Hugo Gryn

Rabbi Hugo Gryn
by Albert H. Friedlander

Rabbi Hugo Gabriel Gryn CBE, MA, DHL, DD (25 June 1930-18 August 1996), rabbi, community leader,educator and broadcaster, was born in Berehovo (Hungarian name Beregszasz), Czechoslovakia 25 June 1930, in a home filled with great learning and warmth. His father, Geza Gryn (1900 – 1945) was a timber merchant.and his first teacher. His mother was Bella Neufeld of Silce (marriage in 1929).  Hugo Gryn was among the 10,000  Jews confined to the Berehovo ghetto in April 1944. All were sent to Auschwitz  on May 28, 1944 and arrived there on May 31.  Hugo went with  his mother, father, grandparents, and his brother Gaby aged ten. Hugo, aged thirteen, was advised to say that he was nineteen, a carpenter and joiner. He and his father were sent to work, his  brother and grandfather were sent to the gas chambers.

Hugo Gryn and his father, together with 2,600 Jews were sent to the death march from the Lieberose camp to Sachsenhausen and than to Mauthausen. Less than a thousand survived that march. Hugo was freed in Gunskirchen on May 4,1945, but his father died a few days later from typhus and exhaustion; his mother, Bella, survived.

In February 1946, Hugo Gryn joined the last group of boys to leave from Prague to Great Britain, in a Lancaster bomber arranged through the Central British Fund, and came to Prestwick, near Manchester. He was then sent to Lasswade, Scotland, to the Polton House farm school. Later that year, he moved to London and began studying mathematics and biochemistry.  In 1948, he interrupted his studies to volunteer in the Israeli army in the defence of that land. While in London, he came under the influence of Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of German Jewry who had survived the Terezin Concentration Camp. Baeck became his guide and mentor, and so, in a different way, did the Hon. Lily Montagu, the leader of British Liberal Jewry, who gave him insights into a different way of religious life. Both guided him towards the rabbinate. In 1950, he came to Cincinnati, Ohio, were he received his academic degrees from the University of Cincinnati and from the Hebrew Union College, were he was ordained in 1957. During his studies, he received his BHL (Bachelor of Hebrew Letters); his MAHL (Master of Hebrew Letters, and later his DHL (Doctor of Hebrew Letters).  His honorary Doctor of Divinity was awarded in 1982, 25 years after his ordination.

Hugo Gryn married Jacqueline Selby in London in 1957 on the 1st of January, and was sent to Bombay, India by the World Union for Progressive Judaism which had sponsored his studies. There, he served the Jewish Religious Union from 1957 – 1960, and their first child Gabrielle was born there. Hugo Gryn then became the executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, working out of its New York offices at 838 Fifth Avenue and living in 5 West 86th Street where three children were born, Naomi, Rachelle, and David. Rabbi Gryn travelled extensively, particularly in Europe. In 1980, he became the Chairman of the European Board of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Meanwhile, in 1962, he accepted a position at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, as a Senior Executive, taking on difficult assignments in Prague and in Budapest.

In 1964, Hugo Gryn became first the Associate Rabbi and then Senior Rabbi of the West London Synagogue, the most prestigious post in Anglo-Jewry Progressive Judaism, and led that community until his death in 1996. In due course, he became the central figure of British Reform Judaism. Its organization, the RSGB (Reform Synagogues of Great Britain) elected him as their president during his last years, in recognition of his work through the decades (1990 -). When the rabbis of the ULPS (The Union of Liberal and Progressive Judaism) created an umbrella organization for all Progressive rabbis, the ‘Council of Reform and Liberal Rabbis’, Hugo Gryn served as chairman.

From the beginning, Hugo Gryn became closely associated with the Leo Baeck College (founded in 1957). The College shared the building of the West London Synagogue, and when Hugo Gryn became the senior rabbi, he began serving the College  as bursar, lecturer, and as its vice president until he died.   His teaching of practical rabbinics became essential to more than one hundred rabbis ordained during his association with the College. Education became a major field of conern for him, and he served as Chairman of the Standing Committee of Interfaith Dialogue in Education (1972). In his last years, from 1991 on, he was also a Governor of the United World College of the Atlantic, and lectured there against the advice of his doctors during the last weeks of his illness. He was also the co-chairman of the Rainbow Group (in 1975) founded by the Rev. Peter Schneider and meeting alternatively at Westminster Abbey and at his West London Synagogue. Hugo Gryn was the founder and first chairman of the Interfaith Network  UK in 1987, and remained its guiding spirit.

