What Should We Know About Sir Otto Moses Jaffé? Originally Published August 13-14, 2021.

Born on August 13, 1846, Sir Otto Moses Jaffé was born in Germany and would go on to be elected Lord Mayor of Belfast twice (the only Jewish Lord Mayor Belfast has had), and to do so much more.  Otto was one of nine children and the fourth son born to Daniel Joseph and Frederiké Jaffé, in Hamburg, Germany.  In 1852 they moved to Belfast, where Daniel and his three older sons set up a linen exporting business.  Otto attended school both in Ireland and also back in Hamburg and in Switzerland.

Between 1867 and 1877 Otto lived in New York.  His brothers’ retirement then took him back to Belfast to run The Jaffe Brothers family business.  It became the largest linen exporter in Ireland.  He would become an Irish citizen, and was a member of the Belfast Harbour Commission.  Otto would become a major civic power while also becoming a major influence in the Jewish community and serving as president of the Belfast Hebrew congregation.  By 1879 Otto was serving as vice-chair of the Town Relief Fund, and soon also served in the Chamber of Commerce.  He was elected to City Council in 1894, and to Lord Mayor in 1899 and in 1904, and in 1901 also began service as High Sheriff of Belfast.  Sir Otto and his wife (neé Paula Hertz) raised some £ 10,000 to take care of the dependents of military personnel serving in the Boer War. Sir Otto also saw to it that the Public Libraries Act extended to Belfast, where he would see that the first free library was established.  He received a knighthood in 1900. 

Jews were immigrating to Ireland from both Russia and Germany, and Sir Otto worked to unite the community, building a second synagogue in 1904 and apparently financing most of the building himself.  He also supported many non-Jewish causes, such as Queen’s University, for which he served on the first senate.  He also served as Governor of the Royal Victoria Hospital, and as British Consul for Germany.  There was an elementary school named for him, which he made certain would not be exclusively Jewish in administration, faculty or students.  He helped found Belfast’s Technical College.  He was known for being very thrifty in business and very generous outside business.

Both father Daniel and son Otto built many buildings in Belfast which stand to this day, ornate and functional. 

However, during World War I, Sir Otto became the target of hostility due to his German origin, especially after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.  He immediately resigned his consul commission.  He sent a letter published in the Belfast News-Letter decrying the “painful suggestion” that he sympathized with Germany.  In 1916 he took his family to England due to the threats to their well-being, despite his son Arthur Daniel and other relatives loyally serving in the British army.  Sir Otto would not return to Ireland.  They sold their home “Kinedar” and worldly possessions in Ireland at a loss.  Sir Otto Jaffé passed away on April 29, 1929, and was cremated.  Lady Paula died four months later. 

Sir Otto’s and his father’s monuments remain semi-anonymous pillars in a dangerous graveyard, and they are apparently regularly vandalized and graffitied.  But what the family leaves behind intact are their lasting accomplishments and example.