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)