OBITUARY: Stephen Roth

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Stephen Roth was an outstanding intellectual and a leader of the Jewish community both in Britain and at an international level. For 22 years he headed the Institute of Jewish Affairs in London, which under his direction became the foremost resource and research centre on contemporary Jewish issues. He also held high offices in international and British Jewish organisations including the World Jewish Congress, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.

Beyond these, from his early life experience - he was a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust - emerged his passionate devotion to human rights. "Jews can only be defended by laws that defend everybody," he declared in a lecture to the Hungarian Academy of Science in Budapest only a few months before his death.

Roth was born in Gyoengyoes, a sleepy provincial town in Hungary, famous for its vineyards. He grew up in the 1920s when many Hungarians, frustrated by their country's defeat in the First World War and encouraged by their government, vented their anger on the Jews. As Roth described it in an autobiographical essay, his life there was one of abject degradation. His schoolmates called him "Dirty Jew" and in the streets the town's sports club excluded Jews. The schoolboy Roth came to the conclusion that there was little they could do about this - other than go away. This was how Roth became a Zionist - an advocate of Jews having their own country.

While the Hungarian government was moving closer to the racist policies of the newly emerged Nazi regime in Germany, Roth, a law student in Budapest, suffered more humili- ation as every academic year started with right- wing students excluding and beating up their Jewish colleagues. He joined the Zionist movement and became active in its rescue work. Jewish refugees escaping from Nazi-occupied Austria, then Czechoslovakia and finally Poland, were smuggled by Zionists into Hungary. When Hungary was also occupied by the Nazis in early 1944 Roth and his colleagues guided them further, into safer Romania. Roth was arrested by the Gestapo and only escaped transfer to Auschwitz when the head of the Hungarian state, realising that the Germans had already lost the war, refused to order any more transports to the death camps.

True to his pledge that if he survived the Holocaust he would devote his life to the Jewish people, after the war Roth joined the efforts to revive Jewish life after the annihilation of some 60 per cent of the Jewish community. In 1946 he was one of the Hungarian Jewish representatives at the Paris peace conference and the World Jewish Congress invited him to join their office in London. He eventually rose to become the head of its British and later its European section and participated in the reconstruction of Jewish life in Eastern as well as Western Europe. Much of the early work was helping Jews find relations lost in the Holocaust and to try to sustain Jewish organisations under the suppressive Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Roth was part of the World Jewish Congress team which obtained compensation from Germany for victims of the Holocaust and until his death was involved with its distribution.

In 1966 the World Jewish Congress transferred its research arm, the Institute of Jewish Affairs, to London and Roth became its director. He turned it into a centre for research on contemporary Jewish issues and a focal point for academics young and older. True to his belief that culture plays a vital part in sustaining Jews in their community, Roth made the institute a centre for writers and other creative artists.

Roth was an unusual person. He had many of the popular traits of an academic, an intellectual - he was absent- minded, often impatient with slower intellects forever questioning, searching for solutions, bristling with ideas. At the same time he was also an effective administrator of organisations, a committee man, and much at home with fund-raising as with the nitty-gritties of, for instance, printing a new leaflet.

He came to the conclusion that Jewish rights are indivisible from universal human rights. He was a pioneer in recognising the potential for the campaign for human rights of the so called "Helsinki Process", the establishment of the Conference on Security and Cooperation In Europe (C&CE) and participated in its activities from 1975 onwards. Through articles and essays his views crystallised and were most succinctly summed up in his lecture to the Hungarian Academy of Science late in 1993. His "Ten Commandments" on human rights include the demand that human rights must be built on absolute equality, must be universal and based on pluralism not only in political but also in cultural and religious sense.

Towards the end of his richly eventful life Roth returned to his roots. After Hungary freed itself from Communist rule in 1989, Roth was among the first to help the Hungarian Jewish community regain its previous strength. His advice among others on their rights vis-a-vis the State, on the reclaiming of communal and personal assets were instrumental to the Hungarian Jewish efforts.

Roth vas one of the sadly vanishing Central European intellectuals who have contributed much to the enrichment of Britain's academic, scientific, literary and commercial life.

George Garai

Stephen Jeffery Roth, lawyer, human rights campaigner: born Gyoengyoes, Hungary 19 November 1915; Director, Institute of Jewish Affairs 1966-88; married 1946 Eva Gondos (one son); died London 27 July 1995.