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Jan 2001 Journal

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Profile: Sir Claus Moser

An anonymous Georgian house in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury is home to the British Museum Development Trust. While busy and purposeful, an unpretentious sitting room off the office of its chairman presents an oasis of calm, the perfect venue in which to meet the urbane aesthete and distinguished academic, former civil servant and merchant banker, Sir Claus Moser.

With little prompting, he recalls his happy, carefree and affluent boyhood in Berlin, particularly excelling at music and sport. At one and the same time his family were very German and yet intensely Jewish; his father, a banker, had served in the Kaiser’s army in World War I. Members of the Reform synagogue, the family were ministered to by the great Rabbi Leo Baeck, Sir Claus’ father wearing his top hat on their high holy day visits.

Humiliation at school

A sharp reminder of the changed status of the Jews came in 1934. On entering the classroom his teacher performed the Heil Hitler ritual, to which the whole class responded with the exception of the two Jewish boys who, should they have been so minded, were forbidden from following suite. Humiliation was a regular daily occurrence all round them in the streets. Quite often he saw Hitler passing in his car.

Though as proud Germans many middle and upper class Jews believed that Hitler was a passing phenomenon, increasingly aware of virulent antisemitism, his father had decided to emigrate well before Hitler came to power, which they eventually did in 1936.

After attending English public school, soon after his 17th birthday in 1940 he was interned behind barbed wire together with his father and brother and thousands of other refugees. Fortunately, after just three months he was released to become immersed in the exciting intellectual atmosphere of the London School of Economics, completing his degree in 1943 as the outstanding student of his year.

RAF volunteer

Claus immediately volunteered for the RAF as the most immediate way to pursue his personal vendetta against Hitler. The recruiting sergeant, taking note of Claus’s enthusiasm to engage the enemy and excellent academic qualifications, promptly signed him on as a flight mechanic - cleaning out aeroplanes.  Though later promoted to instrument repairer, he was clearly cut out for other professions, yet as virtually the only university-educated man in his unit, the experience of meeting people from all walks of life was to prove invaluable.

After demobilisation he returned to the LSE as a member of staff, was made Professor of Social Statistics and advised the Robbins Committee on Higher Education. In 1967 he was appointed Director of the government’s Central Statistical Office, serving three Prime Ministers until 1978 when he joined NM Rothschild as Vice-Chairman. From 1984 to 1993 he was Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and from 1991 Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Oxford. He is Chancellor of both Keele University and the Open University of Israel.

Talented musician

Music is an essential element in Sir Claus’ life. He remains a talented classical pianist, having studied under Louis Kentner, and became actively associated with the Royal Academy of Music, the BBC, the Royal Opera House – serving as Chairman for 13 years, Glyndbourne Opera, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London’s South Bank, the London Symphony Orchestra, Music at Oxford and the Oxford Playhouse – being Chairman of both - and the Jerusalem Music Centre.

Sir Claus’s presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1990 led to widespread public discussion on Britain’s educational problems and the establishment of a National Education Commission on which he served. Sir Claus continues with his work on educational research and policy, notably on post-school education and was appointed Chairman of the Basic Skills Agency in 1997.

Jewish causes

When discussing the celebration of this year’s 60th Anniversary of the AJR, of which he is a member, his involvement and enthusiasm were much in evidence. Sir Claus sees no contradiction in his proud and public support for Jewish and Israeli causes among the many to which he gives generously of his time and expertise. Nevertheless, he is struck by the differences between refugee attitudes. Some happily became anglicised and chose to bury their Jewish origins, while at the other extreme were those who never managed to reconcile themselves to their adopted country. Sir Claus sees himself as being somewhere in the middle, “settled very happily in England, yet conscious of my roots in Berlin”. A man forever connected to his Jewish boyhood in Germany.
Ronald Channing

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