Very much like ourselves

Against a background of enmity and war, friendships between British and German people still flourished, often in the unlikeliest of places. Here are a few more stories of some of those encounters.

Rolf Göhler, a young man in his early twenties, was unlucky enough to be captured by the British on the last day of the Second World War – 4th May 1945. He was taken to a prisoner of war camp near Exeter where he lived for nearly three years.

He began attending a church nearby and became friendly with some of the locals. At Christmas in 1947, some of the prisoners including Rolf took part in a concert. To show their gratitude for the friendship and hospitality they had received, they made candles, toys and other gifts, many carved by hand out of wood. The church was lit with candles in wooden candleholders carved with each prisoner’s name.

After repatriation, Rolf lived in East Germany but wrote regularly to his friends in Devon. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, he made regular visits to England, where he found the wooden candleholders still in use in that same church more than forty years later.

……

Henry Francies was a British man living in Loughton, northeast of London, at the end of the war. Ten years earlier he had joined the Peace Pledge Union, promising, “I will renounce war and will never support or sanction another”.

In 1946, he heard of the desperate food shortages in Germany and, despite severe rationing in England, set up a Famine Relief committee and arranged for regular food parcels to be sent to Germany and Austria over the next decade.

This was not all. Hearing of a prisoner of war camp not far away, he led an appeal for locals to welcome German prisoners into their homes on Christmas Day. The two men who spent Christmas with Henry and his family that year became lifelong friends with the Francies.

……

Michael Betts lived with his grandfather, Mr Walls, in Skipton during the war. Mr Walls was well known for his musical abilities and, hearing of a prisoner of war camp nearby, decided to invite the more gifted musicians among the prisoners to his house to play his grand piano and other instruments.

In the last months of the war, a steady stream of keen young musicians benefited from Mr Walls’ generosity. In return, they put on impromptu concerts and gave German lessons to young Michael.

Remembering those evenings, he said, “Over the meals that inevitably followed we got to know some of these young men quite well. We found them very much like ourselves, full of fun and music and in no way militaristic or political.”

……

Although there are hundreds of stories such as these, it’s still true that only a tiny minority of British and German people were lucky enough to encounter each other in settings where friendship was possible, where it was possible to encounter the other as a human being, rather than an enemy. Reading these stories only increases my frustration that the majority missed out.

(Stories taken from Pamela Howe Taylor’s book, The Germans We Trusted, Lutterworth Press, 2003)

 

Forgotten encounters

I’ve recently read someone else’s PhD thesis. Besides reminding me of the daunting task ahead of me, it’s been useful to me in justifying the approach I’ve decided to take.

Writing about Anglo-German encounters in Hamburg (part of the British zone of Germany) between 1945 and 1949, Frances Rosenfeld describes ‘the great divide between those Germans who participated in Anglo-German activities and the vast majority of Germans on the outside’, those who had no contact with Brits in formal social settings.

Informal relationships were also rare in a city of one million, and the proportion of Brits in the UK who came into contact with Germans in the post-war years must have been even smaller.

My last post explored the powerful influence of direct contact with an ‘other’ on our perception of the national group to which he or she belongs. But Rosenfeld’s thesis proved that my niggling thought in the back of my brain was correct. If I want to study the dominant ideas that British and German people had about each other, personal encounters are of no use to me – the majority had no such encounters.

In my research so far, however, I’ve uncovered a huge assortment of fascinating – sometimes tragic but mostly inspiring – stories of encounters between individual Brits and Germans in those post-war years.

I’d like to share some of these with you over my next few posts. They won’t have a place in my thesis but deserve to be shared.

Many of them emerge from the Kindertransport. In 1938, the British government decided to allow Jewish children from all over Germany and occupied Europe to come to the UK and live with British families.

Kindertransport

10,000 children arrived and were taken in by families all over the country, many of whom had too many mouths to feed already and many of whom would soon send sons, husbands and brothers to fight the nation from which those children came. But they welcomed them, fed them and loved them, so much so that many stayed with their foster families after the war.

There’s the story of the 12-year-old girl living in Kensington, desperate to save

her Jewish parents still living in Germany. For many days, she knocks on the doors of large houses in south-west London, asking for help, with no response. Eventually, a woman takes pity on her and offers her parents work in her house. With offers of jobs, the girl’s mother and father are allowed to come to London and they’re re-united.

Another young girl writes to the Home Office, asking for her parents to be saved. So moved by the child’s letter, officials trace her parents and arrange for their safe passage.

One girl has a sister still in danger in Europe. She asks her foster family if they would take her as well. The father asks, “What colour is her hair?” The girl, whose sister has red hair, knows that he despises that colour, so she lies, exposing herself to his wrath! When her sister arrives with flaming red hair, the father is angry but accepts her soon enough.

Such small, but life-saving, acts of bravery deserve to be known. I’ll share more with you as I find them.