Tag: Jewish

75th Anniversary of the Jewish Deportation from Koblenz & chance encounter with the past

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.

Joe Stirling takes ‘Escaping Hitler’ to his daughter’s old school

Yesterday, 1st February Joe Stirling and I gave a presentation about Escaping Hitler to students and staff at @NorwichHigh (Norwich High School for Girls).  We were part of the excellent Lunch and Learn scheme where anyone is welcome to join a speaker at lunchtime in the library space and enjoy a buffet lunch while listening….  everyone was so welcoming.  The students were mesmerised as ever by Joe telling his personal story of life as a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany.  Our visit was timed to be as near as possible to Holocaust Memorial Day and we ended our slide show with a tribute to Joe’s parents, Alfred and Ida,who were murdered in Sobibor in 1942.

 Also poignant was that Jane, Joe’s eldest child, won a scholarship to Norwich High School back in the late 1950s.  This is the main reason the family moved to the Unthank Road. Joe and his wife Jean would have visited the school many times for parents evenings, concerts, sports days, bazaars and the like! The story is documented in Escaping Hitler and it is wonderful to think that my book will remain their stunning new Library for the girls to read for years to come.

Our thanks to Mr Emerson-Moering for inviting us to speak.   Photos courtesy of Emily Marchant, Communications Officer.

Homage to America Part 3: The Texan Oilmen invade Great Yarmouth 1970s.

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Joe Stirling had hardly opened his second branch of Stirling Holidays, in the coastal East Anglian town of Great Yarmouth, when oil was discovered offshore.  The invasion of the Texan Oilmen began!  This extract from Escaping Hitler, recently published by Skyhorse Publications of New York for North American readers, gives you a flavour of the times and the significance of this in the business life of Joe.

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In 1965 the first offshore oil and gas wells were drilled off the coast of East Anglia. American giant Conoco built their first fixed platform just 50 miles off Great Yarmouth and by 1967 gas was being piped ashore from the Leman field. The Duke of Edinburgh opened the Bacton Gas terminal in 1968. Senior company directors from Texas and the Gulf of Mexico virtually took over Great Yarmouth, bringing the mighty dollar and prosperity in their wake.

[…] Over the following year over 10,000 American families settled in the Great Yarmouth area. Although everyone struggled to understand each other’s accents, the incomers brought with them many benefits but especially business. The region was booming. With money to spend and time on their hands, they were keen to discover the tourist hotspots of London, Cornwall, the Lakes and especially Shakespeare Country. There were only two travel agents in Great Yarmouth, Seaforth’s and Stirling’s. But with more than enough work for both companies, days were busy. Evenings too, with Doreen and Judith often staying late to keep up with administration. Quick to learn, Judith was soon made manager of the air travel section, reserving First Class flights to Houston or enquiring directly with airlines on the most cost-effective method of flying a group of oilmen to India or Nigeria. The discovery of ‘black gold’ was becoming a priority around the globe and Stirling Holidays was more than happy to play its part. Judith was always willing to open lucrative accounts for both major and smaller drilling companies, her personal service and attention to detail and rewarding the company with 7 per cent commission on each airline ticket.

One favoured client was the Senior Director of McDermott Marine Construction Limited, an Offshore Field Development Company, established in 1923 in Texas, USA. One morning Judith received a telephone enquiry. Could Stirling’s arrange for some of the guys to fly from Norwich to Aberdeen for a golf tournament?

During the early 1970s Norwich Airport was still establishing itself as a commercial airport, dealing mainly in freight. Through a friend of a friend, Joe was able to contact the owner of East Anglian Airways, a tiny operation boasting just one Douglas DC-3 propeller-driven airliner, the plane that had played a significant part in popularising air travel in the United States. It sat twenty-six passengers, who were obliged to enter at the back of the plane and walk uphill, pulling themselves up the aisle using the backs of seats. Flights were invariably noisy and shaky but thankfully reliable. Stirling Holidays chartered a private flight for the American oilmen, the first company to do so out of Norwich Airport. Joe waved them off personally. At Aberdeen, the plane waited on the apron while the oilmen enjoyed their eighteen holes. Two days later on flying back into Norwich, they found Mr Stirling there to greet them. McDermott Marine would not forget Mr Stirling’s professionalism, ingenuity and good humour.

Everyone in Great Yarmouth hoped the oilmen and their deep pockets were there to stay.

 

© Phyllida Scrivens 2016

Escaping Hitler is now available from Amazon.com,  Barnes and Nobles bookstores or by following this link to the Skyhorse site. http://www.skyhorsepublishing.com/search?q=escaping+hitler+%22escaping%20hitler%22&f=1

 

U.S.A. ‘Escaping Hitler’ Booksales now Launched!

 

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Phyllida and Joe in Norwich England talking to Skyhorse Publishing in New York

On Tuesday 10th January Skyhorse Publications of New York published and launched my book Escaping Hitler on to the U.S. market.  Here in the U.K. I held a party at my home with 18 friends and colleagues, offering them an American themed buffet of mini burgers, spicy chicken legs, coleslaw, prawns (shrimp in the U.S) and home baked cup cakes!  Joe Stirling, the 92 year old former Kindertransport refugee and subject of my book along with his grandson Charlie were our guests of honour.  At exactly 8pm UK time, 3pm Eastern Standard Time, my computer rang and we began our FaceTime interview with the lovely Leslie Davis,  Digital Marketing Coordinator and Assistant Publicist at Skyhorse.

She began by asking Joe Stirling how he felt when I suggested I might write his biography, way back in 2011.  He modestly replied that he was very surprised as he had never considered anyone might be interested in his life story.  He added that his family and friends had been intrigued by the prospect of having the family story written up for posterity.  Leslie asked Joe about his message when giving talks to the public and to schoolchildren.  He answered that it was about taking care not to take our political leaders for granted and to beware the possibility of dictatorships taking over slowly, without warning.

