightly I dismissed what I took to be his dietary idiosyncrasies. My children remember Linda angsting about how she could feed this little, gaunt man when all he would eat was boiled fish, plain pasta, melon and bananas. We never realised it was a matter of life and death.
a highly successful journalistic career at The Mirror, becoming their senior political correspondent
Aged sixteen, Willy received career advice, toyed with the choice it highlighted – journalism or the rabbinate – and journalism came out on top. He would talk to me about walking from Hendon to High Barnet during the War to work at Reuters Radio Listening Centre and later embarked on a highly successful journalistic career at The Mirror, becoming their senior political correspondent. It enabled him to live the life he wanted. A choice he made in 1957 is truly revealing. Willy decided that as well as living with his mother in Hendon, he wanted a home in the country. He came across a plan to build four bungalows in a village a couple of miles outside Henley on Thames. He went to look at the site and bought Little Paddock off plan – “the end house with a view across fields and meadows”. Despite his punctilious English – so reminiscent of dear John Rayner z”l – and the faint but always discernible Berlin accent, Willy had opted for being an English gentleman. He admitted to two ‘pleasures’ – illicit as far as a German Jewish survivor is concerned. The first, Christmas Eve at the Royal Church at Windsor and the second in morning suit and top hat in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot – and the occasional flutter. Willy also saw these treats as compensation for the wife and family he longed for but never had.
Willy had opted for being an English gentleman
He really loved his journalistic career – travelling with the Foreign Secretary of the day, patiently building relationships of trust which often endured beyond the political career. He had a close relationship with Harold Wilson, once legging it with Wilson from an over-attentive crowd and claimed responsibility for the establishment of the higher degree of personal security senior politicians now enjoy. He was a great admirer of David Owen but ambivalent about Margaret Thatcher whose lack of a concept of Europe and of Britain’s relationship with Europe is crucial to Willy’s understanding of what was even more indispensable to his self-identity than his Britishness. Ironically, his career at the Mirror ended when a new editor sought to popularise the paper and downgrade its serious political contents in favour of scandal. Willy was made European editor, which was a demotion he chose not to accept.
Willy always maintained his journalistic career – working as gossip columnist for the Mail, for the Evening Standard and later as a correspondent for a Scottish Sunday. He also wrote many obituaries for the Times – including Linda’s, for which my gratitude was boundless. But the establishment of the Leo Baeck College allowed him to express his Judaism without what he describes as the fundamentalism of orthodoxy and its inability to express the essence of Judaism which he regarded as responding to the needs of Jews. He never understood his sister Ruth’s decision to marry an ultra-Orthodox Jew and move to Gateshead – though he did retain loving connections with several nephews and a great niece. He saw Ruth’s decision as a retreat from life. That’s something Willy never did. Indeed, he had to absorb Ruth’s tragic, premature death in a car crash when driving back from visiting him and his twin brother Jo’s suicide in Perth, Australia where Jo had – – from early on – pursued an academic career as a German Studies lecturer.
talking to and caring for Jews from all walks of life, which was the heart of his rabbinate
During his five years at the Leo Baeck College from 1979 to 1984, Willy, still under the influence of Cantor Koussevitzky, decided to take private singing lessons with a retired opera singer who told him, “Your voice is not impressive but we can try to develop it.” But after several years, the teacher said, “You know Mr Wolff, what I appreciate in you is you are completely consistent. You make the same mistakes again and again.” Can’t you hear Willy laughing? I have an indelible memory of Linda and I going with Willy to the theatre to see a rather risqué play called “Steaming”. We weren’t sure how people would react if they knew we’d been to the play but Willy’s distinctive guffaw echoing round the theatre dismissed all pretence of anonymity.
On graduating from Leo Baeck College, Willy went to work with Rabbi Hugo Gryn at West London Synagogue – the synagogue where his heart was. It offered him scope for the ceremony he loved and incomparable opportunity for meeting, talking to and caring for Jews from all walks of life, which was the heart of his rabbinate. This was followed by spells in Newcastle, Milton Keynes, Reading, Brighton and Wimbledon – and led, eventually, to the final turning point in his life.
Whilst in Newcastle, Willy also took charge of the small community in Darlington. It was a Friday in November 1989 and he was driving to Darlington to take the Erev Shabbat service. He listened to a broadcast on the car radio about the fall of the Berlin Wall and found he had tears in his eyes. As he wrote: “That is how I realised that the fate of Germany could still move me.” In terms of the great unifier, he identified with Bismark rather than Helmut Kohl!
Willy moved to Wimbledon Synagogue to which he made a considerable contribution – including solving the synagogue’s finances by letting their parking facilities to patrons of the Wimbledon tennis tournament. There was no balancing expenditure since Willy acted as car park attendant. However, he eventually encountered a Chairman who knew not Joseph and felt Willy should move on. I have uncomfortable memories of my behaviour at that point.
From 1983, for nearly 28 years, Willy and I produced a quarterly journal, MANNA. I was nominally the editor and Willy the deputy editor but Willy went through all the copy after I’d finished with it, heavily editing it without fear or favour, adding newspaper headlines and arranging the material in order – the most favoured by Willy first and the least favoured by Willy last. The topics and contributors were largely down to me; all the rest was Willy’s work. And he also contributed what we called ‘The Last Word’ – a single page commenting on British Jewry as he saw it. Thanks to Willy’s friend and saviour James Leek z”l from Wimbledon, all 110 issues of MANNA including nearly 100 ‘Last Words’ are available on line.
Willy remained a survivor of all that life could throw at him
I’d known Willy for decades, worked with him and loved him. Yet when he was told by Wimbledon, not for the first time in his career, that it was time to move on, all I did as Head of the Reform Movement at the time, was to discuss that news neutrally with Willy and point to his age.
As always, Willy took rejection in his stride, phoned his old hometown, Berlin and told them that he was ready to come to work in Germany. In 2002, at the age of 75, this frail-in-physique but steely-in-mind survivor took up the post of Chief Rabbi of Mecklenberg-West Pomerania with responsibility for the communities of Schwerin, Rostock and Wismar. All three were Russian immigrant communities without roots or traditions, populated exclusively by recent Russian and Ukrainian emigres with no experience of Judaism. Yet Willy with no Russian but an abundance of care, compassion and the burning desire to serve Jews, gave them life, sustained them and brought them to the point where he could hand them on – albeit reluctantly – to a rabbi with Russian roots and language. At last, at long, long last, Willy received recognition for who he truly was. He was deeply respected by members of both the State and Federal governments and was made an Honorary Citizen of Schwerin.
Four years ago, an award-winning German filmmaker Britta Wauer made a highly accomplished and acclaimed ninety-minute documentary about his life, finally subverting Willy’s “limit to the interest I have in myself”. He became an instant celebrity – with a Wikipedia page in German!
But all the time he’d been in Mecklenberg, come snow or come ice, Willy would return to Little Paddock, the bungalow he bought off-plan near Henley. To the unsympathetic eye it was a strange little place filled with rough, booklined shelves and papers (Willy always said that the only thing he shared with his father was untidiness). But to Willy it was always home, overlooking the fields and meadows of England.
It’s been such a treat
Despite growing infirmity, Willy continued to pop up everywhere and despite failing eyesight – the cruellest of blows for a man whose life was the written word – he continued to drive his car (he had a passion for driving) with terrifying results. It was only at the very end, forced out of his beloved bungalow by a freak storm and confined to a care home in Henley, that the displacement and loneliness of the past resurfaced. It was compounded by the sudden death of his great supporter James Leek. But thanks to the loving care of Alex – Rabbi Wright was caring beyond all measure – Gaby, Gilly, Mavis and Meyer, Sarah and other loyal family and friends, Willy remained a survivor of all that life could throw at him. I can still hear that distinctive laugh whilst we discussed the absurdity, the Cummings and goings and petty scandals of so much of our political leadership during Coronavirus. And then Willy saying “Thank you so much for phoning. It’s been such a treat.”
Willy: it was such a treat for all of us to know you.
Much of the above (including the quotations) is taken from Rabbi Wolff and the Essence of Life: Memories and Insights (2016). Note the copyright of the English version – © James Leek.
On one of the last occasions I saw Willy at Acacia Lodge, he was very weak, but still alert, wanting to know what was going on in the world and if Boris Johnson was still the Prime Minister (the worst Prime Minister we’ve ever had since Lord North, he said.) We chatted for a while and then I suggested that he try to sleep for a while. His eyesight had become very poor, but he looked at me with that characteristic mischievous twinkle in his eye and a slow grin spread across his face as he said, ‘It’s all right. I have a long sleep ahead of me.’
he was full of vitality
It is that wide smile, the self-deprecating, infectious laugh and sense of humour that we will remember most about Willy. But also that sense of occasion, the way that he would walk up to the bimah, a small frame standing behind the lectern, robed in his tallit to pronounce the priestly blessing in a powerful and strong voice, full of authority and warmth. He was gracious, warm, thoughtful, modest, acutely intelligent, a superb linguist, abstemious in his own habits, but generous towards others, to a fault. He was compassionate and understanding and rarely judgemental. He had what his German friends called ‘lebenskraft’ – er war ein kleiner Mann, they said, but he was full of vitality.
