Address delivered by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the funeral of Hyman (“Bill”) Wolfensohn, at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, on 8 December, 1975.
It does not often happen that a funeral service is held in a synagogue. This honour is reserved for a very few very exceptional people who have served Jewry and Judaism in extraordinary fashion. When then we honour Mr Wolfensohn with this distinction this morning, it is because he was a man who was eminently worthy of it.
He was in many ways a unique character. He was loved by many people, feared by some, unpopular with a few whose pretensions he could not abide or with whom he may have clashed leshem shamayim. But whether one knew him well or only slightly, whether one were on good terms with him or not, one could not fail to have a remarkable respect for him.
He touched the lives of countless people, great and small. He was on close terms with the high and with the mighty, and he corresponded for years with men of eminence who were proud to call him their friend; he also performed innumerable quiet acts of thoughtfulness towards ordinary people whom he treated with a dignity that made them feel ten feet tall.
He moved ponderously, even regally; but his mind was agile and sharp, his memory amazing, his judgment sound, his generosity abundant, his thoughtfulness touching, his sense of loyalty exceptional.
This is perhaps not the occasion to tell his life’s story. But since
even those who knew him well probably never realised the full extent of what he did, I hope you will allow me to trace some of the outlines of his life.
He appears to me to personify the rabbinic comment on the Biblical verse, “Like a shadow are our days on the earth”. The rabbis ask in the ancient Midrash, “‘What kind of shadow do our days on earth resemble?” One view likens our days to the shadow of a wall, another to the shadow of a tree, yet another to the shadow of a bird flying in the air.
And it has been aptly said that every one of these suggestions has its relevance. For when a man is young he is like a bird, flying about, full of ambition and drive. When he settles down he spreads out like a tree with branches that bear fruit. Then as he grows older he is like a wall, with stability and dependability, standing firm and giving strength to others.
Mr Wolfensohn’s life may be said to have experienced each of these phases. As a youth and young man he was, like a bird, notable for his ambition and drive. He was a brilliant scholar at school and at university, where he studied both law and medicine. In the First World War he enlisted, though officially too young, and he reached commissioned rank. In the Royal Fusiliers he was the recruiting officer, and he was responsible for recruiting Ben Gurion and Moshe Sharett (and Sharett was later one of the attendants at the Wolfensohn’s wedding.)
He was one of the crucial personalities in the formation of the Jewish units in the First World War, and it was he who issued the first Hebrew orders in the British army. In these years he was close to Chaim Weizmann, and was secretary to James de Rothschild. Among his colleagues and friends from this period onwards were many of the leading men in twentieth-century Jewish history.
After the war he was active in the affairs of Anglo-Jewry, and then in the 1920’s he came to Australia and entered business, later becoming a business consultant. Here, as the 1930’s gave way to the 1940 ‘s, he helped hundreds of European Jews to escape and personally saw that they established themselves in Australia.
In Jewish communal life he was one of the founders of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, and for many years — at a time of grave crisis for Jewry and Israel — he was in charge of the community’s public relations work. The service he rendered the Jewish community was not always known to the wider community; he knew the truth of Neville Laski’s words that the best public work is done privately.
He was active in a variety of Jewish communal organisations, always playing a significant role though not feeling the need to hold office. Among the causes he worked for were the Great Synagogue, the Wolper Hospital, and NAJEX, in whose ranks he was one of the most notable “A.K.’s”.
As he entered middle age he became less like the bird that flies from place to place and more like the tree that strikes roots and has branches that spread out. He saw his children and his proteges grow to maturity. He became more and more the counsellor to whom a multitude of people would turn for help and advice — professional, business, communal and personal.
He did so much for people that no-one will ever know the full story. He advised, he encouraged, he chided, he rebuked. He had a sound instinct that helped many people towards success. He set up many worthwhile relationships and got many constructive things going. In business his extensive filing and information system (much of which was probably carried in his head) enabled him to exert widespread influence.
But he could drop a client, a colleague or an associate if they did not live up to what he expected of them. He seemed to enjoy his controversies, but even those towards whom he would not be conciliatory had a grudging admiration for him because they recognised his worth.
In recent years he was less like the bird and the tree of which the rabbis speak, and more like the wall — solid and dependable. Many people would come and talk to him and seek his guidance. His influence remained immense though often unobtrusive. He continued to give or secure help for individuals and causes. He maintained his network of friends and correspondents. He derived great satisfaction from the increasing success of the newer generations of his family.
Even when, because of the illness of his talented wife and his own physical limitations, he gave up his office and spent much of his time at home, he was happy in his armchair near his books and his telephone — but one thing we could depend on, that he would not fail to venture out to come to the synagogue.
Here in the Great Synagogue be sat in the middle of the front row, dressed formally and exuding dignity, and relishing his role as the elder statesman of the community. To the congregation he was a reliable guide as to synagogue procedure and Jewish usage. To the officials of the congregation he was the soul of kindliness, though never failing to criticise if he felt it necessary. To me personally our few minutes’ chat before the Shabbat morning service, when he would comment concisely, even pungently, on communal affairs, was a highlight of the week.
Mr Wolfensohn knew everything before it happened. He knew how certain people habitually acted and reacted – and he was a man of decided views who was not impressed by the popular adulation that some charismatic figures attracted. He had a keen and unusual sense of humour. Be was a man of habit who led an organised life and organised others – even his driver and his favourite tradespeople, many of whom served him for decades.
He was a man of character, and he was a character. And to say he will be sadly missed is a considerable understatement. I doubt whether we shall see his like again. But he has enriched our lives, and with all our sadness we thank God that we knew him.
To his wife and children and grandchildren we offer our deep sympathy. May his memory be ever an inspiration for them. May God grant them good health and long life and every blessing. And as for our dear friend Bill Wolfensohn himself, we say: Go in peace, and may your resting place be in eternal peace.