John Schnellenberg was born in Berlin the day before the Nuremberg laws were enacted, depriving German Jews of their rights as citizens. He and his parents narrowly escaped the Holocaust, fleeing Germany in 1938 with the aid of a British diplomat who knew his father. His grandparents were not so fortunate, dying in Theresienstadt concentration camp.
The Schnellenbergs got as far away from Nazism as they possibly could have, settling in Wellington in 1939. Schnellenberg’s father, who had been an executive with the Ford Motor Company in Berlin, acquired a garage – Gunnion Motors – in Wakefield St.
But while Wellington provided the family with a sanctuary, their adopted country presented challenges too.
Living as part of a small Jewish community in an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon society wasn’t always easy. New Zealand in those days was suspicious of outsiders – more so than ever during the war years, when someone with the name Schnellenberg was likely to be viewed as an enemy alien. The irony that he was Jewish, and therefore had more to fear from the Nazis than anyone, would have been largely lost on insular New Zealanders.
It was at the suggestion of a sympathetic primary school teacher that Hans Wolf Schnellenberg became simply John, although he retained his second name.
Schnellenberg attended Rongotai College before beginning a career with Shell Oil, where his work included economic forecasting. But it was through his involvement in politics that he came to public and media attention.
His parents voted Labour, largely out of gratitude for being granted entry to New Zealand by the government of Michael Joseph Savage, but Schnellenberg gravitated to the National Party.
While living in Upper Hutt, he stood unsuccessfully for the Heretaunga electorate in the 1972 general election and later became one of the few party members to openly challenge the direction National was taking under its authoritarian leader, Robert Muldoon.
Described by his son David as a classic liberal, Schnellenberg co-founded an influential party think tank called Pol-link, whose promotion of liberal principles and forward-looking policies attracted attention and support from a news media whose relationship with Muldoon might be characterised today as Trump-ish.
I recall Pol-link. It was a very influential and respected group that made a difference.
Schnellenberg quit Shell in 1975 and went into business with his wife Sonia, running a Lower Hutt bookshop that they called Mister Pickwick. There he put into practice his enthusiasm for digital technology, providing his customers with online access to American research databases previously accessible only by university libraries. Later again, he opened an early Apple computer dealership.
Books were a big part of Schnellenberg’s life. As David Schnellenberg observed at his funeral, he regarded them not as mere items to be sold but as windows to new worlds of ideas, enlightenment and entertainment.
As people who have been to my home will know, I’ve got close to 3,000 books!
History and politics in particular fascinated him. He was a great admirer of Winston Churchill and had read, often several times, virtually everything written by or about the British wartime leader. He acknowledged Churchill’s flaws, but what counted to Schnellenberg was that Churchill, almost alone at first, had stood up to Adolf Hitler.
The Boris Johnson book on Churchill is a good read.
A diminutive man whose eyes twinkled behind his glasses, Schnellenberg was a charmer and a gentleman whose face almost permanently wore a genial, knowing smile. He loved to talk and he loved to laugh.
Lunch with Schnellenberg in Masterton’s Cafe Strada or Entice Cafe was liable to be frequently interrupted by conversation with whoever happened to be passing the table. Although a relatively recent arrival in town (by Masterton standards, at least), he seemed to know everyone.
He died in Wairarapa Hospital after a short illness and is survived by Sonia, David, his daughter Debi and several grandchildren.
My condolences to the family.