Rabbi William Wolff

Reconciliation and ‘Lebensfreude’ at the heart of German-born rabbi’s return to his roots


The title of Britta Wauer’s documentary film, Rabbi Wolff — A Gentleman Before God — is both piquant and apt. Willy, as he was affectionately called, was one of Fleet Street’s old-school gentlemen, dapper, sartorially elegant and idiosyncratic, with an endearing chuckle and a twinkle in his eye. Yet he stepped effortlessly from life as a daily newspaperman to that of a Reform rabbi, who ventured into East Germany after reunification in the 1990s, and worked tirelessly towards a Jewish renaissance.

Rabbi Willy Wolff, who has died aged 93, escaped his native Berlin with his family in 1933 in the wake of the Nazi uprising. His background was Orthodox but he was attracted to Liberal Judaism and to journalism.

He worked for the Mirror, the Evening Standard and the Mail, as a gossip columnist, as a correspondent for a Scottish Sunday newspaper and an obituary writer for The Times.

He was born Wilhelm Wolff into an observant middle class family in Berlin, the second child of Charlotte and Alfred Wolff, two years after the birth of his sister Ruth. His twin brother Jo followed within minutes. Alfred remained a detached figure in the children’s lives, but they were deeply loved by their mother, and Willy continued to care for her during her long and difficult life in their Hendon, north-west London home.

Alfred belonged to the Orthodox Adass Yisrael community in Berlin and oversaw Willy’s early synagogue experience, probably stimulating his interest in the rabbinate, despite his mother’s professed atheism.

The Nazis’ success at the polls in 1933 was an early warning sign. On September 27, the family took the night train to Amsterdam, but the move unsettled Alfred, who had a breakdown and left for England to find work in the medical rubber industry. In August, 1939 he phoned his wife and told her to come to London immediately. The war years saw the breakdown of the Wolffs’ marriage and Alfred died in Shenley Hospital in 1946.

Willy’s sense of displacement and loneliness were probably subsumed into intense study at Hendon County Grammar School, with his twin. But his subsequent course in international relations and economics at the London School of Economics was cut short by serious illness. Turning vegetarian and avoiding dairy produce proved the long-term answer, but interrogating the maître d when out with friends at a smart restaurant often caused blushes at the time.

“I kick myself again when I think how lightly I dismissed what I took to be his dietary idiosyncrasies,” Professor Rabbi Tony Bayfield lamented.

At the age of 16, career advice for Willy hovered between journalism and the rabbinate. Journalism won. He became senior political correspondent at the Mirror and this marked a turning point. Living with his mother in Hendon, he also bought Little Paddock off-plan, one of four bungalows under construction near Henley on Thames.

It was part of another aspect of his personality — to live the life of an English gentleman despite the tinge of a Berlin accent and his almost Germanic precision of speech. He was an English eccentric in the sweetest way. Journalism was one thing, a flutter at Royal Ascot in his morning suit and top hat, another.

“He really loved his journalistic career — travelling with the Foreign Secretary of the day, patiently building relationships of trust which often endured beyond the political career,” said Rabbi Bayfield. “He had a close relationship with Harold Wilson — he was a great admirer of David Owen but ambivalent about Margaret Thatcher whose lack of a concept of Europe and of Britain’s relationship with Europe was crucial to Willy’s understanding of what was even more indispensable to his self-identity than his Britishness.”

Leo Baeck College gave Willy an opportunity to express his personal Judaism, which placed him at odds with his sister Ruth, who moved to Gateshead after marrying an ultra-Orthodox Jew. But tragedy loomed: he faced Ruth’s premature death in a car crash after visiting him, and his brother Jo’s suicide in Perth, Australia, where he had been a lecturer in German studies.

After five years at Leo Baeck, Willy worked with Rabbi Hugo Gryn at West London Reform Synagogue. He retained his journalistic skills by producing, with Rabbi Bayfield, the quarterly Manna, published by the Forum for Progressive Judaism for nearly 28 years. He was delighted when the journal became digitalised: “I hope that a new generation will get as much enjoyment from it as I did from writing it”.

His ministry took him to Newcastle, to Milton Keyes, Reading, Brighton and Wimbledon. But on hearing a radio broadcast about the fall of the Berlin Wall, he wrote: “That is how I realised that the fate of Germany could still move me.”

Retirement from Wimbledon at the age of 75 led him to offer his services to Germany. In the early ’90s, Soviet Jews poured into Germany, feeding demand for rabbis, cantors and educators. As State Rabbi of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, north-eastern Germany, his work covered the Russian and Ukrainian immigrant populations of Schwerin, Rostock and Wismar, who had little Jewish knowledge.

Willy had no Russian but managed to re-invigorate the communities with a love of Judaism. For this he was made an Honorary Citizen of Schwerin, but in his soul he always mourned the loss of a German Jewry who, he said — “had managed the feat of living in two cultures. People knew their Schiller and Goethe, and their Torah.”

His work was acclaimed by Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who described him as an outstanding personality who had “made an enormous contribution to reconciliation and also to the development of Jewish life”. However, Willy’s restless spirit did not allow him to remain in one place. He made a regular midweek commute back to his beloved book-lined Henley bungalow, to visit relatives in Jerusalem or to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot to place a bet!

Late in life Willy became an unexpected film star — there was certainly something Chaplinesque about his charisma. In 2011, German non-Jews watched him in Britta Bauer’s film about Berlin’s historic Weissensee Jewish Cemetery, followed by her 90-
minute documentary about his life, Rabbi Wolff — A Gentleman Before God. In the film, Willy expresses that gentle sardonic humour that can be truly understood only in his native German. Wauer paid tribute to his “wisdom and his smile and for what we call Lebensfreude, a deep joy for life.”

gloria tessler

William Wolff: born February 13, 1927. Died July 8, 2020

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