Obituary: Marcel Anisfeld

Holocaust refugee who became an entrepreneur at the age of eight


Holocaust survivor and entrepreneur Marcel Anisfeld, who has died aged 89, was variously known as the doyen of London’s smoked salmon trade — or the king of smoked salmon. His involvement in Holocaust education led to an interview with TV presenter Natasha Kaplinsky at a survivor event. Later, at a retirement home in the presence of the King, then Prince of Wales, the self-professed royalist led the Happy Birthday chorus on Charles’ birthday.

My father Marcel Anisfeld ran the smoked salmon company H Forman & Son until his retirement in 1998. His chosen stationery motto, Quality and Service, represents everything that Dad was. He was the embodiment of quality, through and through, in every aspect of his life, and he lived to serve.

Marcel and his sister Jacqueline were born in Nowy Sacz, near Krakow Poland, to well- off parents, Regina and Osjasz, a director of a local bank, who was kind and generous to local people.  As a child Marcel experienced little antisemitism but in September 1939 the Germans marched into Poland and approached their town so the family moved east to Przemysl.

In a detailed memoir Marcel recalled: “We were not badly treated by them and I even remember a German officer offering some sweets to my mother for my sister and me. When the officer left my mother would not give us the sweets as she said they may be poisoned”.

However, rumours that the Germans were sending all adult men to labour camps persuaded the family to move again further east to Lvov, then under Russian occupation. But food was scarce and there were lengthy queues for everything. Hearing there were no shortages under the Germans, Osjasz applied for a permit to return to Nowy Sacz. But no one was allowed to leave.

“Some weeks later, in the middle of the night, we heard banging on the door of our flat”, Marcel writes.” My father opened the door and there standing in front of him were two Russian soldiers with fixed bayonets. They screamed out orders: ‘you have ten minutes to get down to the street’. Other people asked politely ‘where are we going?’ and the answer was: ‘you put your name on a list to go back to the Germans and now you are all going’”.

Hundreds of people were waiting in the freezing cold, dark street when they arrived. They were marched to the railway station with the few belongings they had found time to pack and were pushed into window-less cattle trucks by screaming soldiers. The train stopped once a day and the doors were opened with a bucket of soup placed inside for everyone.

As days passed they realised they were not travelling back to Poland but eastwards, where the temperatures were lower and the snow deeper. After some six weeks they reached Asino, a village in Siberia in the Omsk district.

“Why had we been brought here? we asked, and the answer was that we were considered to be German spies. We had supposedly learned all the Russian secrets while we were living in Lvov and wanted to pass these secrets and information onto the Germans. How ridiculous! Families with young children and babies and elderly parents all spying? At that time we hated the Russian regime, but we did not realise that, in fact, the Russians saved our lives by taking us away from the Germans and imprisoning us in the wilds of Siberia”.

On arrival, they were marched to the centre of the village and ordered to lay down in a large, wooden communal hall, without seats or bedding. They were told to cut down trees to build houses for themselves. “The snow was very often higher than the doors to the building and tunnels had to be dug for the men to leave for woodcutting. A few weeks later a number of wooden houses were finished; no heating, no lighting and no indoor toilets, just one room, divided by a hanging blanket for two families”.

Months later they heard Hitler had declared war on Russia and they were no longer considered enemies of the state. They were allowed to move anywhere but only within Russia. They settled in Bukhara, which had a large Jewish Uzbekh population. One welcoming family gave them a room on the top of their large house and Osjasz, a businessman since early childhood, found a source of food.

“His activities of buying and selling made him a spekuliant (a speculator), considered one of the most serious crimes in communist Russia. Had he been caught he would have been thrown into jail for ten to 15 years. So I, at the ripe old age of eight or nine, used to help my father carry some of the products to the buyers as it was safer than my father carrying things”.

Neither parent earned enough to support the whole family so young Marcel woke up very early to buy newspapers which he cut into small pieces and sold to people for rolling cigarettes. He also carried a heavy metal bucket to the nearest well, filled it with as much water as he could carry back home, and sold mugfuls to passers-by.

In the summer of 1943 a typhus epidemic broke out across Uzbekhistan, due to malnutrition and lack of sanitation and medication. Marcel was the only one in the family who did not contract the disease, and they survived due to his selling or bartering  valuables to pay for medical help.
They received a letter offering to transport them to Iran to join the families of the Polish army of General Anders, from where they would be taken to Palestine. But unfortunately, neither Marcel’s parents nor his sister were well enough to leave their beds, and that opportunity passed.

Eventually they learned family members had been shot or died in Auschwitz, and returning home to Nowy Sacz, they found nothing left for them. “Our beautiful apartment, taken over by the Nazis during the war, as the Gestapo headquarters, was now the local police station. My father’s business premises had been taken over by local people. The Jewish population which, before the war, was about 40-50 percent of the total 30,000 population, was wiped out, apart from the people like ourselves who escaped eastwards”.

Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld helped Marcel and Jacqueline come to the UK on Kindertransport in 1946. They stayed with various relatives who had arrived before the war. Marcel was educated in Aryeh House school in Brighton, and later in Highbury. Their parents reached the UK in1948.

Before joining his wife’s family smoked salmon business in 1960, Marcel worked for his father and uncle, who had a button-holing business in the East End. In 1959 he married Irene Forman, daughter of Louis and Gilda Forman, and granddaughter of Aaron (Harry) Forman, the founder of H.Forman & Son, claimed to be the world’s oldest producer of smoked salmon.

Marcel Anisfeld ran the business until 1998 when he retired following a fire at the premises. I took it over at the time. He supported many charities, notably Chai Cancer Care and MDA — donating two ambulances in recent years. He was an associate founder of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts.

Dad had an extremely tough start in life — and it taught him so many things plus the meaning of hard work. He never stopped from 4.00 am every morning. He was the best negotiator in the world, always getting a superb deal, whether buying wild salmon in Billingsgate Market, or simply haggling his way around pretty much every purchase He is survived by his wife Irene, his daughter Sharon Pollins, me, his son Lance and daughters Candice Dwek and Suzanne Anisfeld.

Marcel Anisfeld: born September 17 1934. Died November 10 2023

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive