Monthly Archives: December 2013

A Letter From Your Grandfather

ImageTommy Shaw and his brother Peter, in Hamburg before World War II. (Grandpa is the smaller one)

Your grandfather arrived by boat when he was 10, fleeing from a Germany which was persecuting him and millions of others. He arrived speaking no English only knowing he was being picked up by a school matron called Shorty.

He almost never arrived. At the last minute, a German officer told him he couldn’t get on his train and directed him to another one that he was sure was leading him to a concentration camp. At the age of 10 he faced the soldier down, demanding to see his superior officer and saying he had specific permission to get on the train to the coast. Knowing when to stand your ground may not make you liked, but the ones who weren’t difficult didn’t survive, he later told me.

Before his last departure from Germany, he had been stabbed in the back with a gimlet and left to die in the streets. No one would touch him because he was Jewish and he laid there until nightfall until someone would take him in and patch him up. Getting him to talk about this now, he is very matter of fact – “I was stabbed – I am not sure what else to say”. I make more of a drama out of a delayed tube train, so it is something for me, the Englishman, to be taught about a stiff upper lip, by a German refugee

For a short while, he lived in England at what sounded like an astoundingly luxurious English boarding school – Abinger Hill – where each boy had a servant-like helper. But as he arrived for the start of school in September and war broke out on September 3rd, this relative calm didn’t last. The school evacuated to Canada. The school didn’t take him as he had no money as the boarder to Germany was closed and he had no contact with his family. Grandpa was now stuck in England with no money. He was left homeless and alone.

One of his school friends was a member of the Cadbury family and so he made his way to the Cadbury factory and asked to see the boss. He explained he was alone and had known his son and asked for a box of chocolates which he could sell to earn a living. He got the first box for free and started selling sweets to earn a living at school gates.

After a while he heard that the historian Lord Trevelyan looked kindly on Jewish refugee children and was advised that if he could make his own way up to the Trevelyan estate, Lord Trevelyan might be impressed enough to take him in. Still in short trouser, Grandpa hitched to the Manor and was given refuge with one of the tenant farmers.

From there he heard that some people in Edinburgh had put aside an old large house, just outside the town, which Jewish refugee children could live in. It sounded like Lord of the Flies. There were no adults, just children who organised themselves. Grandpa bred rabbits and somehow learned how to skin them and turn them into gloves. He can’t remember who taught him. He does remember advertising in The Scotsman for “Coupon Free” fur gloves. It was an advert which attracted the attention of the police who raided the house because you weren’t allowed to sell coupon or ration free goods. On finding a small boy in charge who said it was his only way of making money, they said they understood and would turn a blind eye but could he stop advertising in the newspapers.

40 years later, having heard this story many times, he took me back to have a look at the place where it used to be, Amazingly, it didn’t used to be there at all, it still was but was barricaded up ready for imminent demolition. We forced the door open to have a look around and found on a door an old wooden sign of his which he had made for his room.We prized it off the door and grandpa still has it somewhere, we should ask him to dig it out.

For years, when I was a boy, we were visited by a Scotsman called Robin Stark. All Scotsman wore kilts in my imagination so I insisted he wore one as well. To please me, he would change on the street corner  just before he got to our house. During the War, Robin ran the local fish and chip shop in Edinburgh and on a Friday night would give Grandpa and his mates any unsold food. Every year since, Grandpa would send him a  Christmas hamper – the Green deerstalker hat I have, is one I rather shamelessly asked Robin for and which I still wear when feeling silly.

After the war, Grandpa started work sweeping the floors of a shoe factory and ended up running it. But what is memorable, in my mind about his life, is not the business success he has had but the things he has done at the same time. He remains grateful to the UK for offering him sanctuary when he needed it and as a result has always made sure he offers help to others.

When I was a child the house was filled with coffee meetings organised to help run a holiday home for mentally handicapped children of which he was the unpaid Chairman. He had a whole career of voluntary work including beominga Prison Visitor meeting murderers in their cells and talking to them about their lives. He became a juvenile magistrate trying to steer a path for children who had fallen the wrong side of the law. He and grandma Rita have helped many people in many ways.  But apart from these official, if unpaid jobs, he and my mother taught us to look around us for those in need of help.

Once I remember sitting at home after mum and dad had gone to sit in the public seating of a court, to see what was going on as he considered whether to become a magistrate. One man was up on a charge of theft but there was no social worked in court and the judge said as a result of there not being any case report done on the man, he would have to wait in prison whilst one was done as the man was homeless. The judge though it unfair but there was no choice. Grandpa stood up and said the man could come home and live with us until his trial date. Hence when they returned they brought back a rather furtive and confused looking stranger to stay with us.

Grandpa has done something no one else I know has done. He is self-made. My sister and I were brought up by a loving and thoughtful mother and father. I went to a good school and lived in a nice home. At the age of 10 Grandpa arrived in England, alone with no one and nothing. What he has made of himself, he has made alone. I and you both enjoy the platform of a stable home, advice and money to take us where we want to go.

I don’t think many, if any, of my friends and colleagues could achieve what they have, had they started with nothing but your grandfather has done just that. It is a rare and admirable thing. But what is most impressive is not his determination for his own advancement but the determination to help those around him. It is that for which he is being honoured today as the Prime Minister announces the New Year’s Honours list and gives him a British Empire Medal.  For all the Christmas gifts he may give you, his and Grandma Rita’s example will be their greatest gift to you.

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