[Balfour] Douglas Zohrab

Early diplomatic recruit served 26 years overseas

Last updated 09:27 26/06/2008

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[Balfour] Douglas Zohrab, diplomat: Born Wellington, July 14, 1917; married 1947 Rosemary Miller (died 1989) 2 sons; died Waikanae, June 1, 2008, aged 90.
Doug Zohrab, of Waikanae, was a distinguished New Zealand diplomat, and one of its first.

He was in the early crop of bright young recruits to the Department of External Affairs during the final stages of World War II.

In 1944, Mr Zohrab was handily placed. The notion that Whitehall wallahs should determine the conduct of New Zealand foreign policy was slowly being replaced by the view that external relations were best left to New Zealanders.

Mr Zohrab had been invalided home from the Middle East, where he had been a cypher clerk on General Freyberg's staff. Back in Wellington in 1944, he was appointed principal private secretary to the minister of rehabilitation.

It was not long before he came to the notice of Alister McIntosh, who in 1943 had been appointed secretary to the War Cabinet.

Mr McIntosh was on the lookout for diplomatic recruits, tapped Mr Zohrab and had him shifted into the Prime Minister's Department in 1944, where a small number of desks were reserved for external affairs.

By the time he retired in 1974, Mr Zohrab had spent 26 years in New Zealand service overseas.

His credentials were firstrate. He was a graduate of Victoria University College with a new masters degree in 1937 when he became an assistant librarian at the General Assembly Library. He was a diligent graduate with writing skills polished during 3 1/2 years as a copyholder and junior reporter at The Evening Post from 1934.

Mr Zohrab had another attribute – he could speak and write French with a facility that was rare among his peers. That talent for languages would make him additionally valuable in his diplomatic career. He became fluent in some of the romance languages and others besides, including Russian, in which he was largely self-taught.

His first role overseas in 1946 was as information officer at the high commission in London. Getting there was not easy, and he had an additional job on his plate. He had been assigned as secretary to Attorney-General Rex Mason, one of New Zealand's delegates to the Paris Peace Conference in 1946.

Mr Mason, an abstemious theosophist, could not speak French, and his personal translator, Mr Zohrab, was nowhere to be found at the opening session.

In fact, he was nearly three weeks late arriving in Paris. The Lancastrian aircraft in which he was a passenger broke down seemingly whenever it reached cruising altitude.

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In Australia, the plane was abandoned by senior members of the New Zealand party, leaving Mr Zohrab and fellow linguist and translator Lyn Corner to wait till the aircraft's health was restored. Its unreliability meant frequent stops for repairs and a zigzag route to Europe.

Mr Zohrab's peace conference and London assignments were the beginning of an 11-year spell overseas. After London, he was second secretary at the Moscow Legation from 1948 till its closure in 1950; second secretary at the Paris Legation from 1951 till 1954, when he was made first secretary on the resignation of Paddy Costello after the Kroger passport affair. He spent three years with a desk job in Wellington from 1956 to 1959 before a posting to Tokyo.

In 1961, he was appointed permanent representative to the European office of the United Nations in Geneva. After a two- year term as assistant secretary in Wellington, he served from 1967 to 1969 as New Zealand high commissioner in Malaysia, transferring to Bonn as New Zealand ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany with concurrent accreditation to Austria.

After the establishment of a resident New Zealand embassy in Vienna, he was accredited concurrently as ambassador to Switzerland and Poland.

Doug Zohrab was the epitome of a diligent and professional public servant. The first ambassador to France, Joseph Vivian Wilson, said Mr Zohrab spoke French with "indecent proficiency". He was musically gifted. He played the piano with considerable skill, and took great pleasure in the listening, preferring Mozart to Beethoven who, he said, was guilty of giving way to romanticism.

He was ebullient and very funny at times when his diplomatic reserve could be set aside for social lubrication.

The Zohrab family was part of a large community of Armenians forcibly moved to the Persian capital in the early 17th century to help stimulate the economy of the Persian empire. Several of the family fled political upheavals and massacres in Persia at the end of the late 18th century.

The New Zealand Zohrabs were from a branch which became British in Malta, and arrived in New Zealand after first settling in England, then in South Africa and later in Australia.

Mr Zohrab was a credit to New Zealand, and to himself, though his natural modesty would have precluded him accepting any such accolade. His wife predeceased him; he is survived by two sons.

Sources: Dominion Post library, T Larkin, J McNeish, M Norrish, Zohrab family and others.

- The Dominion Post

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