If Joe Stirling had not passed away in 2020, he would have been celebrating his 98th birthday today. I remember so many birthdays – visiting his home in Norwich to find stacks of brightly coloured greetings cards from friends around the world, and wrapped parcels from his many loving family members. He was known to be a chocoholic so there were always boxes of these sitting on the coffee table. I miss him every day and always enjoy giving “his talk” to groups around Norfolk, sharing tales of his childhood in Nazi Germany, his freedom walk through Europe and his achievements in later life, so many recorded in my biography Escaping Hitler (Pen and Sword Books 2016). Joe was a very special man and I was fortunate to find him when I did. I owe my ongoing writing and public speaking careers to his generosity, amazing memory and zest for life. Thank you Joe and Happy Birthday….
Delighted to announce that Joe Stirling’s obituary, as submitted by local writer Tom Carver, has today, 23rd May, 2020, been published in a UK national newspaper, The Guardian. Probably the first national to carry a photograph of my book cover; its been a long time coming! So pleased that Joe’s remarkable story has now reached an even greater audience. Joe would be thrilled to see his obituary, alongside other luminaries, inside a national newspaper…..
On this special 75th anniversary of VE Day, I would like to share the short passage from Escaping Hitler (Pen and Sword Books 2016), written directly from Joe’s memories of that time, spent in Bramley near Basingstoke, serving with the Ordnance Corps and where he met his wife to be Jean Skitmore. I remember sitting in Joe’s living room hearing his wartime stories, simply feeling grateful that a training injury meant he was unable to go to Europe and fight.
“On 1 May 1945 the BBC announced Hitler’s suicide. The finish-line was in sight. The following evening radio programmes were interrupted with the news that the German Army had surrendered in Italy. Two days later troops capitulated in Denmark. For two days no one knew what was happening. By Monday 7 May expectant crowds were gathering outside Buckingham Palace but still the news did not come. In fact, the British were waiting for Russian and American confirmation of the Nazi defeat. At 7 p.m. Winston Churchill broadcast on the BBC, declaring that the following day would be ‘Victory in Europe Day’. The Nation could allow itself a ‘brief period of rejoicing’, but should remember that Britain was still at war with Japan. After five years people were ready to party. The morning papers led with photographs of vast crowds, many dressed in red, white and blue, celebrating in London the previous evening. That morning the same crowds cheered and sang as King George, Queen Elizabeth and the two princesses Elizabeth and Margaret alongside Churchill, waved enthusiastically from the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
Bramley barracks held a celebration parade. The Commanding Officer made a speech, thanking everyone for his or her valuable contribution to the victory, even if they hadn’t been involved at the front line. That afternoon Joe joined a group of comrades on the train to nearby Basingstoke where they danced in the street and invaded the public houses, the overjoyed landlords honouring the servicemen with a free first drink. It took some time to walk the six miles back to base late that evening, the men having either missed the last bus or more likely having spent every last penny on best beer. Jean and her friends stayed on base holding their own celebration. Young ladies didn’t frequent pubs.”
Images show Jean (centre) celebrating with her colleagues at Bramley camp & Joe and Jean on their wedding day in 1946.
Happy Birthday Joe! Today, 18th October 2019, Joe Stirling, the subject of my biography Escaping Hitler: A Jewish Boy’s Quest for Freedom and His Future (Pen and Sword Books, 2016) is 95 years old. I first met Joe in 2011 and never imagined our friendship would last as long as it has. I visited Joe this afternoon in his Norwich Care Home to find his two lovely daughters, Jane and Johanna, sharing his day with him. We had tea and cake with candles, gifts and a loud rendition of ‘Happy Birthday to You.’ Joe continues to keep a keen interest in how my writing and public speaking careers are progressing and is always proud to hear about it when I have share his life stories with new audiences in Norfolk. Many Happy Returns Joe!
Last Wednesday, 23rd January 2019, I was excited to launch my brand new talk. I spoke to the members of the popular Out & About Club, a social Club for the over 50s, held at the Congregational Church on Chaplefield, Norwich. Joe and I have many friends there as we have spoken about his life on two occasions, and last year I delivered my Lady Lord Mayor’s presentation.
This new talk is called ‘When the Past Collides with the Present: remarkable true stories of coincidence, luck and fate while researching biography in the modern age.’
