Another sad death. This is so close to my heart. Shirley Williams was generous and kind when she agreed to write the foreword for Escaping Hitler back in 2015. And today the world learns of her death aged 90. I was fortunate to meet her on a number of occasions, and once she even stayed the night in our guest bedroom after we’d hosted a Liberal Democrat gathering to celebrate her autobiography. She and Joe went way back and my proudest moment was when I brought the two of them together, after an absence of over 60 years, at a Lib Dem event during a General Election campaign. Shirley was a very special lady, may she rest in peace.
Here is the foreword from the book:
‘Phyllida Scrivens’ enchanting book Escaping Hitler, rang so many bells for me. Joe Stirling’s life, from his childhood escape to Britain to life as a refugee in a strange country with a kindly family he had never met before; his education in unfamiliar schools and his ability to adapt to working as a professional in the politics of his adopted country; all have echoes with my own experience. But the sensitivity of Mrs Scrivens’ account, her remarkable capacity to convey the significance of each small detail, make this biography of an outstanding British local politician, volunteer and businessman special. The early extracts from Joe Stirling’s interviews with his biographer Phyllida Scrivens, with which every chapter starts, convey a chilling reminder of Germany’s descent over four years from a reasonably tolerant respectable decentralised society into the intense nationalism, brutality and fascism of the Third Reich.
The young Jewish boy, Günter Stern, was well treated by his teachers, his parents inviting his school friends to play with him. A few years later, the teenage Günter, isolated and excluded, set out on his own to walk from Koblenz to England, with little money and only a creased official letter from the English Jewish Committee telling him when the next Kindertransport would leave Cologne, in July 1939. It was his last chance.
My brother John and I were evacuated to the US to live in Minnesota for three years with a family we had never met. We were not fleeing the Luftwaffe’s Blitz in British cities, but primarily the likely prospect of a Nazi invasion of Britain. My parents, though not Jewish, were both on the Gestapo Black List of people to be killed immediately in the event of a successful invasion. They felt this was a risk they should take, but could not impose on their children.
The story of Joe Stirling’s successful integration into British life says a great deal for his determination, his resilience and his courage; the openness of his mind. He worked as a Labour party official and organiser after his service in the British Army, in one of the most rural regions of England, East Anglia, at the grass roots, often in partnership with the Agricultural Workers Union, battling to end tied cottages and to challenge traditional, sometimes near feudal employment practices. He was one of my agents in the 1953 Harwich Parliamentary by-election.
A twenty-three year old candidate, I recall the excitement of convening with Joe two or three meetings a night, hurtling down muddy lanes in the dark, looking for small halls, each with its audience of a dozen or so. Joe mobilised a handful of supporters from a score of villages to come. The boy from the Rhineland had become a Norfolk man.
Joe Stirling has made this his own country and the country has properly honoured him. Secretary and Agent for Norwich Labour Party, councillor and Sheriff of Norwich.
Joe Stirling has contributed to our public life for over sixty years.’
Shirley Williams, 2015