Lord Moser: Refugee from the Nazis who went on to become a towering figure in Britain's cultural and public life

Dapper and elegant, he was an ideal Warden of Wadham College where his democratic hospitality made him popular with undergraduates

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The Independent Online

The life of Claus Moser is a reminder of the bounty bestowed upon this country by refugees, for this escapee from Hitler was the Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, Chancellor of Keele University, a Chairman of the Royal Opera House who prevented it losing its standing as a world-class company, and the supreme fund-raiser for the British Museum in its present splendour.

He was also a major adviser to the governments of Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Jim Callaghan, the director of the Central Statistical Office and the inspiration behind its irreplaceable annual survey of the country's domestic arrangements, Social Trends, a banker at NM Rothschild and Sons, a member of the House of Lords, and who helped many Jewish charitable committees. In the course of his long life he was called upon to chair a very large number of other arts and professional associations, including the Economist Intelligence Unit, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Statistical Society.

But above all he loved music, and served on the governing bodies or boards of the Royal Academy of Music, the BBC Music Advisory Committee, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Those lucky enough to have heard him play himself, for example at the Sheldonian in Oxford in 1996, when his friend the late Harvey McGregor retired as Warden of New College (Moser had stepped down in 1993), will remember the zest and passion with which the two former Heads of House attacked their piano duet.

This larger-than-life, almost supererogatory curriculum vitae belonged to a dapper, elegant man with brown eyes, fine features and a huge, winning smile, and only a faint, slightly rolled "r" in his speech to remind you that English was not his first language. He was born in Berlin in 1922, where his father was a prominent banker and his mother an accomplished pianist. "We had a lovely house in the centre of Berlin and another on the edge of the city to which we used to go at weekends," he told Angela Lambert in this newspaper in 1992. "We had an English governess, so I was brought up in rather a traditional style. Berlin between the wars was an incredibly cultured city. There were four opera houses, endless concerts: music dominated my life." He began playing the piano at the age of five.

By 1929 his father had already realised that Jews had no future in Germany, and was prepared to leave with his wife and two sons, though they only actually departed on the death of Claus's grandmother in 1936, by which time his father had been able to make arrangements to leave with some money and possessions. "I remember," he said, "the day as though it were yesterday – 30 January 1933 – watching the torchlight procession that signalled the beginning of Hitler's reign… My worst Berlin memory began in the spring of 1934. Every morning in school we 30 boys would be sitting in class, and the teacher would come in and say, 'Heil Hitler!' Everyone would respond, 'Heil Hitler!' except the two Jewish boys, who were not allowed to. We didn't want to, but all the same it was a daily public humiliation. Often we were beaten up in the playground."

He flourished at boarding school in Surrey: "I was 13 when I began at Frensham Heights, a rather progressive, co-educational school with a strong bias towards music; and the school gave me four years of total happiness. It was very welcoming to refugees; a place of freedom, tolerance and happiness. I learnt there to be myself."

When he left school in 1939, he told my wife, his father wanted him, instead of applying to go to university in Britain, to train to be a hotel manager in Switzerland. He did apply for jobs with Sainsbury and Joe Lyons: "They both turned me down because of my German background." Then came the one episode in his life when he was treated badly by his new country: "I was then interned with my brother and my father. I was only there for three months because at 17 I was under-age. It took the government a long time to release people who were wrongly interned. There were a lot of suicides. We were desperate to get into the war, to fight, and here we were behind barbed wire."

Released from the enemy alien internment camp in a newly built but untenanted council estate at Huyton, near Liverpool, he was rejected by the RAF. During his time in the camp he had assisted a mathematician who conducted a survey of the cultured, civilised Austrian and German refugees so foolishly interned there, and this gave Claus a taste for statistics, which he then went to study at the LSE. In 1943 he got what he called "rather a splendid degree" – the best First of his year; and he met Mary Oxlin. "I thought she was very attractive, but in with rather a fast crowd, while she thought I was the most tremendous snob," he said, accounting for why they did not marry until after the war.

He then re-applied to join the war effort, though the RAF would not let a German train as a pilot, which he found "terribly hurtful." In late 1943 he finally "went into the RAF as a grease-monkey." At first he was unpopular, but gradually realised that "it was because I was a Mr Know-All. I had never met working-class people before, and they didn't like my cockiness." With a change of attitude he "ended up doing research for Bomber Command at High Wycombe."

After the War he taught at LSE, and in 1947 became a British subject. He sat on several "outside committees, using statistics to solve problems", and got to know the economist Lionel Robbins, who changed his life by asking him to be statistical advisor to the Robbins Committee on Higher Education. Soon he became a public figure, and by the time he was 45, Harold Wilson had invited him, a Labour supporter, to become head of the Central Statistical Office. For the next 10 years he was, he recalled, "at the centre of power… I had always wanted to use statistics to illustrate what was happening in the world; above all anything to do with poverty or injustice."

In 1974 the recently knighted Sir Claus became chairman of the Royal Opera House. "From when I was five years old in Berlin I wanted to be a musician, and music has been central at every stage in my life. Whenever I was depressed or overtired I used to go to a rehearsal or a performance. I have had more happiness in that place than I can explain." He struggled to keep standards as high and ticket prices as low as possible, encouraged Jeremy Isaacs to apply to be general director and was instrumental in securing Bernard Haitink as music director of the ROH.

Then in 1978 Lord Rothschild unexpectedly invited him to join his bank, where he stayed six years. "I have never been rich," he said, "and I'm not actually very interested in money. I don't think I have quite the killer motive that one needs to be a really successful banker. I have a house in London and a cottage just down the road from Glyndebourne; a chalet in Switzerland, and a little house in Oxford."

He was an ideal Warden of Wadham College, where his democratic hospitality made him popular with undergraduates. He was Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University from 1991-93. In 2001 he was made a life peer.

Claus Adolf Moser, statistician, academic, banker and arts leader: born Berlin 24 November 1922; CBE 1965; KCB 1973; cr. 2001 Baron Moser of Regent's Park in the London Borough of Camden; Commander de l'Ordre National du Mérite (France) 1976; Commander's Cross, Order of Merit (Germany) 1985; married 1949 Mary Oxlin (two daughters, one son); died Switzerland 4 September 2015.

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