Leo Gruss


When Leo Gruss died last month aged 101, the name of the benefactor who arranged his miraculous release from Dachau at the age of 19, remained unknown.

Leo Gruss had enjoyed his early life in Vienna and though the family were Orthodox, he had attended a secular school. But in November, 1938 within months of the Anschluss, Nazis marched into the comfortable Gruss flat. His mother and sister were locked in the bathroom, and he and his father were taken away.

The 19 year old had the wisdom to reason with the guards that his father was wealthy but if they killed him they would never find his assets. This worked, and although his father was released, Leo was put on a train to Dachau, where he witnessed beatings, starvation, and degradation.

After several weeks his name was called out on a morning parade. Fear gripped him, but to his astonishment he was told he could leave, though warned that if he described the place to anybody, he would be brought back. Leo never discovered who his benefactor was, but it was clear that a sum of money had changed hands.

He never saw his parents or sister again, but made his way alone, through Germany to England and Leeds, the home of a distant relative. There he met Betty, or Batyah Oronovitch. She came from Kovne where her mother ran a ladies boutique next door to the Opera House where Batyah learned about fashion when not at school, and languages when she was. She had a gift for both, and spoke seven tongues.

While Leo was in Dachau, nearly 1000 miles away, Batyah was with friends in Leeds, sent by her parents to perfect her English. She intended to learn English law then move to Mandatory Palestine and practise as a lawyer. Her parents had a plot of land there and hoped to make it their home. In Leeds her funds ran short, so she enrolled at a knitwear college in Leicester and later worked at a firm supplying Marks and Spencer, where her talents were recognised. Soon she was running her own factory in Leeds. She met Leo at a friend’s house, who told her of his intention to go to America, where a relative was in banking. She, in turn, told him of her products which needed to be marketed. To impress her he offered to take samples to London, where at taxi driver told him to “take them to Harrods”, which he did. He obtained a good order, using that Viennese charm which worked again when he proposed to Betty.

The business flourished, she designing and manufacturing, and he adding oil to any social wheel in sight. They were among the scene-setters in Leeds, personal friends of such clothing giants as Burtons, Lyons, and many others.

They eventually sold the business and moved to London. However, although they enjoyed the capital’s cultural life, sitting still was not for them. Arnold Ziff had introduced them to Pentland chairman Stephen Rubin, and they became joint managing directors of one of his subsidiaries. Betty travelled frequently to Italy dealing with designs and purchases, and became so respected that a park was named after her. Leo dealt with the logistics and customers. He could get a table at the most popular restaurant at the drop of a hat, and Chris Corbin and Jeremy King fussed over him at The Ivy.

Their marriage spanned nearly 70 years, and Betty died one year before Leo, aged 96. They had no children, but many younger friends, several of whom added the name Leo to their grandchildren, as a tribute. Their social life, including an annual Chanukah party, continued until well into their 90s, and they were always dressed in the height of fashion. The large silver Chanukiah was lit every year, in their flat near Hampstead’s Whitestone Pond, just as it had been in the most elegant part of Vienna.


Leo Gruss: born September 15, 1918. 
Died March 4, 2020

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