BORN VIENNA, NOVEMBER 11, 1923. DIED ARAD, FEBRUARY 5, 2008, AGED 84.
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