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Here is a piece I wrote a few years ago which I am reposting to mark this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds the hand of his granddaughter during the annual ‘March of the Living’ at Auschwitz in May 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)

A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds the hand of his granddaughter during the annual ‘March of the Living’ at Auschwitz in May 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)

What makes two people with identical backgrounds turn in completely opposite directions?  I have just finished a fascinating book called The Horror of Love by Lisa Hilton about the relationship between Nancy Mitford and her French lover, Gaston Palewski. I thought I knew all I ever needed to know about the Mitford sisters (and perhaps I did) but reading it made me struggle with this question once again? Of course with the Mitfords – Unity and Diana, the Hitler worshippers and Jessica, the communist – the problem is writ larger than in most families. Nancy vehemently opposed both extremes and devoted herself to writing (Love in a Cold Climate) not politics (Palewski was one of General de Gaulle’s closest advisers).

Next month( August 4, 2012) is the centenary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat and saviour of more than 100,000 Jews in Nazi occupied Hungary.  Wallenberg, who trained as an architect, never knew his father who died three months before his birth, but was brought up by a loving stepfather and mother who devoted their post war lives to searching for the truth about Wallenberg’s final years. The circumstances of his death are still uncertain as he was arrested in January, 1945 by Russian troops and never heard of again.  In 1979 his parents both committed suicide in despair at their failure to find their son.

These days, with ever fewer eye witnesses to the real horrors of the twentieth century, this is an important and powerful moment to look back. What makes a hero, or an ordinary man behave in heroic ways? Professor Frank Vajda, a neurologist,  vividly remembers  being rescued by Wallenberg  when, as a nine year old boy in Budapest,  little Frank was denounced by the Nazi authorities for the simple yet symbolic act of removing the yellow star the Nazis forced him to wear.  He had been hiding in a protected house with his mother following the murder of his father. He was marched to a military barracks and lined up in front of a machine gun. At that critical moment, Wallenberg arrived, negotiated with the authorities and led him away to safety.  Frank became a Professor of Clinical Neuropharmacology at Monash University in Melbourne,  Australia and, now 78,  has devoted much of his adult life to making sure that the world knows of Wallenberg’s tireless and unselfish efforts to save Jews through a variety of actions including issuing passports, establishing protective housing, organising soup kitchens and personally rescuing Jews from sealed deportation trains among other heroic deeds.  When he learned of Adolph Eichmann’s ‘final solution’, the young Wallenberg  had a note delivered to General Schmidthuber, the Commander of the German Army in Hungary, explaining that the general would be held personally responsible for the massacre and that he would be hanged as a war criminal after the war was over, thereby saving the lives of  70,000 Jews.  How to explain this extraordinary heroism?

The Swedish government is using the centennial to honour Wallenberg’s memory by organising a number of international commemorative events throughout the year. “His actions show that one person’s courage and ability can make a difference. His actions are a model for us, not least at a time when more people need to stand up against persecution, xenophobia and anti-Semitism,” according to an official statement. At a recent Wallenberg conference in Athens, Wallenberg’s actions were described by the Swedish ambassador to Greece as “a constant reminder of staying human even when faced with inhumanity.” The deputy mayor of Athens then announced that a public space or street in the city was to be named after Raoul Wallenberg.

***

War unquestionably brings out the best and the worst in people. This summer is also the 70th anniversary of the Vel D’hiv mass arrest of almost 13,000 Parisian Jews, including 4,000 children many of whom were subsequently killed.  How many ordinary Frenchmen, even if not actively collaborating, compromised themselves in those years of German occupation?  Others, farmers or shopkeepers, provided food and shelter at great risk to themselves.

My father, born a few days apart from Wallenberg, would also be celebrating his hundredth birthday this year and he, along with several of his friends, joined up before conscription was introduced believing it was the right thing to do even though it played havoc with studies and careers. These were, after all, young men.  He became Major Eric Rubinstein MBE , was part of the 79th Armoured Division in the Royal Tank Brigade that crossed the channel to France on D plus one and spent the remainder of the war fighting its way through Europe, from Caen to Nijmegen and Copenhagen. Among many battles and terrifying moments, he was, in the closing stages of the war, deputed to speak on behalf of William Douglas-Home, the playwright brother of the (later) Prime Minister, who had been court-martialled for refusing to obey an order which Douglas- Home believed to be immoral. Later still, waiting to be demobbed, he was befriended by a handsome and charming downed South African Pilot, a former Cambridge Rugby Blue trying to get back to England. Or so the man told my father.  They shared a few drinks while exchanging their life stories and, after a few days together searching for Brussels lace underwear for my mother’s trousseau, said goodbye. Several months later the police came knocking at my father’s door, having tracked him down from the visiting card he had given to his new friend, the stranded South African airman. The man was Neville Heath, a borstal boy and compulsive liar who had once served in the South African Air Force but was a man with many aliases eventually hanged in 1946 for the gruesome and sadistic murder of at least two women. 

