Obituary: Leon Schaller OBE

The boy who escaped the Nazis grew to become an outstanding philanthropist and businessman,


Leon Schaller owed his life to a German policeman. When, on October 28, 1938, the Germans ordered all Jewish males of Polish descent to “register” at the local Police station in Cologne, the policeman advised 16-year-old Leon and his father to slip away unobtrusively. Although Leon and his immediate family left Germany, much of his wider family perished without a trace. Of all his childhood friends, Schaller knew of only one who had survived the Holocaust.

Born in Cologne, Leon Schaller, who has died aged 94, was the youngest of three children — Regina and Herman pre-deceased him. His father Berl, had emigrated to Germany from Romania and his mother Chana Freibrun from Poland. Ironically, both had moved to Germany in their teenage years to make a better life for themselves.

Soon after witnessing Kristallnacht, the Schallers obtained transit papers and sent Leon to England. His parents joined him in 1939 and the family settled in Ilford. Leon found work at an East End clothing factory and later as a delivery boy for the kosher butcher.

The antisemitism he had experienced in his early years deeply affected him. As a child, Leon remembered the German barber suddenly refusing to cut his hair, and recalled the palpable fear of being attacked on his way home from school.

In particular, he was deeply distressed that, having found sanctuary in England, he was unable to help his friends, many of whom wrote him harrowing letters right until the time that they were deported to their deaths.

Despite the fact that the Nazis had put an abrupt end to his formal education, Schaller was determined to succeed. Deeply driven throughout his life, he displayed tenacity and an unshakeable self-belief. As a shrewd businessman, he was particularly skilled at reading the popular mood ahead of the time. In the immediate aftermath of the war, together with his brother Herman and his cousin Max Winterfeld, he began manufacturing costume jewellery and particularly pearlised, plastic beads known as “poppits”, that clicked together, which proved to be a fashion phenomenon.

Leon was the perfect salesman - charming, firm and persuasive — characteristics that helped him to establish strong business relationships with Woolworths. Within a short while, he diversified, sourcing products from all over the world.

During the 1970s, trading as Leon Schaller and Sons Ltd, the company became a leading supplier of umbrellas, sunglasses and fashion accessories, latterly focussed on developing “private label” health and beauty products for many of the multiple retailers in the UK.

Always community minded, Leon set up the Ilford branch of Young Israel where he met Freda Zaltsman; they were married in 1948. Freda’s devotion to the family allowed his business and philanthropic charitable ventures to thrive.

After her passing, acknowledging her to be “the inspiration behind my success”, he dedicated the Freda Schaller Beth Hamedrash in Ilford in her memory.

Grateful for the opportunities Britain had afforded him, Schaller was actively involved in the civic and Jewish community. He donated generously to schools, hospitals and Jewish causes. Notable among them were the London School of Jewish Studies, (LSJS) and King Solomon High School.

In 1998 he received an OBE for services to Jewish education and the Jewish community. A life-long Conservative, Leon regularly attended major gatherings of business leaders in Downing Street, during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

Schaller was passionate in his support for Israel, helping to improve its hospitals and yeshivot. He was especially active in building up the desert city of Arad, donating both the Schaller Medical Centre and a state of the art children’s day care facility, caring for children of working parents.

Endowed with natural empathy, he was particularly keen to sponsor dozens of student scholarships in the memory of Yoni Netanyahu, the IDF officer killed during the rescue of 102 hostages during Operation Entebbe, in 1976.

Despite considerable commercial success, Schaller remained a content and modest family man, living in the same home in Ilford for most of his life. He took great pride in the lives of his children and grandchildren and delighted in their professional and educational successes.

Leon Schaller is survived by his children and their spouses; Malcolm and Janice, Clive and Jennifer, Linda and Satinder; seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

An outstanding philanthropist and businessman, Leon Schaller saw his life as a gift which he used to enrich the lives of so many in the UK and Israel.

Leon Schaller: born August 15, 1922. 
Died May 2, 2017







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