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Ernst Heinrich Schiff (1881–1931)

Anglo-Jewry is distinctly the poorer by the death of one of its most prominent communal workers, Mr. Ernst H. Schiff, who was married to Miss Betty Levy, daughter of the late Mr. Harry S. Levy of Sydney, and a niece of Mr. Sep. R. Levy.

Mr. Eric Turk, in moving a vote of condolence, at a meeting of the Jews' Temporary Shelter, said: —

It is with feelings of great sadness that we are assembled here to-day at this special meeting; in order to record our sense of the loss which this institution has suffered through the untimely death of our colleague, Mr. Ernst H. Schiff, and to express our condolence to his widow and family and to his brother, Mr. Otto Schiff, the President of this institution. The decease of Ernst Schiff is deplored by the entire Jewish community, but by no institution more deeply and more sincerely than by the Jews' Temporary Shelter. It was the 'Shelter' to which he directed his first activities. He joined the Committee of the Shelter twenty years ago, and although many other branches of communal life have since attracted his activity, and other institutions elected him on their Committees, it was the Shelter which throughout these years and up to the time of his recent illness, occupied a prominent — and I should say a foremost — place in his thoughts, and was the object of his constant care and attention.

When Mr. Hermann Laniau, the founder of the Shelter, owing to advancing age had to shift the burden to younger shoulders, the brothers Otto and Ernst Schiff assumed the responsibility of directing the institution. It was a task to which Ernst Schiff gave his whole heart, his ? energy and the great gifts of organisation which he possessed. He was ideally equipped for the work of the Shelter, because he was filled with a genuine and deep felt sympathy for every sufferer, and more particularly for those of our brethren who had gone through cruel experiences in Eastern Europe, and were searching for freedom and a new existence in other lands. Whoever has seen Ernst Schiff in charge of one of our weekly rotas has realised that his qualities singled him out for the work of the Shelter. His patience in dealing with applicants was almost inexhaustible. At the same time, his experience of humanity enabled him to get out of the applicant the truth in an extraordinarily quick and correct way. The amount of time which he devoted to Shelter work, especially in the days before other communal work claimed part of his attention, was quite astounding. As long as applicants were in our waiting-room, no other engagement would stand in the way of his dealing with their cases. Any private appointment had to take second place to the demands of the Shelter, and often he used to sit here till late into the night trying to do his best for those who came to the Shelter for assistance or advice.

His exceptional organising capacity showed itself in a special degree when, in August 1914, soon after the outbreak of the Great War, the Shelter became the centre of the relief for the Jewish War refugees. Thousands of refugees arrived in successive waves, day after day, from Belgium and other countries. The influx was sudden and unexpected, and found London quite unprepared for it. Housing, food and clothing had to be provided at a moments notice. Ernst Schiff, as a member of the War Refugees' Committee, took a prominent part, in dealing with this situation. But his organising capacity and his resourcefulness manifested themselves in their greatest brilliancy when he took personal charge of the Poland Street Refuge. It will be remembered that, during a period of nearly six years, 500 families, comprising over 1,200 souls, were permanently accommodated in this building. Ernst Schiff personally supervised it, and he had to provide not only lodging and food for that large number of people, but he had also to attend to the medical supervision, the schooling of the children of various ages, their religious education, infant centres, and whatever else was required for their welfare. Ernst Schiff threw himself with his full energy and devotion into this work — so much so that he took up his residence in a couple of rooms in the Refuge, and made it his temporary home. Only those who have known the conditions of the Poland Street Refuge — a discarded warehouse — can realise the sacrifice which he made, and the discomfort to which he willingly submitted himself. One of his greatest joys at that time was to show visitors round the Refuge and to point out to them the 'Infants' and the Babies' Play Centres, which he had created or to take them through his hospital, where, for every inmate, he had an encouraging word or a kind smile.

The work of repatriation of the refugees later on had again the personal attention of Ernst Schiff, and when it was completed, at the end of 1920, he still continued to keep in touch with his former charges, especially the younger section who had been growing up under his care, and nothing gave him greater joy than to hear that one of the boys had made a special success of his career, or a girl had been happily married.

Apart from his ordinary work for the Shelter, Ernst Schiff helped us greatly three years ago, when the question of the new building became urgent. He was chairman of the Building Committee, and in that capacity was largely responsible for many of the ideas which we see embodied in our new building. More recently again, the Shelter became under a great obligation to him for the work he did for us last year when our finances had sunk to a low ebb and a public appeal for funds had to be made. He was Chairman of the Appeal Committee, and he showed such energy in that capacity that the success of the Appeal was largely due to his efforts. Not only did he personally induce considerable donations but he organised a system of collections and inspired his co-workers with his own enthusiasm and zeal, with the effect that, in a time of general economic depression, a very remarkable result was obtained.

There is another aspect affecting the Shelter's activities in which Ernst Schiff, in close co-operation with his brother, has rendered invaluable advice, viz. in building up and maintaining most excellent relations with the Government Authorities, more particularly the Home Office. This is very largely due to the personal esteem in which the two brothers are held by the Permanent Officials and successive Secretaries of State, that the Shelter has been able to carry on a great deal of useful work for the benefit of members of the Jewish community, quite outside the Shelter's ordinary functions.

Amongst the many qualities which Ernst Schiff possessed, not the least was his cheerfulness, his sense of humour and a strong optimism which enabled him to carry obstacles which to others which have seemed insurmountable; and by imparting this spirit to others, he was able to create around him, when needed, an enthusiastic circle of willing helpers.

I have dwelt at some length on some of the many ways in which the Shelter has benefited by Ernst Schiff's work, because it is our duty today to render ourselves an account of the great debt of gratitude which we owe to him. His name will go down in the annals of the Shelter as a worthy disciple of Hermann Landau, the founder, and as an able helpmate to his brother, our present President, and as an example of unselfish work, an example which will continue to guide us and those who will come after him.

Our heart goes out to his wife and two little children, and to his brother. We cannot alleviate their great bereavement, but we can try to convey to them our condolence and the sense of our sympathy in their grief, and assure them that the work he has done in our midst will not be forgotten, and that his memory will always live with us in order to give expression to these feelings, I wish to propose the following resolution: —

'The Committee of the Jews' Temporary Shelter desire to place on record their keenest sense of grief at the loss they and the community at large have sustained by the death of their much respected colleague, Mr. Ernst H. Schiff.

In conveying their innermost sympathy with his brother, their highly esteemed President, and with Mrs. Schiff and children they wish to assure them that his noble work on behalf of those who were seeking the hospitality and assistance of the Shelter will forever be cherished with the sincerest affection by all his co-workers in the Management of the Shelter and they venture to hope that this will afford those who were near and dear to him some consolation in the great calamity that has befallen them.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Schiff, Ernst Heinrich (1881–1931)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 28 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


Frankfurt, Hesse, Germany


24 December, 1931 (aged ~ 50)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death

gastric dilatation

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.