16 October 2023

Happy Centenary again

Today, if he were still alive, my father would have been 100 years old.  I posted on 16 August here that my mother would have been 100 too. Dad always joked that he was her toyboy, but only with a two-month age gap.

He was born on 16 October 1923 in Berlin. The youngest of two boys. I suppose you could say his parents were middle-classed, both coming from professional families. His father was Christian,  had served in the First World War and received the Iron Cross for bravery. His mother descended vaguely from a Jewish background, although she had never been in a synagogue in her life and certainly did not practise the faith. Life in 1920s Germany was quite hard, even for the middle classes, and devaluation saw people bringing their weekly wages home in suitcases  as they needed them to to carry the hundreds of banknotes that were almost valueless. His father was a chemist by trade and owned a chemist shop in Berlin, but by the late 1920s they moved to southern Germany where he took up the post of a chemical dye rep for a large chemical company. 

Gradually they began to see the writing on the wall, as the Nazis rose to power. The fact that my grandmother was not a practising Jew or even remotely Jewish, did not count for anything, nor the fact that both their children had been raised as Christians. The Nazis went back six generations to prove your ethnicity and so the family started to make plans in 1938 to escape. Things came to a head when my father's brother, my uncle, was taken at the age of 17 to Buchenwald concentration camp in November 1938, probably as part of the Kristallnacht pogroms.  Fortunately my grandparents were able to "buy him" out of the camp some three months later with the promise that the family would leave and never return to Germany. So in early 1939, my father (aged 15) and uncle (17) were sent to England on the Kindertransport to work on farms. Dad couldn't speak a word of English apart from hello, goodbye and thank you. As luck would have it, he was put on a farm where the family only spoke Gaelic!! Fortunately there was a young lad in the village who was studying German at Oxford and they became friends, helping one another with their respective foreign language skills. 

The British government at that time did not welcome immigrants, even then (sounds familiar?), and the plan was that they could only stay in this country for a year and would then have to move on, but fortunately when war broke out in September 1939, Dad, his brother and their parents (who by then had also safely made it to this country) were allowed to stay.  All three men were then interned on the Isle of Man while their papers were looked into to ensure they weren't German spies. Dad always talked of the British army, who guarded them, being very kind to them. They spent about six months there, before they were given the all-clear. They then joined my grandmother who by then had been employed as a housekeeper for a very rich Quaker family who had helped them move to England. My grandfather became the gardener for the family, both doing very different things from what they had done in Germany. Dad, now a young man, meanwhile worked for Hertfordshire council, clearing land to grow food for the war effort. That is how he met my mother, who  was in the Women's Land Army. (see here). 

After they married in 1947, they lived apart for 3 years, as housing in London had been badly bombed and they each had to live with their parents, who lived on opposite sides of London.  Eventually they were able to rent somewhere together and I came along in 1950. Everything he did, he excelled in. He won prizes for ploughing fields and eventually for baking the perfect Hovis loaf - Dad had after the war learned the profession of bakery and cake confectionary and gradually rose through the ranks of small bakers until he became Manager of the Cake Department of a very famous department store in Piccadilly,London, which serves the Royal Household. Maybe the initials of the store (F&M) means something to you. One of his claims to fame was that he made the wedding cake for Princess Margaret. In order to get on the housing ladder, own his own house and get a mortgage, he also did evening work on 5 weekdays,  teaching cake-making and decoration at evening school. As a child, I barely saw him, except on Sundays, when we as a family made the weekly visit to my German grandmother on the other side of London and Dad was made to mow her lawn or paint a room on his one and only day off. 

In latter years, Dad had heart trouble and my parents decided to move to the south coast where he could then go part-time at a local bakery and take things easier. Even there he took on extra work, teaching patisserie at a local cordon bleu school.  When Kay was born, he was a doting grandfather and used to spend hours in his garage making a dolls house complete with the most amazing miniature furniture. Sadly, when Kay was a small child, it was discovered he had leukaemia.  Unfortunately he went on to get two types simultaneously (chronic lymphatic leukaemia and acute myeloid leukaemia) and he slipped away on 1 February 2001. I shall never forget that awful day as I had just been admitted to hospital myself to undergo a necessary operation (see here).

Kay and I have been at the south coast this weekend, laying flowers at the crematorium, where he rests.  A great man, whom I still miss, even though it is now 22 years since he died.

Dad aged 70