Knight work: from penniless to patrician
Emma Klein's biography of a major communal figure lets the facts speak for themselves
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Sir Sigmund Sternberg: the Knight with Many Hats by Emma Klein. Vallentine Mitchell, £25
Sir Sigmund Sternberg
Sir Sigmund Sternberg is a case study in contradiction. A strongly identifying Jew and Zionist, brought up in a prosperous Orthodox business family in Hungary, he has never fitted into the Anglo-Jewish establishment.
Though a cousin of the Schonfeld rabbinic dynasty, whose presence in England enabled his family to obtain visas in 1939, he joined the Reform movement and put his money and name on its new HQ in Finchley, which opened as the Sternberg Centre in 1984.
Small, neat and dapper, especially in his beloved papal knighthood uniform, he moves among representatives of historic institutions, eagerly adopting their insignia — uniforms, medals, titles and initials. He is a man who enjoys receiving — and giving — prizes.
But his intense focus, first on making his fortune, then on using it to make his mark in public life, came at a cost. Emma Klein’s meticulous biography delicately but firmly describes his shying away from domestic problems. He was unable to give his first wife and mother of his two children the emotional support she needed, leading to the break-up of their marriage.
It was his present wife, Hazel, a convert to strictly Orthodox Judaism, who provided — and still provides — the warmth and human touch his brisk, practical temperament lacks. She was his cousin’s widow and mother of two adopted children.
Arriving in England as a penniless school-leaver of 18, Siggy — as he is universally known — was eventually offered a training opening in a scrap metal factory. He exited with a fortune and sold his business in 1965, putting the proceeds into property at the beginning of the long boom.
Initially, his public activity covered health and welfare issues and, with his natural networking talent, making connections within the Labour Party, which he admired from Clement Attlee’s time. A knighthood in Harold Wilson’s generous 1976 resignation honours marked his social arrival.
The late Sammy Fisher, as president of the Board of Deputies, urged Siggy to pull together the faltering Council of Christians and Jews, which had started a continental branch after the war. This eventually became the International Council of Christians and Jews.
It was a situation tailor-made for Sir Sigmund, who had grown up in the all-pervasive antisemitism of Catholic Europe. Through the ICCJ, he busied himself in quiet but effective diplomacy to change the Catholic hierarchy’s view and teaching of Judaism. And, in 1997, Siggy responded to the influx of Muslim immigration to the West with the formation of the Three Faiths Forum, still going strong.
Emma Klein sensibly lets the facts, and other people’s views, of Siggy’s life speak for themselves.
Ruth Rothenberg is a former senior JC journalist