Leon Schaller is a successful London businessman with a large family. It’s hard to believe he was once a refugee fleeing persecution.
Born in Cologne in 1922, Schaller grew up under the Nazi regime and experienced the persecution of Jews in Germany. On Kristallnacht in November 1938, the teenager witnessed the burning of his local synagogue before running home terrified and locking the doors.
“I don’t think anybody realises what the Nazis were like unless they were there,” he recalls. Happy childhood days spent playing football and visiting the local sweet shop gave way to sadness, fear and isolation.
In late 1938 he escaped to England, where he was joined the following year by his parents and cousin Adele. Hundreds of his relatives and friends were not so lucky and perished in the Holocaust.
Speaking little English and feeling alone in a foreign country, he found life in London hard. He soon found his feet, however, and got a job as a butcher’s boy, riding a bicycle round Ilford every day with a basket piled high with fresh meat.
During his first months in England, Schaller received dozens of letters from Jewish friends still trapped in Nazi Europe asking for help.
“I beg you,” his schoolfriend Perez wrote in 1939, “please help me in our dangerous situation, because it is urgent.”
Schaller tried desperately to arrange safe passage and work in England for Perez and many other acquaintances, but to no avail. Like most of Schaller’s schoolfriends, Perez later died in the Auschwitz concentration camp
When war broke out, Schaller was keen to join the RAF, hoping to take revenge on the country that had rejected him. Instead, he was drafted into the Intelligence Corps as a staff sergeant and spent the war translating German messages into English.
Despite his German background and pronounced accent, Schaller was made to feel “very welcome” in both civilian and army life in England and speaks of his time in the army with fondness.
He maintained a strong sense of Jewish identity, setting up a local branch of the Young Israel Club for young Jewish people to meet and go on trips together.
“One day”, he told me, “I saw a very pretty lady.” This young woman went home to her mother that night and declared that she had seen the man that she would marry.
Freda and Leon married in 1948, by which time Leon was running a thriving costume jewellery business with his cousin and brother. He soon became independent and founded his own company.
Leon Schaller and Sons grew rapidly and became a major supplier to Woolworths stores across the country. It was soon obvious that Schaller had a knack for spotting trends and outwitting his competitors.
By the 1970s, the firm was the largest importer of umbrellas and sunglasses in the UK and continued to expand in the following decades under the guidance of Leon’s son, Clive. His two siblings have forged successful careers in dentistry and have children and grandchildren of their own. All remain thankful for the acceptance that young Leon found in Britain.
Leon’s business success has allowed him to support the causes that have remained close to his heart throughout his life. A generous sponsor of numerous educational and medical projects in his local North London community and in Israel, Leon has found a way to embrace and express his British and Jewish identity. He was awarded an OBE for his services to the Jewish community and education.
“I feel very much at home here”, he says. “I wouldn’t like to live anywhere else.”
Schaller arrived in Britain as a refugee, disoriented and fearful. He has built a life, grown a business and raised a family, becoming a respected member of his local community and remains loyal to his Jewish roots. His story is one of hope for displaced people everywhere and a lesson in courage and perseverance for the rest of us.