Some of his theological reflections are recorded in his Chasing Shadows (written with Naomi Gryn) Viking, and published posthumously in 2000.  In one of his many TV appearances (BBC’s Light of Experience , January 1978) he stated that he had now become aware of his need to act as a witness of the Holocaust experience. In 1986, when the Terezin Kaddish (by Ronald Senator and Albert Friedlander) was first presented at Canterbury Cathedral, Hugo Gryn was the narrator and blew the shofar in a moving perfornance. It was part of his continuing task as a witness, but his was always a calm voice of reconciliation. The centre of his work  continued to be his work as a rabbi.  Hugo Gryn was not an orator, but his quiet, sometimes stuttering style demanded attention because of its content which displayed  a deep spirituality and a love for his community reaching out to the listeners.  In a congregation of close to 3,000 families, most of them felt a special relationship with this rabbi, and his pastoral work was phenomenal. It seemed that he had time for everyone, including itinerants and non-Jews who brought him their problems.  In fact, with that large a community, he could not meet all needs, but he achieved much.  He was the ‘rabbi’s rabbi’, a good colleague who gave sound advice. His common sense and practical experience were informed by a rabbinical tradition where knowledge of the text and an instinctive understanding of human problems provided basic answers to his colleagues.

Assessing his work in the community, one must first point to his influence as a religious thinker who helped shape the British Reform movement.Their standard prayer book Forms of Prayer (1977) was written by a group under his chairmanship. the later liturgy, as Forms of Prayer III: Prayers for the High Holydays (1985) show his influence in remembering the Holocaust within the liturgy. Within the general Jewish community, which also included a close friendship with the two Chief Rabbis of his time (Lord Jakobovits and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks). This provided a bridge between the traditional and progressive communities. Both Chief Rabbis held private and confidential meetings with the leaders of Progressive Judaism at at their home in Hamilton Terrace; and Hugo chaired many of these meetings. There, conflicts were resolved and publicity was avoided. Christian leaders also attended, and solid achievements within Inter-faith Dialogue were achieved, not least through Hugo’s skill in handling these discussions.

Hugo Gryn’s role in Anglo-Jewish life grew out of the complexities of a community aware of its minority status.  The traditional community has rigid organizational structures with a ‘centralised’ government, where the Chief Rabbi has much authority. The Progressive movement gives far more power to the laity, since every congregation is independent, and its board of management employs the rabbi under the terms of a fixed contract. Even its ritual committee can set itself against customs and traditions found in other congregations, although a consensus exists through the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain which is still dominated by the laity. Rabbi Dr. Harold Reinhart ruled the West London Synagogue for decades, but was in the end retired against his will. He had, however, created a place for  refugee rabbis, and was succeeded by Rabbi Dr. Van der Zyl from Germany.  Hugo Gryn was more than a refugee; he was a concentration camp survivor who had to deal with the grandees of Anglo-Jewry. Almost adopted by that synagogue when he first came to England, he still had to gain the experience of a Bombay community and the organizational work of HIAS and the WUPJ which developed his skill as a negotiator. At the West London Synagogue, he was surrounded by a capable staff and became accepted by the most influential members. His charm and pastoral skills established him with the community. It may still be argued that the increasingly large role he played in public life was a key element in overcoming the resistance he encountered within the congregation. His relationship with various Archbishops of Canterbury and his work for inter-racial harmony were even more instructive to the community than his sermons.

Rabbi Hugo Gryn became one of the great friends of the British public through his regular appearances on the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Moral Maze’, a weekly broadcast  in which he participated during the last years of his life. Many saw him as the central figure in this programme, and certainly as one cause of its popularity. Through him, this discussion programme dealing with ethical problems remained open and clear, with the rabbi generally summarizing the conclusions with great openness and honesty.  It is rare for a TV newscaster to break out in tears; but when Michael Buerk announced the death of Hugo Gryn on the news, the friendship which had developed during the ‘Moral Maze’ broadcasts manifested itself in that rare outburst of emotion. Naomi Gryn’s film of her father ‘Chasing Shadows’ went to his hometown for the filming in 1989, and was first shown on Channel 4 in 1991 (it was repeated after his death in 1996). It gave him a chance to deal with the past and future of the Jewish people and remains a testimonial to him.  He was generally interviewed on television when issues of concern to the Jewish community were discussed; and there were panel discussions, religious programmes on the radio and television, which utilised him fully. As his daughter records, an entire year of public speaking engagements dealt with Holocaust themes, and his letters and articles in the national press made him an eloquent spokesman for the religious vision of our time. The closing words of his (posthumously published) book are:

“Time is short and the task is urgent. Evil is real. So is good. There is a choice. And we are not so much chosen as choosers. Life is holy. All life. Mine and yours. And that of those came before us and the life of those after us.”

Writings by Hugo Gryn include editing work on Forms of Prayer (1977) and Forms of Prayer III (1985).  Author of Chasing Shadows (with Naomi Gryn) posth. 2000; Meditations for the BBC World Service, and for its “Thoughts for the Day”. Numerous articles in religious periodicals (European JudaismMannaThe Jewish Chronicle; in publications of the Standing Conference on Interfaith Dialogue in Education, the British Journal of Religious Education, the  Journal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and other scholarly journals.

Rabbi Albert H. Friedlander (1927-2004)

See an extract from the Sabbath Bride by Naomi Gryn

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