With the sun shining in Norwich, England, I am reminded of the wonderful summer’s afternoon I spent in the Norwich Castle Gardens in 2016, watching an energetic and inspiring performance of the unique community play ‘Come Yew In’. Within the many stories of Norwich history told that day, it was the segment that retold Joe’s story in just a few moments that I had been waiting for. Using words from my book Escaping Hitler the talented performers paid tribute to Joe. I have posted this film before but I thought it worth another viewing.
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.
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.
This morning I attended the annual Civic Holocaust Memorial Service, this year for the first time held in the majestic Norwich Cathedral. Joe Stirling was the guest of honour and the Sheriff of Norwich, Richard Marks, made the opening welcome address. I was taken by surprise when at the end of his speech he mentioned my book. He kindly gave me permission to share his words with you.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the theme of this 2017 Holocaust Memorial Day is “How Can Life Go On?”
When we contemplate the millions of victims of the Nazi genocide in Europe in WWII, six million Jews, and millions more including Polish and Russian dissidents, the Roma and Gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses, disabled people, gay people, freemasons and trades unionist, we might think that humankind would have learnt some lessons. But the history of the 20th and 21st Centuries suggests otherwise
And we indeed ask ourselves the question, after such loss, after such suffering, “How Can Life Go On?”But if human beings have an almost limitless capacity for destruction, they have an equally remarkable capacity for starting all over again. At least one member of our congregation today vividly demonstrates this – Joe Stirling has contributed to public life, primarily Norfolk public life for more than sixty years.
But his early life was spent in Germany and at first it was idyllic. But after Hitler came to power, Joe witnessed that country’s descent into barbarism and sadistic brutality was meted out to his friends and family. At the age of 14, Joe decided to walk to England but was returned to his village. He eventually left on the last kinder transport out of Germany, and never saw his beloved family again. He arrived in Britain in 1939, enlisted in the British Army in 1944 and he became High Sheriff of Norwich – this fine city – in 1975. If you want to know more about the fascinating intervening years, you will have to read his extraordinary biography!
Joe demonstrates that, even after personal tragedy, people can live happy and fulfilling lives and become huge contributors to the public good. He proves to us that, given great courage and the kindness of strangers, good will triumph over evil and that indeed life can go on.”
Alex Bennett, from the Norwich Hebrew Congregation chanted the Memorial Prayer and the Mourners’ Kaddish; always so wonderful to hear the unusual Hebrew sounds resonating in a spiritual space. The Vicar of St Peter Mancroft, Revd Robert Avery read the moving piece by Pastor Martin Niemoller, now traditional at this service.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Throughout the service my thoughts returned again and again to Alfred and Ida Stern, Joe’s parents who were murdered by the Nazis in the Sobibor Death Camp in 1942. May they rest in peace.
Photos show Alfred and Ida Stern in 1937, Norwich Cathedral, Sheriff Richard Marks, Joe Stirling and Alex Bennett.
It was a momentous and exciting moment this morning as the postman arrived with my package all the way from @SkyhorsePublishing in New York. It was my author’s copy of the American version of my biography Escaping Hitler. Although the front cover design is exactly the same, they have used gloss paper instead of matt giving it a very different look. On the reverse are four Reviews from magazines and academics – ecstatic to see that – just like a ‘proper book’! I can already imagine people in Barnes and Noble all over the U.S.A. picking it up and reading the back! Now I can almost truly believe that I have become an International Author! Thanks so much to Joseph Craig, Editorial Director at Skyhorse for mailing the book to me.
Nearly one year since this short film was broadcast on Mustard TV in Norwich, here is another chance to see Joe in action as he is interviewed and filmed in his own home. Just follow the link below or copy and paste into your browser. With so many more followers on Facebook than this time last year, this is an opportunity for the ‘newbies’ to see this delightful piece of footage, filmed just before Holocaust Memorial Day 2016. Since the filming Joe has two further great-grandchildren, has turned 92 and is looking forward to the publication of his biography Escaping Hitler in the USA by Skyhorse Publishing of New York. If you would like to buy a copy of his book, signed by both Joe and by me, maybe as a Christmas present, you will find details of how to order on the Menu section of this blog. Enjoy!
Today in the I newspaper, journalist Sarah Cassidy writes about teaching of the Holocaust in our UK schools. Joe Stirling visits Norfolk schools, talking about his escape from Nazi Germany and how his parents perished in Sobibor. In this thought-provoking article Year 9 pupil John Soben, 14, said ‘Of course, we have learnt that 6 million people died, but having someone who’d actually been there telling you what it was like makes it much more real’. I relate particularly to the words of Anita Parmar, Head of the LFA (Lessons from Auschwitz) project who says, ‘I think it is about dehumanising all the people involved in the events of the Holocaust. When you read about the Holocaust in text books, it can seem unreal because it seems so horrific and on such a large scale. We want to look at the individuals.’ And that it what I have tried to encapsulate in Escaping Hitler. I worked hard at keeping the issues to a human scale, citing experiences of four children during Kristallnacht, not dwelling on the unimaginable fate of Günter’s parents, instead focussing on their final night in Koblenz, amongst friends, courageously awaiting their inevitable fate. If Joe’s story can help children relate to the Holocaust then our job is done. You can read Sarah Cassidy’s article in full at: