Death of the Holocaust's quiet hero

The veteran Zionist, Arieh Handler, who died last week in Tel Aviv aged 95, was the last surviving witness of the declaration of the state of Israel.

For many years he was the embodiment of religious Zionism in the UK as the founder of the national branch of Bnei Akiva and as a leader of Mizrachi UK before he finally made aliyah at the age of 90.

As a teenager in Nazi Germany, he had needed little convincing about the urgency of Jewish liberation after Hitler came to power in 1933.

He set about helping his co-religionists to escape, organising visas and their departure for kibbutz training camps in Western Europe .

Somehow, he managed to avoid having his passport stamped "J" for Jew, thus allowing him to travel in and out of Germany despite increasing personal risk. His rescue missions took him to the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, where the official presiding over Jewish affairs was Adolf Eichmann.

In 1938, he defied a ban on German Jews going to Austria and went to Vienna to help get Jews out after its annexation. Once, travelling back by sleeper to Germany, he left his compartment to go to the men's room. "When I stepped into the corridor," he recalled, "I saw a familiar figure a few metres away. It was Eichmann. I believe he saw me."

But providence smiled and instead of the anticipated arrest, he reached his destination. Later that year in Palestine, he was planning to head back to Germany when he was warned that because of Kristallnacht, it was by then too unsafe.

Instead, he came to London, continuing his rescue efforts and support for Jewish refugees settled here. Working with Youth Aliyah's Immigration Department he helped to open 30 refugee camps for children and young people. It was helping a Jewish youth choir, established at one refugee centre at Gwrych Castle in North Wales, that led to his marriage: he was looking for a conductor and it was his future wife, Henny, who was recommended to him.

After the war Arieh Handler became a successful banker and finance consultant and a political confidante of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. His charitable work included helping to found Jewish Child's Day. A leader of the Soviet Jewry campaign, he was also among the first advocates for Ethiopian Jewry, whom he visited in 1972.

Michael Rainsbury, one of the current leaders of Bnei Akiva, said: "Arieh was one of the great Jewish heroes of the modern world and his achievements are almost too great to number.

"He was truly the greatest leader in our movement's history and his legacy is in the success of the organisations he built."

Last updated: 1:09pm, May 26 2011