Most important, he was a people person; he had that unique capacity to make you feel special – that you were a significant and precious part of his life. And each one of you here today and many who aren’t, were precious to him, as he was to you. He had an immense capacity for true friendship and he served each one of the communities where he was a Rabbi with loyalty, and with a sense of vocation, commitment and love.
I hope I will be remembered for the work of reconciliation I did in Germany.
It was in Germany that he found true recognition of his role as Chief Rabbi of the north-eastern state of Mecklenberg-Vorpommern not only because of his devotion to its Jewish population, 99% of whom had come from the Former Soviet Union, but because of his relentless commitment to reconciliation and healing. Even after his retirement, which left him bereft of purpose, he rarely missed an anniversary or event, returning to Germany to stand beside Christian ministers to recite prayers at the site of a concentration camp or on the anniversary of the November Pogrom.
The day he was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit by the Prime Minister in Schwerin for this work was a very proud one for him. ‘I may not have done very much with my life,’ he used to say to me, ‘but I hope I will be remembered for the work of reconciliation I did in Germany.’ I hope he knew just how many people held him in such high regard and with such immense affection for all that he had undertaken in his life, not least this return to Germany and the work he did there.
He voiced himself the fragmentation of his own childhood, moving from Berlin to Amsterdam and then to London, the brokenness of being the child of a failed marriage, as he put it. Travelling between these three places in his mid-seventies and eighties, he said, was a way of trying to bring the fragments of his life together.
When I saw him on Wednesday, just hours after he died, the Willy we had all known had gone and I wondered where had his soul gone?
Harold Kushner, the prominent American rabbi and author offers this response: ‘… if a man was a good person and people loved him, even after his body has died and been buried, people will still remember him. They will talk about him and be slightly different people because of what he meant to them. And if they remember him and act differently because of it, maybe that is the answer to where his soul went’ (Harold S. Kushner, quoted in A Jewish Book of Comfort, edited by Charles Middleburgh and Andrew Goldstein).
his wide smile and laugh, his wisdom and wit, his honesty and humility.
I speak for all of us in saying that each one of us are slightly different people because of our friendship with Willy. He gave so much of himself selflessly, thoughtfully, with such care and love. But I know that Willy, who never failed to express his gratitude, would also want to acknowledge each one of you here today, not forgetting those, like James Leek, who sadly died a few weeks ago. You were all an important part of his life over so many years. It is invidious to single out individuals, but perhaps I can mention you Sarah, who fought your way through paperwork and newspapers and kept his fast-moving life in order for twenty-five years, Elsa who cannot be here, Bernadette, Andrew and Liz, his family here in the UK, whom he adored, Patricia and his god-daughter Tashi whom he spoke about so often, Gaby and Brian who trekked half-way across the country to fetch him for Christmases and other significant times, and with whom he so evidently enjoyed being with; Tony with whom he worked on Manna for so many years and who continued to be a faithful colleague who made him smile even when he was so incredibly weak, Rachel who represents our colleagues and all those at whose life cycle events he officiated, making each one of them special and unique; Mavis and Myer who were there constantly for him as he grew more frail, living alone, nourishing him not only with home-made soup, but also with the Jewish life that he missed after his retirement. You were both with him on Monday and Tuesday, just before he died and he must have found that an immense comfort and source of reassurance. And you Gilly who have been a rock and tower of strength to him for so many years and have been the first port of call in these last months and years. I hope that all of you know that at a time when his life had become quite bleak and lonely, you were present for him, you were a light in his darkness.
His presence is still with us – his wide smile and laugh, his wisdom and wit, his honesty and humility. May it always remain with us and may the memories of this righteous and upright man endure always as a blessing. Zecher tzaddik livrachah. Amen.
Willy Wolff (Ze’ev ben Avrohom) lived at a semi detached house called “Little Paddock” in High Moor Cross, Henley on Thames, near Reading, Oxford, UK. He died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 93 on July 8th 2020 (16th of Tamuz 5780)
Born in Berlin, Germany on February 13th 1927 (11 Adar I, 5687) to Alfred and Charlotte (Rothstein)Wolff, he escaped with his mother, sister and twin brother in 1933 to Holland where they were later joined up with his father. They once again escaped in 1939 to London, England, right before the Nazis invaded Holland. In London he matriculated from the Hendon Grammar School and then attended a French Language school for a couple of years and subsequently studied politics and economics at the London School of Economics.
