His Day in Jewish History |

1930: Prominent U.K. Rabbi Is Born

Hugo Gryn was born in Czechoslovakia, survived the Holocaust as a teenager and rose to prominence - as well as media fame - as a leading Reform rabbi in the United Kingdom.

David Green
David B. Green
The original interior of the West London Synagogue.
The original interior of the West London Synagogue.Credit: West London Synagogue
David Green
David B. Green

June 25, 1930, is the birth date of the late British rabbi Hugo Gryn, a Holocaust survivor who for 32 years officiated at England’s largest synagogue, the Reform West London Synagogue. He was widely known to the British public in general from his frequent appearances as a panelist on the BBC Radio 4 show “The Moral Maze” and the “Thought for the Day” feature.

Hugo Gabriel Gryn was born in the town of Berehovo, in what was then Czechoslovakia, and is today in Ukraine. His father, Geza Gryn, was a prosperous wood merchant; his mother was the former Bella Neufeld.

In April 1944, the family – Hugo, his parents and his 10-year-old brother, Gaby – were confined to the ghetto in Berehovo, and from there were deported to Auschwitz, in late May. Gaby was murdered; Bella survived. Hugo and Geza were used as slave laborers, and then, just before the war’s end, were sent on two death marches. They both made it through the marches, but the father died shortly after liberation, in May 1945. Hugo returned to his hometown, which he found in ruins, but where he was reunited with his mother.

In 1946, Gryn was one of 732 child survivors who were brought to the United Kingdom, where he lived and studied in several places before heading off to Israel in 1948 to serve in the War of Independence. Back in London, Gryn came under the influence of Rabbi Leo Baeck, one of the pioneers of Reform Judaism in the U.K., and himself a Holocaust survivor from Germany. At his encouragement, Gryn applied to study for the Reform rabbinate, at Hebrew Union College, in Cincinnati, OH.

Following ordination, and then, in 1957, marriage to Jacqueline Selby, Rabbi Gryn was sent by the Movement for Progressive Judaism to Bombay, India, where he served at the city’s Reform synagogue, the Jewish Religious Union, for three years. Seven years later, after working for the Movement for Progressive Judaism in New York, and then for the Joint Distribution Committee in Prague and in Budapest, he returned to London.

In 1965, he received his initial appointment, as associate rabbi, at the West London Synagogue, and following that, became its senior rabbi, staying at the institution until his death, in 1996. The synagogue shared its premises with what was now called the Leo Baeck College, the rabbinical seminary of the Reform and Progressive movements in the U.K., and Gryn held a variety of senior positions at the school.

He was active in a variety of interfaith organizations, and had good relations with the leaders of Orthodox Judaism in the U.K, both Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits and his successor, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. When Gryn died, therefore, on August 18, 1996, there was some irony in the fact that Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Synagogue, the umbrella organization of Orthodox Jewry in Britain, stayed away from his funeral. Among the general public, as well as many Jews, the “chief rabbi” is indeed perceived to be – and often acts as though he is -- the lead representative of all British Jewry. In fact, he actually heads one among several movements, and has to deal with conflicting ideologies and politics within his own.

Although Sacks and Gryn were known to be personal friends, and the Orthodox rabbi, who will finish an 18-year term this September, visited with the family after Gryn’s death, he is the head of a religious movement that does not recognize Gryn’s movement. And in a letter leaked to the press at the time, written to an Orthodox colleague, he criticized the late Reform rabbi as a “destroyer of the faith.” He also told his correspondent that he would be attending a memorial ceremony for Gryn in recognition of him “not as a Reform rabbi but as a survivor of the Holocaust.”

Recently, in a letter to the Jewish Chronicle, Jacqueline Gryn reiterated her and her late husband’s friendship with Rabbi Sacks, and said that the time has come for me to lay to rest, once and for all, the idea… that there ever was a ‘Hugo Gryn Affair,’ as far as I am concerned.”

In 1994, Gryn appeared on the BBC’s legendary “Desert Island Discs” program, and played an eclectic range of music ranging from Mozart and Janacek to Ravi Shankar and Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band, as well as Israeli clarinetist Israel Zohar’s rendering of “Kol Ha’olam Kulo Gesher Tzar Me’od.”

After his death, one of Rabbi Gryn’s four children, Naomi Gryn, published the book “Chasing Shadows,” her father’s memoir of his childhood and experience of the Holocaust. She also produced a film of the same name, which combined archival footage and contemporary scenes of her father revisiting his childhood hometown of Berehovo.



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