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….
Yesterday, 6th March 2020, Joe’s family hosted a wonderful afternoon of memories, tears and smiles, with well over a hundred people squeezing into the tranquil Woodland Hall at Green Acres Woodland Burial Park in Norwich. There was someone from every part of Joe Stirling’s long and remarkable life, family members of all generations, civic colleagues including the current Norwich Lord Mayor, Rabbis from the Norwich Synagogue, people from business, his former committees, Lions Club International, the travel industry and from the Nursing home where he ended his days. The humanist celebrant gave a wonderful summary of his life including a mention for Escaping Hitler, commenting on how much joy the experience of working on his life story had given to Joe in his final years.
The guests and well -wishers were invited back to the Sainsbury’s Centre at the University of East Anglia for a drink, a buffet and to share many memories of ‘knowing Joe Stirling’. The beautiful spray of yellow and white flowers, created by Elizabeth’s Florist of Unthank Road, that had graced the coffin, were brought into the hall where they took centre stage on the sumptuous buffet table. There were photos of Joe and his family on the walls and it was so good to become reacquainted with many people whom I had interviewed when researching Joe’s life. Joe was a special man and there are many who will miss his friendship.
Joe requested that instead of flowers, friends might like to contribute to one of his favourite international causes, UNICEF. If you would like to add your name please call Gordon Barber Funeral Home in Norwich on 01603 484308 and ask how you can help.
Tonight, 9-10th November 2018 is the 80th anniversary of the so called ‘Night of Broken Glass’, when Hitler’s Nazi Party instructed the brownshirts to burn the synagogues, break the windows of all businesses and many homes, loot the contents and most devastating of all, arrest all Jewish men and boys over sixteen years old, incarcerating them in political concentration camps. Alfred was sent to Dachau, a notorious camp in the cold Bavarian Alps. All Jewish children were immediately expelled from their schools and life would never be the same again. Joe Stirling has vivid memories of that terrifying night. I want to share with you some illustrative photos along with the stylised prologue from Joe’s biography Escaping Hitler (Pen and Sword Books 2016), based entirely on Joe’s recollections, told to me when I first interviewed him in December 2011.
No. 10 Hintergasse, Nickenich (taken in 2013) The Stern family lived in the upper flat of this house
Ida and Alfred Stern taken in about 1936
The Hintergasse Nickenich in early 1930s
Ida and Alfred Stern on their wedding day in 1923
It happens so quickly. Loud hammering on the door at around four in the morning. Günter instantly awake. His father’s heavy footsteps on the wooden stairs. The boy creeping from his body-warm bed, joining Mother at the top of the staircase. More banging. Raised angry voices. The door swinging open, rusty hinges straining under the force. Three or four men bursting over the threshold. Uninvited. Invading their home. Strangers, from Andernach or even Koblenz, clutching cudgels and brandishing revolvers.
‘Alfred Stern? Get dressed. You’re arrested.’
‘Arrested? What have I done?’
Günter flinches as his father takes a violent blow across the face. Two menclimb the stairs, pushing past woman and child. Roughnecks turning out drawers and cupboards, throwing contents to the floor, trampling over china and glass. Ida and Günter stunned, silent, shaking. Her husband pushed through the door and onto the cobbles of the Hintergasse. Ida’s throat opens and she screams out:
‘Where are you taking him?’
No reply. Just the muffled sound of Alfred’s anguished objections to being treated as a criminal. He fought bravely for his country. He was wounded four times. He was awarded the Iron Cross. Soon his cries and the marching feet are no longer audible and the night is still once more.
(Extract from the opening of Escaping Hitler: A Jewish Boy’s Quest for Freedom and His Future by Phyllida Scrivens.)
Today, 18th October 2018, Joe Stirling (born Günter Stern), the subject of my biography Escaping Hitler, is 94 years old. I called in to his home in the Unthank Road Norwich this morning to give him his card and found to my delight that he had visitors – his nephew Paul Skitmore and his wife Sarah. (Paul features in the book as a child) Joe, although tired, was on top form. Tonight, instead of accompanying me to speak about his life to the good ladies of Thorpe End W.I. in Norwich, he will be dining out in the city with members of his close family. I wish him a happy birthday evening.
Joe and me with his birthday cards!
Both Joe Stirling and I were saddened last week to hear of the sudden and premature death of Gottfried Busch, the honorary Mayor of the Parish of Nickenich, Joe’s birth place in the Rheinland. Herr Busch had been a member of the local council since 1989 and honorary Mayor (Ortsbürgermeister) since 1992. He was well loved in the village and followed this blog with a keen interest. It was Herr Busch who invited me to visit Nickenich in the May of 2016, five months after Escaping Hitler was published. We found him a delightful generous man, who welcomed us and offering us his hospitality. The photo shows Herr Bush and I following my presentation to the people of the village. A few weeks later I received a bulk order for the book, to be given out as gifts to visiting dignitaries. I was honoured to supply them to Nickenich Council. Herr Busch died on 17th May 2018, at sixty-nine years old. He leaves his wife Lydia and children Sebastian, Patricia, Marco and Leandra. Joe and I send our condolences to the Busch family and to the people of Nickenich.
Biographer Phyllida Scrivens and former Mayor of Nickenich, Gottfried Busch in Nickenich during May 2016.
Today is Joe’s 93rd birthday. I called into his home to take him some chocolates (he is a self-confessed chocoholic) and found him in good form, looking forward to a family dinner tonight at an undisclosed location. Wishing to record the moment I tried some selfies. Why is it that I can never make them work like the youngsters do?! But undeterred I carried on and I think these might make you smile!
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.
Cannot believe it is exactly 12 months today since our Grand Launch in Jarrold. It was one of the most thrilling moments of my life when I came into the room to be greeted by 220 relatives, friends and members of the public. And then to see Joe Stirling at the front, just as I had always imagined it might be. The two of us at our launch book signing! And since then it has gone from strength to strength, the first print run of 1,300 books by Pen and Sword Books selling out before Christmas, a reprint, a visit to Germany to give two talks and sell books, over 40 public speaking engagements, most of them with Joe, and now in January this year the book has been published and launched in the U.S. by Skyhorse Publications of New York. Loads of coverage and reviews in the press and in magazines such as the Association of Jewish Refugees and Lions Clubs International, nearly 500 followers on Facebook. Wonderful progress – and all the while researching for my second book! Just wanted to share my joy with you.
Joe Stirling, the subject of Escaping Hitler: A Jewish Boy’s Quest for Freedom and His Future, is 92 years old today, 18th October 2016. I dropped in to see him this morning, taking him a published copy of this blog, going back four years.
In honour of his birthday, I have now posted a video onto Youtube taken in December 2012 by Roger Hewins, Lecturer in Film and Video Production at the University of East Anglia. It shows Joe in his living room in Norwich, telling me the story of his early life. It runs to over an hour, so grab a coffee, settle down and listen to Joe’s story from his own lips. These tales and so many more are told in great detail in my biography, as published by Pen and Sword Books in January 2016 and to be published in America by Skyhorse Publishing next January 3rd. Enjoy and Happy Birthday Joe! (If you would like your own signed copy see the menu of this blog for instructions of how to buy).
I was delighted and proud to hear that last week the Mayor of Nickenich, my good friend Gottfried Busch, had presented a signed copy of Escaping Hitler to the Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Andrea Nahles, when she was on a visit to the region. It is wunderbar to think that my book might well cross the threshold of the historic Reichstag in Berlin. I do hope she enjoys reading about little Günter Stern, his escape on the Kindertransport from Nazi Germany and his long and illustrious future.