Tribute to Sir Sigmund Sternberg

 Last year we were very sad to record the death of Sir Sigmund (“Sigi”) Sternberg.   Sigi was one of the original founders of Labour Business in 1972, and supported it throughout his life.   We publish an appreciation of his life by his son, Michael Sternberg QC.

Sir Sigmund Sternberg (“Sigi”) – my father – who has died aged 95, was a co-founder of what, at the time, was called the 1972 Industry Group, which then became LFIG, and most recently has rebranded as Labour Business. He was knighted in 1976

Sigi was a businessman, philanthropist and a lifelong support of the Labour Party. He raised money for Clement Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, many Labour Ministers and all Labour Leaders up until and including Ed Miliband. He was friendly with all wings of the Labour Party counting both Tony Benn and Dennis Healey as his good friends. He became active in the Fabians. He was forthright in his views of some aspects of Labour Party policy.  His criticisms of the then nationalised industries of the 1950s 1960s and 1970s were mordant, especially when he found it could take months to get extra telephone lines installed for his businesses (which at the time could only be done by the GPO, now the Royal Mail) .

He campaigned relentlessly all his life for greater understanding between religions.  From 1976, my Father devoted much of his energy to inter-faith charities. He became one of the few Jewish Papal Knights. He organised the first Papal visit to a synagogue and he helped to resolve tensions when Carmelite nuns set up a convent next to the Auschwitz concentration camp site. When the Vatican finally recognised the State of Israel in 1992, my Father who had worked tirelessly to bring this about was delighted

Sigi was born on June 2 1921 in Budapest, Hungary, to a family who owned a department store specialising in antiques and carpets. A childhood marked by bullying because he was a Jew and “Had killed Christ” was badly disturbed by the death of his father in 1934.

Anti-Semitic quotas prevented him studying at the University of Budapest. As an 18-year-old he left Hungary fleeing to London. His escape was dramatic. As the train he was travelling in puffed out of Budapest on the last Friday of peace in August 1939, the Hungarian Employment Police arrived simultaneously at the family apartment with a warrant for his conscription. He arrived in London a day later with only £10 in his wallet, speaking poor English, and with a stamp in his passport prohibiting from taking employment. He immediately attempted to join the RAF, but was rejected as he was told that he was a “Friendly enemy alien.” He joined the Civil Defence Corps and spent many nights in the blitz on top of buildings in Regent Street reporting by field telephone where incendiary bombs had fallen, narrowing escaping death on occasions.

Sigi established a business and became involved in essential war work in metal reclamation and recycling. He was a natural entrepreneur. He acquired a company in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, called F C Larkinson. After acquisitions in the 1950 and 1960s, the company was renamed the Sternberg Group; it was later sold in 1966. Sigi had in the meantime risen to become President of the Metal Trade Association and a member of the London Metal Exchange. 

He became a Lloyd’s Name in 1965 and was an early chairman of the Unisys computer company. He became a magistrate in 1965.He entered the commercial property business as an investor in 1968 and he started the Sternberg Charitable Foundation in that year.  He used the income and capital of his Charitable Foundation (to which he contributed generously on a yearly basis) to further Christian, Jewish and Muslim causes.

He founded, in 1985, the Sternberg Centre for Judaism at the time the largest Jewish Centre in Europe. He was busy in public and political affairs and attended virtually every Labour Party Conference from the 1950s until his health forbade it.

 His work was recognised internationally by for example the Grand Cross of the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins (Chile), Wiesbaden’s Wilhelm Leuschner Medal and the Order of the Orthodox Hospitallers (first class with star and badge of religion). He was made a Citizen of Honour by Uruguay and was elevated to the Royal Order of the Polar Star (Sweden) and the Orden de Mayo al Merito (Argentina). He was also a vigorous Rotarian becoming a Paul Harris Fellow, a distinction he shared with many Presidents and Prime Ministers. He established The Sternberg Gold Medallion for Interfaith Work. Many Heads of State were happy to receive it.   He was more than delighted when, most unusually, HM The Queen was gracious enough to accept the Award.  In 1998 he won the Templeton Prize (worth £750,000) for people who are judged to have advanced the world’s understanding of God and spirituality. He was instrumental in the putting up in Great Cumberland Place of a statue to honour Ralph Wallenberg who had saved so many people in the Nazi persecutions in Hungary.

Sigi also established in 1997, together with the late Dr. Zaki Badawi KBE and the Reverend Dr. Marcus Braybrooke, The Three Faiths forum which has grown to become one of the UK’s leading interfaith organisations.

He had very clear views about the responsibilities of business. He believed firmly that the role of business must be used not only to create wealth and employment but to lessen social divisions and root out discrimination. He was an equal opportunity employer when few people were. He supported all efforts to establish a code of Business Ethics.

Although unwell for the last 3 years he followed the activities of LFIG with great interest. He believed it was vital for the Labour Party to understand business and act sympathetically to it. He maintained that without a successful business base, all the slogans to ease social division and to support the weak and vulnerable were useless. Sigi was an unusual person. He believed greatly in physical fitness and he presented many religious leaders, including several Archbishops of Canterbury over the years, with skipping ropes and trampolines. As the notice of his death in the London Times (said borrowing from Hamlet) “He was a man; we shall not see his like again”

MICHAEL STERNBERG QC KFO

14 11 2016


Written by LFIG Editor