Otto M. Schiff C.B.E., the founder, chair and director of the Jewish Refugees Committee (JRC), was honored yesterday when a blue plaque was unveiled at Woburn House, Tavistock Square, London. Woburn House served as the Committee’s centre from 1933 to 1939. Dignitaries who attended included The Lord Sassoon, one of Schiff’s six great nieces and nephews, who were all present at the unveiling and The Rt. Hon. the Lord Pickles, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues and Head of the United Kingdom Delegation to the IHRA.
Refugee work in two world wars
Otto Schiff was born in 1875 in Frankfurt, the nephew of banker Jacob Schiff. In 1896, Otto immigrated to London at the age of 21, where he became a partner in the merchant banking firm Bourke, Schiff and Co. Otto’s brother Ernst later followed in his footsteps. During the First World War, the brothers ran shelters for Belgian refugees. For this work, Otto was awarded an OBE while his brother received an MBE.
He was appointed head of the Jewish Refugees Committee (JRC), which later became the German Jewish Aid Committee and today is known as World Jewish Relief, the UK Jewish community’s international humanitarian agency. From 1933, the Committee was responsible for making the organisational arrangements to bring Jews out of Germany and Austria to Britain, for supporting them financially once there, and for helping them to find accommodation and employment. Otto Schiff was instrumental in setting up the necessary support infrastructure to maintain the Jewish refugees from Nazism in Britain and received the CBE in recognition of his role at the JRC, which included supporting the child refugees who came on the Kindertransport. Otto Schiff was also President of the Jews’ Temporary Shelter, which assisted Jewish refugees.
Following his death in 1952, Otto Schiff bequeathed his locally listed mansion, 14 Netherhall Gardens, as a Trust and care home for the benefit of the refugees of Nazi oppression.
"A resolution to do good"
The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) Trustee Frank Harding, who devised the plaque scheme, said: “Otto Schiff was a tireless humanitarian who devoted much of his life to assisting refugees escaping oppression and war, but it is for his work at the Jewish Refugees committee that we are delighted to install this permanent recognition in his honour. Through our plaque scheme, we commemorate the lives of individual refugees and the people and places associated with them so that their contributions can be remembered in perpetuity.”
Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck, spiritual leader of the Jews from Germany, and for whom the AJR has also mounted a commemorative plaque, paid this tribute following Schiff’s death in 1952: “The name of Otto Schiff carried a special message in those years, when German Jews, who had helped others so often and so indefatigably, had to look round for help themselves in ever growing anguish. In those days we heard of the work which Otto Schiff undertook with such courage and such simplicity, the work for which he laid the foundations. We heard of faithful service, of a man who never tried to hide or give up, of an honest fight against evil, a resolution to do good, a will to help. This, too, was heroism at a time when many were timid and half-hearted. Such was the help, the message of hope, which the name of Otto Schiff contained even for those who lived far from the immediate sphere of his devoted service. We Jews from Germany will never forget Otto Schiff. Our heart-felt gratitude to him will remain part of our history.”
The Otto Schiff plaque follows the unveiling of a plaque for Milein Cosman and Hans Keller in November and will be added to the interactive map of the location of all AJR plaques, with information and photographs about each one.