Heath’s waxwork image can be seen today at Madame Tussaud’s.  Raoul Wallenberg has no grave but many monuments around the world and lives on in the gratitude of many of those whose lives he saved and their descendants.

Women’s Voices Reporting D Day

If like me you’ve been enjoying hearing the deep and clipped tones of the 1940’s reporters telling us about the progress of D Day (I know it’s radio but you can definitely see that they are wearing suits and ties or possibly even dinner jackets) have you also wondered where are the women’s voices? Answer is, of course, there weren’t any. Not only were there no women announcers or presenters but British women were not allowed to be accredited war reporters. The only way around this disbarment was for reporters like Clare Hollingworth to join an American news organisation if they wanted to report the biggest story of the day.

Image result for picture of martha gellhorn

Even Martha Gellhorn, the veteran American journalist who had been reporting the War for Collier’s Magazine since 1937, suffered from this attitude as the US Army’s public relations officers objected to a woman being a correspondent with combat troops. But she was determined not to be relegated to reporting behind the lines or what was demeaningly called ‘the women’s angle’ and came up with a brilliant ruse.

By the time she heard about the D Day invasion it was already underway and her estranged husband, Ernest Hemingway, had been officially accredited to Collier’s – her magazine – as the correspondent who was to write the cover story. Furious and goaded by rivalry, Martha managed to do better. She got herself to the embarkation port shortly after midnight on the night of June 6/7 and locked herself into the lavatory of a large white hospital ship due to cross at dawn. Only then did the stowaway emerge and, still unrecognised, worked as a stretcher bearer collecting wounded men from the Normandy beaches. Carrying them from the crowded, dangerous shore to the water ambulances, raising them over the side of the boat and then transporting them down the winding stairs of the converted pleasure ship to the ward, was desperately hard work. Each case was more tragic than the next. But in spite of the constant pain all Martha wrote ‘all of us knew that our own wounded were good men and that with their amazing help, their selflessness and self-control, we would get through all right.’ Her moving story was published inside the magazine.  Ernest made the cover but his story was not nearly so vivid, so personal.

When she docked, her papers were scarcely in order and she was arrested by the PR office of the US Army. As punishment, Martha Gellhorn was sent to an American nurses training camp in the English countryside and denied permission to cross again into France. However, she escaped yet again and  climbed over a fence until she reached a military airfield and spun a yarn about wanting to see her fiancé in Italy. She persuaded a pilot to fly her there and wrote vivid reports from Italy about the fighting there.

Next time you wonder about the missing women’s voices remember Martha and many other courageous women who managed, against the odds, to write about fighting and war recorded in my book, Battling for News The Rise of the Woman Reporter.

Let’s hear it for Typewriters

Let’s hear it for Typewriters

Typewriters are having a bit of a moment. When I was eight my parents bought me a toy typewriter and I spent a part of everyday writing up the local news. Not that there was any news in our sleepy suburban village. Nobody talked about fake news in those days so I suppose I concluded that what happened at the tennis club mattered? It did to me. I had the story telling bug. For my 21st birthday, my sister and brother in law gave me a real portable typewriter as a birthday present, one that I loved and took with me to Italy when I worked there for Reuters. I still have it but it too now looks rather like a plastic toy. I can’t possibly give this typewriter away, even though it has been useless for the last thirty years! I’m sentimentally attached to it and it, in turn is irrevocably linked to my youth. I can remember how important I felt using it to write my first story on assignment: the Aga Khan’s One Ton Cup Yacht race in Costa Smeralda, Sardinia, a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing. But I quickly discovered the great joy of journalism was that if you worked hard enough and asked enough people the right questions, you could suddenly become an expert. Read More

Grit Determination and Resilience

I’ve been thinking a lot about grit, determination and willpower recently. I’ve been glued to the Sunday evening TV series Who Dares Wins about SAS selection which this year, for the first time, has included women. I happen to know one of the contestants as she teaches amazing fitness classes at a studio called Barreworks in Richmond. As I struggle to do some of her apparently ‘simple’ plank and weight lifting exercises, I’ve always known Vicki Anstey was a bit of an inspiration and clearly had reserves of strength the rest of us can only dream of.

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How Chickens helped soothe my Grief

One thing I never thought I would be doing this summer was mucking out a smelly chicken coop. I’m fond enough of animals (well, dogs) but nobody would describe me as the rustic type.

But then I also never thought I would be saying goodbye to my beloved life partner and husband of 43 years. The two are not unconnected.

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