Ernst Fraenkel


Ernst Fraenkel
born 19 May 1923
died 13 November 2014

Early Years

Ernst Fraenkel was born in Breslau, Germany and grew up there and in Berlin.  He came to Britain aged 16 on one of the last Kindertransport from Germany in 1939, being separated from his parents and four siblings.  He went to live in Bury, Lancashire, lodging with local families and attending the Bury Grammar School.

After leaving school he found his way to London 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 thereafter.

Working Life

He obtained a degree at the LSE, studying at night school with Harold Laski and Ralph Milliband. Eventually, he started working at Philipp Brothers – which became the premier global commodity trading firm of its day. 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 deep relationships with generations of top Russian and Eastern European trade officials, often attending meetings at the then Soviet Trade delegation in Highgate Hill. 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. 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 to China thereafter until his retirement.

The Wiener Library

As he approached retirement, he was introduced to the Wiener Library through a chance 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, which was largely averted by his efforts.  In 1990 he established the Fraenkel prize in Contemporary History which is awarded for an outstanding work of twentieth-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.

Later Years

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. He held an honorary doctorate from the University, awarded in recognition of his services to Holocaust education.He was also a long-standing supporter of the Labour Friends of Israel. In later life, he was often called upon by schools, synagogues and film makers to give his first hand recollections of the Krystallnacht Nazi progrom in 1938 and growing up in Nazi Germany. He did this movingly but sparingly, unwilling to become a regular on the growing Holocaust education education circuit.

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


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