Winifred Schmidt in the 1950s

 

 

 

 
Nuremberg in the 1950s from the castle

 

 

 
The blue Beetle in Ipswich, 1950

 

 

 

 

 

At my uncle's grave in Holland, 1952

 


My translation of Willy Brandt's wartime memoirs for Oswald Wolff

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Robert Ratcliffe Mayor of Ipswich 1956-1957

 

 

Cursing the Darkness - the background

This book started off as something quite different, with the working title Distant Cousin. A later volume in the series may well have that title and theme, but for now I have written an account of life in the mid-1930s in Nazi Germany and the struggles of a small group of people to challenge the Nazi régime. However, I'd like to explain my reasons for becoming so involved in matters German and in Nuremberg, Bavaria in particular.

Identical twins
My links with Germany go back to an era long before I was born, in Suffolk before the outbreak of the First World War. My grandfather on my father's side had identical twin sisters, one of whom, Lucy, married a Belgian. And that's when the complications began, because he turned out not to be a Belgian at all but a German, and when hostilities became inevitable, Lucy chose to move with her new husband to Germany.

They had a daughter called Winifred, but as far as I can gather, there was little communication between the sisters or the rest of the family over the ensuing decades. Fast forward to the closing days of the Second World War.

My father, a professional soldier with the rank of Major, had spent the war years in charge of telecommunications in India and Ceylon (as it then was). He came back to Ipswich in 1945, when I was just five years old, but he was soon posted abroad again to Berlin to head up the telephone and other communications services, both military and civilian, in that devastated city.

'Is that you, Billy?'
The family has always been very tight-lipped about the whole of this story, but from what I have learned, my father was in his office one day when a phone call came to him on a civilian line from Leipzig, which was in the Russian Zone of Occupation.

A woman's voice said, 'Is that you, Billy?'

It turned out that somehow - I have no idea how she managed this - Winifred had found out about my father's posting. She told him about herself and her mother, who had both successfully survived the privations of war, and pleaded with him to help them escape to one of the western zones. One family anecdote relates that my father sent a letter to the two of them, and the envelope was also filled with tea leaves. Winifred's mother, who had not had a taste of tea for a very long time indeed, drank seventeen cups one after the other.

Smuggled to the West
Somehow my father succeeded in smuggling mother and daughter across the internal German border, and the two of them ended up in Nuremberg in the American Zone. Apparently, Winifred had a valid pass to leave the Russian Zone, but her mother did not. It seems that when the train halted at the border and the passengers were ordered out, mother Lucy feigned a sudden illness and was left in the carriage whilst the rest of the passengers were processed.

Winifred married Rudolf Schmidt, who ran a clothing shop in the city called Der preiswerte Laden, the 'Value-for-Money Shop', and later he became a representative for Olympia swimwear and other clothing.

Dark blue Beetle
When my father returned to England, left the army and became a schoolteacher, arrangements were made for Rudi, Winifred and her mother to come to Suffolk for a holiday. I was ten at the time, and my abiding memory is of them arriving on the boat at Harwich with their car, a dark blue Volkswagen Beetle, the likes of which had not been seen in England before, or so it seemed to my young eyes. But, for the family as a whole, the most memorable event during their stay was the hugely emotional reunion between the twin sisters, who had last seen each other in 1914.

There must have been a great deal of persuasive discussion behind the scenes, because a year later, in 1952, I found myself travelling with my Aunt Burston(*) on the ferry to Venlo in Holland, where she stayed with the sisters who tended my Uncle John's grave. He had been a tail-end Charlie on a bomber raid and the plane had crashed over southern Holland. I recall visiting the cemetery with its neat row after row of white tombstones and seeing my uncle's neatly carved name (John Ratcliffe).

The Lorelei Express
While my aunt remained in Holland, I was put aboard the Lorelei Express train, twelve years old and alone, to travel for many hours across Germany to Nuremberg, where I spent an unforgettable fortnight with Uncle Rudi and Aunt Winnie.

Four years later, my grandfather became Mayor of Ipswich and on a later visit to Nuremberg he gave me a formal letter of friendship and reconciliation to hand personally to the Oberbürgermeister of Nuremberg. Those holidays were the trigger events which set me on my present path to where I find myself now, retired and put out to grass as a Professor Emeritus of German at the University of Dundee.

Oswald Wolff Publishers
As for my interest in the fate of Jews in Nazi Germany, I had the good fortune to meet Oswald Wolff in the 1960s who with his wife fled Nazi Germany and founded Oswald Wolff Publishers with the objective of furthering understanding between Britain and Germany. I wrote, edited and translated books for his company and became a director. The third director of the company was Professor Heinz Wolff, well known for his scientific programmes on TV. When Oswald died, his wife Ilse, who had been Librarian of the prestigious Wiener Library in London (which specialises in Jewish history in the Nazi period), took over the company.

A busy retirement
In my present retirement, I have continued working on academic books, educational computer programs and website design. I'd also been a journalist of one kind or another for many years, from the Times Literary Supplement to editing and writing for national computing magazines. But fiction, to coin a phrase, is a different kettle of fish, and the transition from one kind of writing to another is far from straightforward.

Academic books don't tend to end each chapter on a cliffhanger, and the audience for a work of fiction has quite different expectations from that for a specialised academic discipline. Still, after a long apprenticeship, I believe I have produced a work of modest merit.

If this novel turns out to be well received, a sequel is threatened in the next year or so.

Rex Last

(*) In case you were wondering about the unusual name Burston, my grandfather, as well as being a leading local Co-operative politician, was also an engine driver who was on the footplate of lines around Ipswich and the surrounding counties.

One line he travelled frequently had as one of its stops the village of Burston, where there was a famous teachers' strike between 1914-1939. As a local Co-operative politician, he decided to name his youngest daughter in honour of that event. Members of the family, it is alleged, are grateful that the strike did not take place in another village served by the railway and not far away, namely, Six Mile Bottom.

To contact the author, please email him at books@locheesoft.com.