Obituary: Ernst Fraenkel escaped Nazis to become business pioneer and library champion

Ernst Fraenkel

Ernst Fraenkel - Credit: Archant

Ernst Fraenkel OBE, who died on November 13 at the age of 91, was the co-president of the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide, having been its chairman from 1993 until 2003.

He also held an honorary doctorate from Haifa University, awarded in recognition of his services to Holocaust education.

He was born in Breslau, Germany and grew up there and in Berlin. He came to Britain aged 16 on one of the last Kindertransports in 1939, being separated from his parents and four siblings.

He went to live in Bury, Lancashire, lodging with local families. After leaving school, he moved to Eton Garages, Belsize Park, during the war, working as an agricultural labourer.

He returned to Germany with the American army and was able to find his mother who had stayed there throughout the war, but who died shortly afterwards.

He obtained a degree at the London School of Economics, studying at night school with former Labour Party chairman Harold Laski and Ralph Miliband, father of Labour leader Ed. Eventually, he started working at global commodity trading firm Philipp Brothers. He spent 35 years there, rising to become the head of its European operations and a member of its executive committee.

He was a pioneer in international trade with the Communist bloc. He first travelled to the Soviet Union in 1964, and built up close relationships with generations of top Russian and Eastern European trade officials, often attending meetings at the then Soviet Trade delegation in Highgate Hill.

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Under his guidance, Philipp Brothers, along with the Chase Manhattan Bank, was one of a very select group of American companies which was first allowed to open an office in Moscow.

He lived in Canfield Gardens, West Hampstead, throughout the 1960s, before settling in St John’s Wood until his death.

In the mid-1970s he was one of the first Western businessmen to visit China after the Cultural Revolution – taking the train from Hong Kong to the border, and walking across the bridge to the Chinese side, which was the only way in at the time. He became a regular visitor.

As he approached retirement, he was introduced to the Wiener Library through a case of mistaken identity – Ernst Fraenkel being erroneously confused with William Frankel, the then editor of the Jewish Chronicle.

The library was threatened with closure at the time as a result of financial difficulties. This was averted largely by his efforts.

In 1990 he established the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History which is awarded annually for an outstanding work of 20th-century history in one of the Wiener Library’s fields of interest. This has become one of the most prestigious prizes in the field.

He was firmly committed to building the library’s relationship with Germany and enjoyed good relationships with several German and Austrian ambassadors.

He was a longstanding supporter of the University of Haifa, inspired by its commitment to the education of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis alongside each other and a supporter of the Labour Friends of Israel.

In later life, he was often called upon by schools, synagogues and film makers to give his firsthand recollections of the Kristallnacht Nazi pogrom in 1938 and of growing up in Nazi Germany. He did this movingly but sparingly, unwilling to become a regular on the growing Holocaust education circuit.

He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Thilde, whom he first met at Herrlingen School in Germany in the 1930s, two children and five grandchildren.