I include those ‘behind the scenes’ stories discovered while researching for Escaping Hitler, The Lady Lord Mayors of Norwich and other biographical work. I show original photographs (some shown here), all illustrating personal moments of “Can this really be happening?”, “Where did you find that?” and “Are you sure that is true?” As a biographer, I find that once you put yourself and your discoveries ‘out there’, people come back to you, generously offering finer details, corrections, fragments of stories to add to your research, people you thought you would never reach. The unexpected connections, many because of our wonderful research tool, the internet.
The talk seemed to go down well. I look forward to sharing it further with other Norfolk groups, such as the Women’s Institute, History Groups etc., starting with the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth on 1st March.
Maybe join me there?
I don’t think I can ignore CHRISTMAS any longer!!! If you are considering gifts for the relative or friend who has everything, or someone who loves to read, especially if they are or have been Norwich residents, then Joe Stirling’s biography should be well received…. you can order a hardback copy, signed by both author and subject direct from me by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can take credit and debit payments on the telephone and I will package the book up safely, mailing it out by first class post. The price is £19.50 plus £4 postage and packing. I look forward to hearing from you! PLEASE SHARE!!
Mindful that in early November Joe and I will be undertaking our final speaking engagement of 2017, to the good ladies of the Hopton-on-Sea Women’s Institute, I thought I would take a look through our visits since Escaping Hitler was published in January 2016. I was amazed at the number of groups I/we have spoken to, resulting in nearly 300 signed books sold following the talks. If you then add in sales directly from book exhibitions and individual readers approaching me online or via the telephone, total direct sales amount to 891 and counting! Unbelievable. I thought you might be interested in seeing the list of talks, the vast majority of which were in Norwich and surrounding area. (Photo taken at Norfolk Record Office on 8th February 2017) Thanks to all those who have invited us. We already have 11 dates in the diary for 2018!
ESCAPING HITLER 64 Speaking Engagements in Norfolk and beyond during 2016 and 2017
|Norwich Ladies Luncheon Club|
|Old Catton Women’s Institute|
|Official Launch at Jarrolds Department Store, Norwich|
|Belton Women’s Institute|
|Norwich North Liberal Democrats|
|Norwich Chamber Music Club|
|Wymondham Heritage Society|
|The Norfolk Club|
|Norwich Community History Group|
|Out and about Club|
|Mercedes Benz Owners Club evening|
|Walsingham Historical Society|
|East Anglia Women Networking Group|
|Brooke Women’s Institute|
|Lions International Regional Conference, Colchester|
|Sunday Assembly, Norwich|
|Association of Jewish Refugees|
|Mid Norfolk Family History Society|
|Rotary Club of Norwich St Edmund|
|Attleborough Public Library|
|Koblenz Federal Archive, Rhineland|
|The village of Nickenich, Rhineland|
|Great Hospital Group|
|Townswomen Guild Central Norwich Group|
|Mulbarton Words Week|
|Townwomen’s Guild Eaton Group|
|East Anglia Festival of Culture, Lowestoft|
|Wymondham British Legion|
|Recycled Teenagers Group|
|Norwich Business Women’s Network|
|Norwich Inter-faith Group|
|Liberal Democrat Regional Conference|
|Time Travellers Meeting, Heritage Centre, Forum|
|Sprowston History Group|
|Norwich Lunchtime Women’s Institute|
|Bure School, Aylsham|
|Norwich Ladies Luncheon Club|
|UEA Retirement Group|
|Paston College, North Walsham|
|Norwich Labour Party History Group|
|The Norwich School|
|Norfolk Record Office|
|Vale Probus Club Ladies’ Lunch|
|Koblenz Norwich Friendship Society AGM|
|Unison Trade Union Retired Members Norfolk Branch|
|Wymondham Sixth Form College|
|Salvation Army Ladies’ Fellowship|
|Mid Norfolk Family History Society|
|Civil Service Retirement Fellowship|
|Easton Women’s Institute|
|Maddermarket Theatre for Performance of Kindertransport|
|Beccles Probus Club|
|Lakenham Townswomen’s Guild|
|Catton Townswomen’s Guild|
|Mileham W.I. Near King’s Lynn|
|Holt Women’s Institute|
|Get Together Group Norwich Theatre Royal|
|Brooklands Care Home, Taverham|
|The Probus Club of Wymondham and District
Broadland Housing Association, Dereham
It was a red letter day yesterday in the life of Joe Stirling when we met for lunch with Dr Hubert Becker from Friesland on the North Sea coast of Germany. His good friend Neil Jordon was hosting Hubert for a few days in Norfolk, and they took the opportunity to arrange a first time meeting with Joe.