Leslie then turned to me and asked when I had first met Joe.  I told her that he was speaking about his early life at a University event and having heard the early part of his life story, I was captivated, knowing that this man’s life could become my debut biography. I told her about my research trip to Germany, the wonderful people I had met and the places I visited.  I told her about the many references to the USA in the book, a country that Joe has explored extensively over his lifetime, including buying an apartment on Florida Keys and his Lions International trips with the UK delegates from 1971 for 21 years.

Although the link was difficult and we had to repeat many questions and answers, it was an exciting experience.  The edited video clips will soon be available on YouTube and I will post up the link once they are ready.  So to celebrate this momentous occasion I am going to dedicate the next few blogs to America by reproducing some extracts from Escaping Hitler that feature a particular time there.  Starting with Joe taking a trip of British Lions to the recently opened Disneyland in Florida in 1972.

‘I read that Walt Disney had recently opened a new attraction called Walt Disney World in a small town in the middle of Southern Florida called Orlando. I had never heard of it. I thought that might be interesting for some.’ (Joe Stirling in interview 2013)

Joe read in the Travel Gazette that in 1965 Walt Disney had announced his visionary ‘Florida Project’. Tragically the entertainment tycoon did not live to see his project develop, dying from lung cancer in 1966. However, his company had already bought up thousands of acres of cheap swampland in Orange County. The outcome was a theme park five times the size of that in California, complete with linked resort hotels, opening to the public in October 1971. Joe knew that this could make an appealing addition to his ‘side trips’ and set about investigating the travel logistics. Within a month of Joe’s advert appearing, every available place was taken, his party once again larger than the previous year. As he checked his British contingent into their convention hotel, Joe felt the pressure of being the tour leader, rather more than before. As his numbers increased so did the responsibilities. It was becoming difficult to remain ‘one of the boys’[…]

The Convention over, the British contingent divided into two groups, some looking forward to simply relaxing on Miami beach for a few days, others heading for Walt Disney World and New Orleans, accompanied by Joe and Jean. A short hop on a noisy DC-4 propeller plane took the party to Orlando. They felt a little strange to be a group of just adults as they explored the Magic Kingdom, Adventureland, Bear Country and Fantasyland. Everyone agreed it had been a bewitching experience. (Escaping Hitler 2016)

 

 

Excerpt from ‘Escaping Hitler’

Thought it about time I gave my many followers, who have not yet bought Escaping Hitler, a taste of the book.  I hope you find it interesting.  If you would like a copy (U.K. only) do email me at phyllida.scrivens@icloud.com and I can give you the options of how to receive your signed book (both by me and Joe) at a discounted price.

This section is set in Germany during early 1939. The italicised opening is a direct quote from Joe during one of my many interviews with him.

Cross Countries

‘I thought, “If war breaks out then I’ll never get away.” I was determined to get to England before the shutters came down. I would try and get over on my own. Of course I couldn’t tell my parents. They wouldn’t have allowed it.’

Günter’s paternal grandfather Heimann died of a heart attack on 28 February 1939. At the age of eighty-five he never recovered from the shock of his arrest on Kristallnacht. His body was returned to Meudt for burial, grave number 36 in the Jewish cemetery. Although still recuperating from his illness, Alfred took his young son to attend the ceremony. As an orthodox Jew, Heimann was buried in his tallit, the neckband removed and one of the fringes cut off, symbolising that once dead a Jew is no longer obliged to observe the rituals and customs of his religion. Günter stood amongst the adult mourners, joining the traditional chanting of the El Malei Rahamin, a prayer reassuringly declaring that the deceased is now ‘sheltered beneath the wings of God’s presence’. The sensitive child shed a tear for his grandfather as the simple wooden casket lowered into the grave to the rhythmic beat of the spoken Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.

After three or four weeks of recuperation Alfred received a visit from a member of the Gestapo.

‘I think you are fit enough to work now.’
‘But I’ve not found any work yet.’

‘You don’t need to. You’ll be building the autobahns, and there is a lot of digging to do.’

Alfred was attached to a forced-labour unit living in caravans on the roadside miles from Koblenz. He was allowed to return home at weekends only if he could afford his fare, which wasn’t often. Expelled from school, with no father, no friends and reluctant to venture out, Günter had little with which to amuse himself, apart from watching the endless columns of Black and Brownshirts marching through the streets below. To ease the tension he made music on his new violin, losing himself in the moment.

Rumours were circulating in the Jewish community that a group of people in Great Britain had successfully lobbied their government to allow the immigration of more refugees, specifically children between eight and sixteen thought to be under threat from the Nazis. They would enter England on temporary travel documents and re-join their parents once the crisis was over. A £50 bond was required for each child and they would make the journey in sealed trains. Volunteer families and financial donations were actively being sought in Britain. Those children for whom sponsors could not be found, would be housed at Dovercourt, a holiday camp on the east coast of England, until a foster home could be found. Above all the refugees were not to be a drain on the British State.

Whilst there was no way out for Alfred and his wife, it was crucial to offer their son a future. They asked Günter if he would like a chance to go to England. The boy did not hesitate. His application was lodged and the wait for a response began. Sometime in February 1939 a brown envelope arrived from the Jewish Refugee Committee in London. The letter was brief and to the point: ‘We can now confirm that Günter is on the list and you will be advised when a seat is available for him on a Kindertransport out of Cologne.’ Günter read the letter over and over, excited at the prospect of escape. It became his ‘special treasure’ and lived permanently in his trouser pocket.

Excerpt from Escaping Hitler by Phyllida Scrivens February 2016

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Gunter Stern as a young child in Nickenich
Günter Stern as a boy