It is with great sadness that the AJR announces the passing of its former Chairman, Theo Marx, at the age of 89.
Theo Marx was a man whose actions spoke far louder than his words: throughout his life he put the needs
of family, community and society before his own. His understated generosity touched the lives of everyone he met as well as those of many who never even knew of his existence.
Theo was born on 10 March 1920 in Frankfurt, Germany, the son of Erna and Erich Marx. From the start, he was surrounded by close family ties on both sides and throughout his life it was his profound belief in the importance of family that fuelled his actions.
He was a quiet yet effective man, who hid his light not under a bushel but behind an enigmatic smile, a succession of carefully chosen bow ties, and a love of all things chocolate.
He was 14 when he was sent to school in England. His father, already alert to the threat Hitler posed, decided that an English education would be best, though it was three years before the family moved and Theo travelled back and forth during school holidays.
One of Theo’s early strengths was an ability to accept life’s events without bitterness. This stood him in good stead when he arrived in 1934, as a boarder, at Mill Hill School in north-west London without having previously spoken a word of English. He thrived, winning prizes for essays in history and learning a number
of other languages. He became fluent not only in English and French – and, of course, German – but also spoke creditable Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Italian.
His parents finally arrived in London in 1937, settling in Wembley Park, which meant a return to normal family life, though he remained a boarder. Not only a natural linguist but also a gifted historian, Theo was expected to qualify as an engineer, so he switched to matriculating in science and gained a place to study mechanical engineering at City and Guilds College (now Imperial College).
During his three years at City and Guilds, he made life-long friendships and was elected secretary of the student union. He remained involved with Imperial College throughout his life. He was unable to sit for his finals as the hysteria surrounding foreign nationals came to a head two weeks before his exams and he,
along with many members of the German-Jewish community, was interned on the Isle of Man. At Onchan Camp he started the English University, teaching English to the internees.
On his release from the camp, Theo was seconded to an aircraft factory and later joined his father, who had started an engineering company, helping with war work. Due to the need to support his father and the family business, he was unable to return to college at the end of the war to finish his degree. He successfully ran the family business, Erma Limited, until it was sold in 1985. He became an active member and treasurer of his electro-technical trade association BEAMA and was for many years involved in committee work at the British Standards Institution.
Theo’s commitment to his German-Jewish heritage and unshakeable belief in community was selfless and multi-layered. He emerged as a quiet, understated leader, supporting the displaced and drawing people together from all over the world.
These qualities led to Theo’s becoming deeply involved with the Association of Jewish Refugees. Elected its Vice-Chairman in 1974, he became its Chairman from 1976 to 1994, continuing as a trustee until 2008.
He transformed the organisation from one serving only a small and diminishing part of the refugee community into one which continues to this day to serve the changing needs of refugee families. He
built up the social services department and chaired the house committees of two of the retirement homes for which the AJR was then still responsible. Major innovations he introduced include the move from Hannah
Karminski House and the establishment of the Paul Balint AJR Day Centre.
Following retirement, Theo devoted even more time to the AJR, in 1990 launching the Residential Care Appeal in conjunction with the CBF – a successful project to raise £4 million for 21 new sheltered accommodation units, 13 new rooms with toilet facilities (!), a further 102 rooms with toilet facilities, and 15 rooms to offer nursing facilities. He reduced the age of those on the executive committee to an average of 51, over a generation younger than those in the homes; oversaw the Thank-Offering to Britain Fellowship
given annually by the British Academy from monies raised by the AJR; served on and off as Chairman of the Otto Schiff House Committee; and played a substantial role in the AJR Information, providing both editorial and technical assistance.
Theo’s interest in history and his cultural heritage led him to become an active council member of the Wiener Library, where he could help focus international scholarly attention on the Holocaust and the plight of Jewish refugees. He also helped the community to set up the now thriving Centre for German-Jewish Studies at Sussex University.
Theo played an active role in organising events at the West London Synagogue (WLS) during the war. His gift of being able to connect people found expression through the junior membership group and their journal Focus – an original Facebook – which allowed everyone, in whatever theatre of war they were found across the globe, to keep in touch with each other.
Not surprisingly, it was through WLS, at a dance he organised, that he met the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his life, Anne Marie Kohnstamm. Theo also loved the calm, quiet things of life and was at ease in his own company. He had a disciplined, enquiring mind and a prodigious memory, which, together with his love of order, made him a natural and gifted collector. He spent enjoyable years compiling comprehensive collections, all allied to his interest in European history – from stamps of a number of European countries, rare coins and historical atlases to ephemeral items such as bus tickets and
tube maps. His cataloguing was Victorian in its scope and endeavour and there was a determination in him that enabled him to see any task through. Theo’s love of unity and order was both a comfort and a motivation for him, but he liked nothing more than to share these gifts and skills with others.
His exceptional ability to catalogue, coupled with his sociability and interest in people, found their ultimate expression in the compilation of his wife Anne’s family tree. Spanning 600 years, it included nearly 4,000 people, encompassing every continent and including detailed historical notes on each period, a history of the Jews in every location, and individual snapshots of everyone featuring who they were, what they did and how they lived. The enterprise took Theo and Anne around the world and was completed before the
advent of the internet. Theo was also on the committee of the Leo Baeck Institute and the results of this research are lodged with the Institute in New York.
He subsequently organised an international reunion in New York and Germany for over 140 family members.
Theo’s beliefs in continuity, tradition and community translated into a lifelong commitment of giving back, improving the society around him and drawing people together. But through all his achievements he preferred to let others take the limelight, taking pride in their achievements rather than his own.
Theo took pride in tradition, his culture, community and the wider society and his profession but, above all, in his family, his children (Caroline, Eleanor and Geoffrey), and his seven grandchildren.
He was truly a man who understood that everything – no matter how small – was part of a bigger whole.
Theo died peacefully in his sleep, after a long illness, at Hammerson House in north London on 6 January 2010. His work and his gifts will live on through all those whose lives he touched.
Carl Theodore Marx, born 1920 in Frankfurt, died 2010 in London.