Willi Usher


The Jewish Chronicle - - OBITUARIES -

AFORCEFUL per­son­al­ity and fierce cham­pion of refugees’ rights, Willi Usher made an un­usual late ca­reer switch from menswear to chaz­anut.

Born Willi Uscherowitz, the sec­ond of eight chil­dren, he was ed­u­cated at the Sperl school. An ex­cep­tion­ally tal­ented choir­boy, he sang at Vi­enna’s Great Syn­a­gogue and was tipped for a place in the Vi­enna Boys Choir, a prom­ise thwarted by ris­ing Nazism.

With two younger brothers, Siggi and Max, Willi was sent for safety on a Kin­der­trans­port to Eng­land in De­cem­ber 1938, and placed as a tai­lor’s ap­pren­tice in Leeds.

His older brother, Arthur, had ear­lier reached Pales­tine, where he joined the Pi­o­neer Corps. His mother, sis­ter and three other brothers were mur­dered in tran­sit to Poland.

In 1940 he was in­terned as a 16-yearold en­emy alien and sent to Canada for a year, re­turn­ing to Leeds via a brief pe­riod in the Isle of Man. He fi­nally joined a York­shire reg­i­ment and fought in Bel­gium, later be­com­ing an in­ter­preter with the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment.

He re­turned to Vi­enna when hos­til­i­ties had ceased, search­ing vainly for his fam­ily, but dis­cov­ered his brother, Arthur who, by chance, was sta­tioned near his own unit.

De­mo­bilised in 1946, he re­turned to Leeds, where he cel­e­brated his first mar­riage a few years later. He worked for Alexandre, the ma­jor Jewish-owned menswear group which had forged links to PX stores in US mil­i­tary bases.

Willi’s huge per­son­al­ity and per­sua- sive en­ergy made him a pop­u­lar fig­ure with Amer­i­can ser­vice­men, who or­dered their made-to-mea­sure suits from an An­glo-Aus­trian in Ger­many, to be tai­lored by im­mi­grant en­trepreneurs in York­shire.

Based in Ger­many, which partly ac­counted for the end of his mar­riage, Willi be­came in­volved in the re­vival of Jewish life in Darm­stadt, known as the “city of science” for its long tra­di­tion of schol­ar­ship and cul­ture.

In 1988, in a unique ges­ture of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, the city do­nated a beau­ti­fully de­signed mod­ern syn­a­gogue to its Jewish com­mu­nity. Now at re­tire­ment age, Willi threw him­self into Jewish life as full-time pro­fes­sional chazan.

Ful­fill­ing his pre­co­cious tal­ent as a boy so­prano, he was a pow­er­ful, res­o­nant tenor, breath­ing all the pas­sion of his mu­si­cal tra­di­tion into re­li­gious and com­mu­nal life as a can­tor and with his klezmer group, Oif Sim­ches.

With his sec­ond wife, Ger­man-born An­drea née Bäsler, who died in 1999, he en­joyed a set­tled fam­ily life with their four chil­dren. Re­tir­ing fi­nally on his 80th birth­day in 2003, he made fre­quent vis­its to Is­rael, where his youngest daugh­ter had moved.

He em­u­lated his older brother when he fi­nally moved to Is­rael, set­tling in Arad where he en­joyed the love and com­pan­ion­ship of his part­ner, Pn­ina.

A month be­fore he died he saw a photo of him­self as a 12-year-old choir­boy in a fea­ture ar­ti­cle in The Mir­ror on the Ger­man trav­el­ling rail­way ex­hi­bi­tion trac­ing the de­por­ta­tion routes of the Holo­caust. The jour­ney of com­mem­o­ra­tion and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion reached Auschwitz on May 8, VE Day.

He is sur­vived by a son, three daugh­ters and three grand­chil­dren.

Willi Usher holds the To­rah in the new Darm­stadt Syn­a­gogue in 1988

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