Uncle Willy had a storied career as a newspaper man, first at the Slough Times where he earned the dubious honour and distinction of establishing the annual New Year’s day Polar Bear club swim in the Thames in which he faithfully participated until just a few years ago. He did some reporting for Reuters, then the Yorkshire Post, the newsroom beat at the Liverpool Post and then as the parliamentary correspondent of the Daily Mirror.
He loved and delighted in the challenge of a new community
In midlife he chose to pursue his dream first career choice, and attended the Leo Baeck College in London.It is a Reform and Liberal and Progressive Rabbinical Training school. Uncle Bernard Kahn told me that Willy told him, that he only went there after first applying at Jews College a Rabbinical Training school under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate of the UK and being turned down because of his age. After he was ordained, he served as a congregational Rabbi, in the West London Synagogue, Newcastle upon Tyne, Milton Keynes, Wimbledon and lastly as the Lands Rabiner (area Rabbi) of the Jewish communities of Mecklenburg Pomerania and was based in Schwerin, Germany. He loved and delighted in the challenge of a new community.
an avid runner and practitioner of yoga…a gifted linguist
Uncle Willy was an avid runner and practitioner of yoga. A true renaissance man, with a love of life, people and travel, He was a gifted linguist and loved leining, davening and singing zemiros. As a journalist, he accompanied President Nixon when he went to China in 1972.He learned to speak Mandarin in advance of the trip adding it to his fluency in German, Dutch, English, French, and Hebrew. When Reagan went to Moscow,Russia in 1988 to meet with Gorbachev at the Moscow Summit, he learned to speak Russian in advance of the journey. It was partly due to this language skill that he got the job in Schwerin as a Rabbi to the Russian immigrants.
piles of books in every square inch of his cottage in High Moor Cross and his apartment in Schwerin
He was an avid reader and the piles of books in every square inch of his cottage in High Moor Cross and his apartment in Schwerin are a testament to his broad range of interests ranging from history, art, music, psychology, and literature to the Bible and Jewish liturgy. But above all Willy will be remembered for his genuine warmth, loyal friendship, sage advice and delightful sense of humour. His easy laughter and throaty chuckle brought an ambience of joy and delight to all who knew him.
Willy was a very giving man, he was a dedicated son to his mother and did not really move out to his own bungalow until after she died. He took such good care of her until her last minute. When she was bedridden, he would buy her the all the latest bestseller novels as they came out. Just about every time I visited her in those days he would bring her two new books to read. When she was finished reading them she gave them to me. I would take back a suitcase of novels after each visit and barely finish reading them all by my next visit. He loved and revered his sister (our mother) and while she was still alive he would make special efforts every year to come up to Gateshead for Tu Bishvat and partake of the 15 fruits. He always asked her advice though did not always follow it. He fondly remembered the last time Mommy playfully smacked him, while toilet training one of the boys and he offered to demonstrate what she was trying to teach.
survived by his three nieces and three nephews…forty great nieces and nephews and more than two hundred and fifty great great nieces and nephews
He is survived by his three nieces and three nephews, Rachel (Yehuda Naftali) Mandelbaum of Baltimore, Maryland USA, Avrohom (Gita)Wagschal, Jerusalem, Israel, Chana (Nachman) Sofer of Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel, Avi (Sarah) Wagschal of Brooklyn, New York USA, Kivi (Linda) Wagschal of Baltimore, Maryland USA and Miriam (Yanky) Weintraub of Lakewood, New Jersey USA; forty great nieces and nephews and more than two hundred and fifty great great nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his sister Ruth (Naftali) Wagschal of Gateshead on Tyne (1964) and his brother Dr Joachim Manfred Wolf of Perth, Australia. (1984) A second cousin Karla (Rothstien) Pipel and her 3 daughters in Israel, he was predeceased by his cousins Henry and Katie Schragenhiem in London. In addition to relatives from his sibling and both maternal and paternal cousins, he was very close with his stepfather Ben Hofler’s surviving relatives Elsa Hillman and her daughter Bernadette. But it would be remiss to leave out the Nissels, and the Kahns with whom he stayed so close with from his youth, that he remembered their birthdays with cards and brought presents with his frequent visits.
He practiced the golden rule with sincerity empathy, concern and love
So many friends that he made in his career as a journalist and a Rabbi, congregants too numerous to mention, consider themselves his best and favourite friend. And indeed he was. He practiced the golden rule with sincerity empathy, concern and love. He personified the biblical command And you shall love your friends like yourself. He took it a step further by loving us all more than himself.