‘Ray of hope’ rabbi who made the world laugh dies aged 93

Rabbi Willy Wolff escaped Germany as a child but returned to the country to rebuild Jewish life


Rabbi William Wolff, who escaped Nazi Germany to England as a child and later helped rebuild Jewish life in former East Germany, has died in London at the age of 93.

Communal leaders in Germany are mourning the loss of Wolff, who served Jewish communities in former East Germany from 2002 to 2015. After his retirement, he continued to travel between his two homes, but eventually chose to stay in London.

Born Wilhelm Wolff, he escaped Berlin with his family in 1933, when he was six. They first settled in Holland. Six years later they fled again, this time to the UK, where young Wolff ultimately became a journalist. But his interest in rabbinical studies returned in later years; he was accepted into the rabbinical programme at the Leo Baeck College in London and ordained in 1984.

Armed with formidable language skills – English, German, French, and eventually Dutch and Russian – the newly ordained rabbi ultimately returned to Germany to serve a Jewish community that was growing thanks to the influx of former Soviet Jews since 1990. In his post as rabbi for the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, he became known for his teaching, his humour and his outreach to non-Jews.

Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, described him as “an outstanding personality. I have always treasured him as a rabbi who was there for his community in the best sense of the word, as teacher and pastor, and I have also cherished him as a person with great knowledge and a fine sense of humour."

Sigmount Koenigsberg, antisemitism commissioner for Berlin's Jewish community, described Wolff as "a ray of hope in this world. I will miss him, his wisdom and humour."

He became known to Germany’s movie-going audiences in 2011, through filmmaker Britta Wauer's documentary about Berlin’s historic Weissensee Jewish Cemetery, “In Heaven Underground.” 

Wolff was the golden thread through the film, sharing Jewish pearls of wisdom related to death and dying. Together with his understanding of traditional and liberal Judaism, his expressive laugh and the sparkle in his eye made him the perfect spokesperson.

Audiences loved him so much that they begged Wauer to make a documentary about the rabbi, which she did: “Rabbi Wolff - A Gentleman Before God.”

“We will miss him deeply,” Wauer said on her Facebook profile, as tributes poured in today. “He had an immense capacity to love and to be loved. May he rest in peace.”

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