Daughter of a refugee rose to be head of an Oxford college


A LIFETIME in education has provided the perfect platform for Baroness Deech to use her influence in the House of Lords.

The crossbench peer, now in her early 70s, is as busy as ever.

Just last month she hit the headlines when she warned that there were certain universities in this country that Jewish students should avoid.

"The newspaper which interviewed me used the words 'no-go zone' in the headline, which was a bit of an embellishment," Baroness Deech told me from her Oxford home.

"However, there is evidence that there are certain universities where there is more anti-Jewish sentiment than others.

"There are those which deal with it quietly and there are those which are more upfront about it.

"Having spoken to (Education Minister) Jo Johnson, I do believe he is sympathetic. Other Jewish peers have spoken with him on this issue, too."

She explained that Conservative Friends of Israel chairman Lord Polak is considering putting forward an amendment to the Higher Education Bill at its next reading in the Lords to address antisemitism on campus.

"Universities must put in place measures to prohibit unlawful speech," Baroness Deech said.

"There should be measures to stop speakers who advocate the killing of Jews and homosexuals, for example."

The 73-year-old has plenty of experience in this field.

She spent nearly 15 years as the principal of St Anne's College, Oxford, and the college named its latest building after her.

Baroness Deech has come a long way from her humble beginnings in what she describes as a downtrodden part of south London.

Her writer father, Josef Fraenkel, was born in Poland and fled, first to Vienna and then Prague, from the Nazis.

He arrived in Britain on September 3, 1939, the day the Allies declared war on Germany.

Her mother, Dora (nee Rosenfield) was from Glasgow, of Polish parentage.

Members of her family died in the Holocaust.

Baroness Deech has family in Manchester - her maternal first cousins are Stanley, Michael and Rodney Field.

"I come from a very Zionist family," she explained. "My father spent time working for the World Jewish Congress and wrote books about Theodor Herzl (the founder of political Zionism).

"We were not a religious family, but we were very culturally Jewish."

Her family background came to the fore in 2008 when it was revealed that a 101-year-old Pole had a set of silver cutlery which once belonged to her father's family.

Eugeniusz Waniek was a neighbour and friend of the Fraenkels in the small town of Ustrzyki Dolne, near the Polish/Ukrainian border.

Baroness Deech's grandfather, Moses Fraenkel, had served as its mayor.

Her aunt, Hella Fraenkel, managed to pass a bundle of the silverware to Waniek for safekeeping before she was sent to her death in the Sobibor concentration camp.

Waniek buried the silver to hide it from the Nazis.

The story was uncovered by historian Professor Norman Davies, a friend of Baroness Deech's.

She recalled: "I flew to Poland with Norman and my cousins.

"It was wonderful to meet Eugeniusz and I discovered that his mother had taught my father's brothers and sisters.

"He had buried the silver in a tin box in the ground and then, when he moved to Krakow, took it with him. Eugeniusz spent 60-odd years wondering what had happened to our family."

It was not the first time that Baroness Deech had gone back to her roots.

She visited Poland just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but could not the find the village where her father had come from.

However, Baroness Deech was shown around a derelict oil refinery which she thinks may have belonged to her family.

Restitutions has become an important part of her life.

Poland still has no law covering the restitution of private property seized by the Nazis or nationalised by the communists.

Baroness Deech continued: "It is as if all the achievements of Jewish life there had never happened.

"Many countries, such as Austria and Hungary, introduced restitution laws, but Poland did not.

"Poland's answer is that they, too, were the victims of the Nazis - but two wrongs do not make a right.

"The Polish lawyers have told Jews to produce their documents to prove that their ancestors had property taken off them.

"But if they were sent to the concentration camps, how are they going to have had any documents?"

After graduating from Oxford, Baroness Deech was unsure in which area to pursue a career.

She enjoyed the theory of law rather than its practice and consequently went to work for the Law Commission.

Baroness Deech had met John Deech on her first day at Oxford and they married at Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue in 1967.

Their daughter, Sarah, is a former BBC journalist who now works as a media consultant.

Baroness Deech and her husband spent two years in Canada, in the city of Windsor, Ontario, as John began post-doctoral work in lasers.

She ended up teaching at a newly-built law school in Windsor.

Returning to the UK, they settled in Oxford.

"We have a fairly small, but wonderful Jewish community here," she explained. "Our shul is modern and encompasses all parts of Judaism.

"We have a number of Jewish groups in Oxford, too, including WIZO and Habonim.

"I am not really observant, but we do seder night and go to shul three times a year.

"Judaism is who I am and it is my history. We have been around for 5,000 years and contributed a lot."

Baroness Deech took up a post at St Anne's College in 1970 as a tutorial fellow in law.

During that time, she also served as the university's Senior Proctor.

She held that position until she was elected as its principal in 1991, a post she held until 2014.

It was a position she held with extreme pride.

Baroness Deech said: "Jews were not allowed to even study at Oxford until the 19th century. I was the daughter of a refugee who rose to become the head of an Oxford college.

"I thought to myself, 'if only my parents were alive to see this', as it would have been wonderful for them.

"I felt that it was a great tribute to the liberalism of British society."

While principle at St Anne's, Baroness Deech also became chairman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

"As I taught family law, I received a phone call asking if I would like to do it, which I thought was terrific," she recalled.

"It opened up a whole new world for me, so I could then go on to explain these ethical issues to the public.

"It was so enriching and I travelled all over the world."

After leaving St Anne's, Baroness Deech was appointed the first Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, where she dealt with the resolution of student complaints across all British universities.

In 2005, she was made a life peer and was created Baroness Deech of Cumnor, making her maiden speech in the House of Lords in November of the same year.

Her time as a peer has seen her deal with a number of issues which are close to her heart, particularly Israel.

Three years ago, she delivered a speech in the House of Lords when peers were debating the recognition of 'Palestine'.

"I would love to see a peaceful, developed state of 'Palestine', alongside the State of Israel," Baroness Deech explained.

"However, for a two-state solution to work, the Palestinians must recognise Israel.

"As long as the Palestinians refuse to do that, there cannot be a two-state solution."

She also expressed her concern over the future of the British Jewish community.

Baroness Deech stated: "I saw a recent study which said that, by 2030, half the Jewish babies in this country will be charedi.

"Arguably, if a greater proportion are charedi, they will have less political involvement."

She said she had been "really, really shocked" at the increase of antisemitism in the Labour Party over the past 18 months.

"It really is appalling," Baroness Deech said.

"The Labour Party has not got to grips with this issue, at all.

"They also readmitted people to the party who they had previously suspended for antisemitic remarks.

"Look at the situation with the Oxford Labour Club.

"I never knew anything like that at Oxford, at all.

"To my mind, it does not look like those involved will be punished.

"I have been to meetings about this issue and they just will not say what is going to happen.

"Justice has to be seen to be done."

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph