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Obituary: Henry Knobil

Gifted raconteur who rose from penniless refugee to major M&S supplier

    From an early age Henry Knobil discovered he could make people laugh. His genre was Jewish jokes and from the moment he lapsed into his trademark Yiddish drawl he had his audience in stiches of laughter.

    Knobil, who has died aged 85, used this gift to good purpose, entertaining the elderly in care homes or telling his stories at community events. He drew effortlessly from his vast repertoire. To the end of his life he continued to visit groups of Holocaust survivors towards whom, given his own background, he felt a particular sense of responsibility.

    His family had settled in Nottingham, having fled Vienna as penniless refugees after the German Anschluss. The images of antisemitic brutality that Henry witnessed as a child were seared in his memory, and his gratitude to England for providing safety for his family remained a principal theme of his life.

    Young Henry had brains as well as jokes. Leaving school at 16 he was awarded a bursary to Nottingham District Technical College where he studied textiles, a field that was to prove the basis of his future business success. He won a Roosevelt Scholarship to tour textile enterprises in the USA, and often quoted the words Eleanor Roosevelt said to him after he had tea with the American First Lady as part of the scholarship: “Young man, just remember this. Yesterday – that’s history. Tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift and that’s why they call it the present.”

    After two years National Service, when Henry became an officer, he joined Marks and Spencer. This was during the company’s iconic period in the 1950s and the vivid stories he told about those early days form a valuable part of its oral history. His technical expertise, intelligence, drive and charm helped him rise through the ranks. But in 1964 Henry left M&S to form his own company, Textured Jersey, producing knitted fabric. Through sheer guts and brilliant technical and management skills Henry turned the company into the largest single fabric supplier to M&S, floating on the London Stock Exchange in 1971 and selling it in 1989.

    Henry and his beautiful wife Renata Kaufman, whom he married in 1960, became glamorous members of the Jewish social set. She was renowned for her elegance, entertaining skills and relentless work for good causes. But social responsibility was never far from Henry’s heart and he threw himself into charitable endeavours. He became founder chair of governors of Immanuel College, and later chaired British Friends of Bar Ilan University, the Jewish Marriage Council, The British Israel Chamber of Commerce, and the UJIA Kol Nidre Appeal. He was also president of Western Marble Arch Synagogue.

    Jewishness and a love of learning were central to Henry’s life. Despite a lack of formal instruction, Henry acquired an almost rabbinic standard of Jewish knowledge. He loved to teach. His greatest joy was attending a shiur. Deep faith in the goodness of human beings and devotion to God permeated his being and his personality.

    No account of Henry’s life is complete without mentioning the love he had for Renata and the inspirational care he took of her from the time she suffered an immobilising stroke until her death eight years later, just a few months before his own. They had left their beloved Western Marble Arch Synagogue and moved to more manageable accommodation near South Hampstead Synagogue.

    Henry exuded a calm, intelligent humour. Even in the growing weakness of his terminal illness, visitors came away feeling that they had received more than they had given. His life is best summed up by the sages: ‘As his name, so he was’. Noble in life and noble in death. He is survived by his three children, five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

    Rabbi Shlomo Levin

    Henry Knobil : born  November 27, 1932. Died December 10, 2017