Looking back at our losses in the last 12 months, I experience a sense of deep sorrow, as this 21st century plague has claimed too many lives, many of whom did not even make it to our obituaries page. But in the midst of such grief there is still pride at the achievements of those celebrated humanists, scientists, rabbis, writers and artists — some having passed their 90s and even their centenaries.
Still fresh in our minds is the premature death of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in November at the age of 72. This man of powerful intellect and eternal youthfulness, who reached out across generations and whose rigour of thought impressed people of all religious beliefs — we described him as “a man of all faiths and none, who spanned the worlds of Judaism and secular scholarship” — is still mourned, loved and admired, and will be for many years, by people who looked to him to express Judaism in their time.
There were several other rabbis who passed this year; among them leading Talmudist Rabbi Dr Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch (92, May). His obituary was written by Jonathan Sacks who defined him as one of the leading scholars in the religious Zionist community. Rabbi Stanley Michaels (73, April) of Mill Hill United Synagogue, was driven to deeper Torah study by a brutal antisemitic attack in 1999. The halachic authority Rabbi Pesach Eliahu Falk (78, January) was noted for his learned writings on female modesty. Most recently, in December, we learned of the death of Rabbi Dr Irving Jacobs, former principal of Jews’ College.
On the Progressive front, Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue’s convivial and charming Rabbi Neil Kraft died from Covid too young at 69 — and on the brink of retirement. The idiosyncratic Berlin born former Fleet Street journalist Rabbi Willy Wolff (93, July) was a loveable eccentric with an unforgettable chuckle who continued to mourn the homeland he had left in 1933 and worked tirelessly to bring reconciliation and renewal to German Jewish communities.
Rabbi Wolff was one of several Holocaust survivors who died this year. Having escaped as children, they found the strength of character to build successful careers helping others in their adopted homeland. Among them was George Weisz (90, March) who reached Britain in 1939 and pioneered an artificial ventilator powered by its own oxygen cylinder. He lived to see his Pneupac breathing machine save lives across NHS intensive care units during the pandemic. “You have to think of what is unthinkable” he said. “Because the unthinkable will happen and someone’s life will depend on it.”
George Steiner (91, February) fled Austria for New York and became a leading intellectual who broke the cultural omertâ about the Holocaust. 2020 was the end of an era for the Amadeus Quartet, formed by Viennese exiles, with the death of its last survivor, cellist Martin Lovatt (93, April). Another classical musician, the prodigious and flamboyant Polish-born violinist Ida Handel (96, July), escaped the Holocaust when her parents brought her to London to study music.
The Kindertransport refugee, Werner William Jacoby (91, July) who saw his German synagogue burn down as a ten-year -old, became a social housing entrepreneur in Britain; while Elly Miller (92, August) left Austria after the Anschluss in 1938 and whose Phaidon Press infused British art publishing with the spirit of inter-war Vienna. Another refugee from Nazism, Professor Tom Arie (86, May) became Britain’s leading geriatric physiatrist and a staunch advocate of mental health for the elderly.
The Belgian born artist Karyl Lek (90, March) escaped his native Belgium in 1940, and used his creative talents to portray the people of his adopted Welsh homeland. The neuroscientist Geoffrey Burnstock (91, June) was acclaimed for developing a breakthrough signalling theory in the nervous system.
Some refugees had bizarre stories to tell; none more so than the orthodontic pioneer Hans Eirew, who came to England in 1939 and was educated by the Quakers. During national service in Berlin in 1950, he was asked to extract a tooth from a “demented” Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, then in Spandau prison.
The diminutive, eternally energetic Hedi Frankel (93, October) who established the Hedi Fisher Marriage Bureau in 1969 and published the book, Matchmaker, Matchmaker, was hidden in her native Hungary by a Christian family and experienced forced labour camps before reaching Britain in 1947.
Some deaths are political by their very nature. The passing of the long-serving Democratic US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (87, September) proved controversial in its timing. An advocate of gender equality and women’s rights, Bader Ginsburg left in her wake the bitter embers of the Trump presidency. She was replaced by a Republican, the Christian Conservative nominee Amy Coney Barrett, despite Ginsburg’s expressed desire to delay the process until after the US election.
In Britain, other advocates of race, gender and human rights equality included Lord Lester of Herne Hill (84, August) and the High Court judge, Sir Gavin Lightman (80, March), noted for his humanitarian principles, sense of justice, intellect and powers of reasoning.
The world of sports lost the 1950s tennis champion Angela Buxton (86, August) and the arts counted several leading figures among their losses this past year.
The indefatigable actor Kirk Douglas surpassed his centenary to reach the age of 103 in February and the American Jewish humourist Carl Reiner (98,June) invigorated post-war America with his Yiddish comedy brand. He was noted for such films as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Other deaths in the world of art, theatre and music included Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green (73, July); award-winning playwright and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (85, September), the journalist, theatre critic and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer (95, October) who wrote the lyrics for the English version of Les Miserables; entertainer and singer Des O’Connor (87, November); marketing guru Gerry Lewis (92, January), known as Steven Spielberg’s “gatekeeper”; émigré book cover designer Romek Marber (94, March); transformative set designer Sally Jacobs (87, August); experimental printmaker Agathe Sorel (85, July) and Hungarian born Expressionist painter Suzanne Perlman (97, August) who delved into the ancient Hebrew melodies on the island of Curaçao for her artistic influences.