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  • Sir Sigmund Sternberg2 June 1921‒18 October 2016
  • Antony Polonsky (bio)

Sir Sigmund Sternberg (universally known as 'Siggy'), long-standing president of the Institute for Polish–Jewish Studies, died on 18 October 2016 at the age of 95. Born in Budapest the only son of a Budapest antiquarian, who died when he was 14, he grew up in an Orthodox environment. After attending a Jewish gymnasium, he went to a commercial college, where he was the butt of antisemitic taunts about 'killing Jesus'. As he liked to relate, having routed his principal tormenter in a fight, he began to take an interest in Christianity. After graduating from this college, he fled to England, where he had some cousins, on the eve of the Second World War to avoid arrest, and was admitted as a 'friendly enemy alien'. Barred from working, he joined the Civil Defence Corps. After the war, he returned to Hungary to find his mother, who had survived, and brought her to England. In 1949 he married Ruth Schiff; the marriage was dissolved in the mid-1960s but the couple remained on good terms, and Sternberg was particularly attentive when, thirty years later, Ruth was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In 1970 he married Hazel (née Everett-Jones), the widow of his cousin Victor Sternberg.

In England he built up a business empire, starting as a scrap-metal dealer and moving subsequently into property and the marketing of computer software. From the 1960s he devoted himself to his philanthropic interests, for which he received a knighthood. He was extremely active both in Jewish communal affairs and in interfaith activities. He was a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and from 1972 until 1983 deputy chairman of the Labour finance and industry group. He was also vice president of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and chairman of the Institute for Archaeo-Metallurgical Studies. Rotary International made him their Paul Harris fellow in 1989. He had a close working relationship with Frank, later Lord, Judd, a former director of Oxfam, who made use of his assistance in dealing with tensions between Oxfam and the Jewish community.

In his capacity as patron of the International Council of Christians he was dedicated to the improvement of relations between Christians and Jews, for which he was made a papal knight commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great (KCSG). In this capacity, he facilitated the first visit by a pope, John Paul II, who [End Page 501] had awarded him the KCSG, to the Tempio Maggiore synagogue in Rome in 1986. During the event the pope turned to Sternberg and said: 'Well, what do you think of my coming here?' Sternberg replied: 'Wonderful, but you're 2,000 years too late.'

Sternberg also played a major role in resolving the bitter conflict over the setting up of a Carmelite convent in the former concentration camp at Auschwitz. I accompanied him as his interpreter on his visit to Warsaw in July 1986, when he had arranged to meet Cardinal Józef Glemp, the primate of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland. The meeting was to take place in the primate's residence in Warsaw, and before we went there we discussed how to conduct the meeting. Sternberg, who was a great supporter of the Rotary movement and had recently been involved in the opening of the first Rotary club in Poland, wanted to explain his role in this event to the primate and to stress the importance of Rotary in developing the economy of Poland. I vainly tried to tell him that Cardinal Glemp had a rather stereotypical view of the world, and that to start by talking about Rotary would only strengthen his suspicions that the proposal was part of some Jewish-masonic conspiracy. In the event, the meeting went very well, but it took a difficult quarter of an hour in which I, as Sternberg's interpreter, had to dispel this misconception.

More recently he was one of the founders of the Three Faiths Forum, a dialogue group of Christians, Muslims, and Jews which he set up in 1997 with Sheikh...


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