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Obituary: Miriam Louise Kochan

Popular history writer and French translator who brought Judaism in from the fringes

    (Photo: George Blumberg)

    My mother Miriam Kochan, who has died aged 89, wrote history books, was a translator and taught at Carmel College, but will be mostly remembered for 48 years of unstinting communal work at the Oxford Jewish community. Her numerous innovations included bar mitzvah classes, an O-level (now GCSE) religious studies course, children’s services and the synagogue’s magazine Menorah. All continue to this day.

    Miriam had a great sense of fun, a twinkle in her eye, an irreverent sense of humour and enormous intelligence. She could find amusement in whatever communal activity she took on, however difficult the situation. She also had immense abilities as a listener. The young and the old popped into her Woodstock Road home to pour their hearts out. She was a friend to all.

    Miriam Louise Kochan (née Buchler) was born in Hendon, London, the daughter of Martin Buchler and Bessie Bradlaw, both children of Orthodox rabbis. Martin’s father was the distinguished scholar Rabbi Dr Adolph Buchler, who moved to London from Vienna in 1906 to become principal of Jews’ College. Rabbi Yitzchak Bradlaw was from Gomel, Byelorusse.

    Miriam’s father Martin was a lovable eccentric who served in the British army in Egypt during the First World War and subsequently studied Classics at Pembroke College, Oxford. He found his niche in later life as a tour guide. Her mother Bessie died when Miriam was 15.

    At Copthall County Grammar School, Miriam displayed outstanding literary and language talents but guided by her father, she studied economics, taking a degree in Exeter, then part of London University. Martin thought economics would bring in the steady livelihood he himself never achieved.

    Having obtained her first job at Reuters News Agency, Miriam met her future husband Lionel Kochan, a journalist with The Jewish Observer and Middle East Review. They married in 1951, settled in Golders Green, and three children followed in quick succession. Lionel would become Bearsted Reader in Jewish History at Warwick University in 1969.

    Miriam and Lionel’s partnership took many forms. In the early days, to boost the family budget, they collaborated on French-English translations. It was the perfect outlet for Miriam’s literary and language skills, and provided a home-based occupation she could manage while bringing up three young children. Lionel presented her with a French dictionary, and soon she was on her own. In all, she translated some 20 books, including Fernand Braudel’s Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800 and Leon Poliakov’s The History of Antisemitism (Vol III, from Voltaire to Wagner).

    Miriam became an author in her own right, publishing a total of six books. Most notable are Prisoners of England (1980) and Britain’s Internees in the Second World War (1983). They employ eyewitness accounts and personal testimony. Miriam had a way of listening that elicited hidden secrets and great confidences, all of which bring to life the POWs’ and internees’ stories.  An early title by Miriam, Life in Russia under Catherine the Great won the Union of Jewish Women’s Betty Miller literary award in 1970.

    Lionel’s academic career as historian took the Kochan family to Edinburgh (1959), Norwich (1964) and finally to Oxford (1969). Miriam was forced to adapt, and each time the Jewish community was a source of strength. In the Edinburgh Jewish Literary Society, she became its secretary. In the tiny community of Norwich, she tried her hand at cheder teaching, for the first time, just managing to stay one step ahead of her pupils. She was entirely self-taught. By the time she arrived in Oxford she was convinced of the importance of cheder in keeping children within the folds of the  community, particularly a small one. And so she initiated and taught a bat mitzvah class, with the first ceremony taking place in July, 1970. She followed this up with a post bar/bat mitzvah class and finally an O-level class. Soon she was headteacher.

    Over the years, Miriam was active in all aspects of the Oxford community, occupying every possible top job including president of the OJC, Wizo and Bnai Brith. She enthusiastically took her turn at speaking about Judaism to non-Jewish groups. She initiated an adult Judaism study group, bringing in many from the fringes. She also became the JC’s local correspondent.

    Mobility problems hampered Miriam’s activities in later years but she continued to manage kiddush bookings and organise the Friendship Club. She lived independently in her own home, hosting meetings and book clubs, and playing scrabble, boggle and bridge until January 2017 when she moved to a care home in London to be close to her children.

    Lionel died in 2005. Miriam is survived by their children, Benjamin, Nick and myself, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.



    Miriam Kochan: born October 5, 1929. Died January 1, 2018