Hubert was born in Nickenich, Joe’s home village in the Rhineland, in 1963 and when I was writing Escaping Hitler, Hubert was in touch with me, sending photographs of his relatives in the village and retelling anecdotes from his mother who still lives there. Some of these now appear in the book. Hubert’s father was Heinz Becker, a boy in Joe’s class at school (Joe was then Günter Stern) and his Uncle Peter was the best friend of Günter’s father Alfred. Are you following this?! Keep up! Peter appears on a photo that I show at every public talk – he is the second from the left on the plough. Peter died in 1973, having been the Mayor of Nickenich, two days before his Golden Wedding celebration.
Young Heinz appears in the Nickenich village school photo from 1932 – he is the one in centre at the front with the pudding basin fringe! (Günter is seated, front, far left in white socks) In his adult life, Heinz felt guilty about the fate of the Sterns during the Holocaust and how his schoolfriend had to flee to England to escape Nazi atrocities. As his life was coming to an end in 2000 he made his son Hubert promise to seek out Joe Stirling and ask his forgiveness for how the village failed to act during the darkest hours of Kristallnacht.
And yesterday in Loch Fyne in Norwich, Hubert was able to fulfil that promise.
The summer season is ahead and normally our presentations and public speaking events would be drying up. Not this year! 18 months after the publication of my debut biography Escaping Hitler: A Jewish Boy’s Quest for Freedom and His Future (Pen and Sword Books 2016 & Skyhorse Publications New York, 2017), our diary has a further six engagements to September, four in the autumn and three in 2018! This is mainly because Joe is so compelling when at, nearly 93, he tells his own story to audiences all over Norfolk. For those who have not yet seen this film, do take a look and you will see what I mean! For details of how to buy your signed copy direct from the author, do look at the menu section of this blog.
Today, 22nd March 2017, is the 75th Anniversary of the deportation of over 300 Jewish people by the Nazis, from the Rhineland city of Koblenz, to their ultimate murders in the death camps in Poland.
Travelling on those trains were the parents of Joe Stirling, subject of my biography Escaping Hitler. Their names were Alfred and Ida Stern and I remember them today.
But I have an amazing co-incidence to share with you. In February this year Joe Stirling and I gave an illustrated lunchtime talk at the Norfolk Record Office, a wonderful venue for historians, genealogists and researchers. Amongst our audience was a young couple from Dereham in Norfolk. They told us before the talk that they were there because Ilan’s family had Koblenz war-time connections. I began the talk, and quite unusually included a slide of the Balduinbrücke, the main bridge across the Mosel in Koblenz. After we had completed our usual book signing, Ilan and his wife Anne approached our table and Ilan spoke directly to Joe.
He said that he was an Israeli Jew, Ilan Schönewald, whose family had originated in Koblenz. He had reason to believe, from listening to my talk and matching the details with those from his family folklore, that his great-grandmother BERTA SCHÖNEWALD, may be been on that same deportation train on 22nd March 1942, heading to her death in Sobibor death camp. It was if the past had reached out to cling to the present, bringing both Ilan and Joe together for a brief moment in honour of their close family members who had shared their last days in the most gruesome of circumstances. We exchanged numbers, Anne promising to email me photos of Berta. Once home, I double checked my research material, like a conscientious biographer (!) and found in a German newspaper report from 1992, the 60th anniversary of the deportation, the list that contained the names of Joe’s parents and step-grandmother Sabine. Sure enough, Berta’s name was also on the list. They had been together over that dreadful period, most probably both thinking of their children (Berta of her daughter escaped to England and Alfred and Ida of their son Günter (Joe) also safely in England).
It is co-incidences and remarkable encounters like these that make biography such a fascinating and rewarding genre. RIP Alfred, Ida, Sabine and Berta.