This week we marked Holocaust Memorial Day. I read an article in the Telegraph about the Jewish orphans who were brought over to settle in Britain after the war and listened to a programme on Radio 4 about Albert Goering, brother of Hermann. The programme explored the case for describing him as a “good German” and decided that he had indeed helped Jewish families when he was in a position to do so. It concluded with the truism (though still worth reiterating): “Evil isn’t something we inherit; it’s something we choose.” We are not merely the products of our genes; we have free will.
Those people who grew up before the war and who lived through it are now slowly dying out. At the funeral of an elderly parishioner earlier this week, the war and how it affected European Jews was brought to mind again as I recalled the memory of this old lady, who had died aged 93 and who had escaped to England from Germany with her family in 1939.
Her father, a judge, had been a secular Jew and her mother a Catholic. Being only half-Jewish and a Catholic herself had not protected her from the anti-Semitism of the times. She told me that although she was top of her class one year, the headmaster informed her: “I cannot give you the prize. You will understand why.” She never forgot this injustice.
Although initially interned on the Isle of Man, her father was later allowed to take up British citizenship with his family. Keen to show patriotism, my late friend had joined the WRAF and qualified as an aircraft mechanic. She always recalled this period of her life with great pride and affection; indeed, after the war when she returned to Germany to reclaim the family home, she had worn her WRAF uniform and the sight of it had quelled any opposition.
Then she had gone up to Oxford to study languages. It was where she met her husband, where they raised their children and where they spent the rest of their lives as academics at the university.
Everything about her life spoke to me of an age that is past: her loyalty to her German history as well as her patriotic love for her adopted country; her reserve, her independence and the quiet inner strength that her faith gave her.
It struck me that, despite the horrors of the war, she had come to adulthood and to England during a less complex time in our history: patriotism was not a suspect stance to hold; the concept of multiculturalism, once unthinkingly vaunted, now agonised over, had not been heard of; there was no migration crisis (the post-war refugee crisis was a European phenomenon) and global terror had not been invented.
With her death and the gradual decline in the numbers of the other wartime refugees to this country, we have lost both the quiet and dignified witness of their lives as well as the high regard they had for our country’s values. We hardly know what these values are any more. Paradoxically, the times seem darker now than in 1939.