Reminiscences: after two World Wars and the Holocaust

Having just watched The Windermere Children and the accompanying documentary on BBC I was moved to write a little about my experience as a child growing up so soon after the Second World War.

Since I was born in 1946 what I knew of both World Wars, and especially of the Holocaust, I learned from my parents, friends, and neighbours. My parents were Liberals, and ardent Europeans, in which I have followed them; the News Chronicle was their newspaper of choice. They had both lived through two World Wars, which left an indelible mark on them (as it did on all those who experience the horrors of the ‘war to end all wars’, only to discover the hollowness of that claim a mere twenty years later) . My mother was a small girl in York during the first War and recalled seeing a German zeppelin dropping bombs. My father was a ship’s engineer and spent the War on the Clyde where prototype submarines were built and tested, especially the K series. In the early versions of the K series there was no direct means of communication between the conning tower and the engine room, as my father told it. (There do seem to have been signal lights – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_K13) According to his account, the Captain had surfaced after the usual three dives. The engine room was unbearably hot, and so those in the engine room opened hatches to let air in. The Captain then ordered another dive, and the engine room flooded, immediately drowning all within. My father had been due to be on K 13 for those test dives, but had swapped his turn on duty with his best friend. I never asked him whether he had survivor guilt; indeed, people did not think in those terms back then.

My parents, who were not then married, were teachers in 1939, and so in a protected occupation. Gateshead Grammar School, where they both taught, was evacuated to Askrigg, in Wensleydale. My father returned to Gateshead with most of the children during the ‘phony war’ but there was one girl whose parents wanted her to stay out of harm and so my mother volunteered to stay in the Dales and teach her. While neither of them was directly involved in the conflict or the war effort they were naturally deeply affected by it. They were rightly keen that I should know of what had twice engulfed Europe in their lifetimes, and why it must not happen again. They were equally keen that I should know what the Nazis had done to the Jews, as well as others, and the need to fight fascism.

By the time I was seven we lived in a large Edwardian house in Nottingham, despite having very little money. So we took lodgers (or paying guests, as they were euphemistically dubbed). Many of these were students at Nottingham University, but others were visitors from overseas that we took in through the British Council. This at a time when foreigners were suspect and many lodging houses had signs saying No Blacks and No Irish. I thought nothing of it at the time, of course, but looking back I realise that this gave me a much more cosmopolitan experience and outlook than most children would have gained.

The realities of the Nazi treatment of Jews was vividly brought home to me by our friendship with a German Jewish couple and with their housekeeper. The Bechoffers were among the last Jews to escape Germany, in 1938, I think. He had a flourishing business in Germany which, of course, was appropriated. They had one son, but every other member of both their families died in the camps. The Bechoffers were, perhaps, the most pro-British people I ever met, and would brook no criticism of the country that had taken them in. When they first arrived in Britain it was pouring with rain and they were soaked. A shopkeeper invited them into his shop until the rain stopped; they could not believe that anyone would treat them with such kindness and never forgot it. Their housekeeper was not Jewish, but a young German woman, Ursula Sobbutsch, who was one of the many refugees who fled devastated Europe. Her father, a German soldier, had been tied to a railway line by the French Resistance, and after the war she and her mother lived for six months by eating waste food out of dustbins. As a result, she could not bear to waste food. She was devoted to the Bechoffers and even then, although I was young, it struck me as an amazing act of reconciliation.

Two other incidents impressed upon me the need for constant vigilance against authoritarianism and fascism. My parents returned to the Yorkshire Dales after the war to open an hotel (not, alas, a viable financial proposition). They employed as a member of the hotel staff a young German woman who was passionate about classical music. My mother happened to mention Mendelssohn of whom, of course, this woman had never heard. It sometimes takes trivial incidents like this to bring home the dangers of the state imposing complete censorship that erases all memory of a whole culture, in addition to killing its people. The second incident involved another German. My mother’s best friend, Kathleen, was a Quaker, and during the war she visited German PoW camps, where she fell in love with a soldier, Bruno. They married and stayed in England, where he embraced Quakerism and became an ambulance driver. One evening over a dinner Kathleen was enthusing about a holiday that she and Bruno were taking to the Holy Land; a trip that held deep spiritual significance for her. Yes, Bruno said, in his thick German accent: we are going to Israel to see all these Jews that Hitler is supposed to have killed. My mother told me that no-one could speak; there was just appalled silence. And so I learned early on not only about Holocaust denial in particular, but our capacity to hide from ourselves the terrible events in which, as citizens of a country, we are often complicit.

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