Given that I was born in 1939 it might seem odd that some of my earliest recollections are bouncing on the knees of German soldiers.
These were days when, even though the war was over, more than 400,000 prisoners were still retained in 1,500 concentration camps and hostels in the UK to repair the damage done by German bombers and to keep our farms productive while thousands of our men were still abroad.
It was a time of austerity and suffering.
But my parents Harold and Lilian were staunch Methodists – my father a lay preacher – and they decided, despite abuse from many neighbours, they would offer a friendly hand.
They wrote and asked if two of the prisoners from the camp in the grounds of the nearby estate of Arbury Hall, could visit our house in Stockingford, near Nuneaton, Warwickshire.
They were given permission and the first two to arrive, Gerhard Winkler and Karl Schuchardt, were followed by many others, all dressed in the Spartan clothing issued by the camp.
My parents offered what they could of food and entertainment and their efforts were received with obvious delight and appreciation.
I was given treasured toys: a paper castle, a pair of handsewn slippers, a chess set carved from scraps of wood. Later I inherited a painting of Arbury Hall made with pigments from the juice of vegetables, flowers and fruit, painted by one of the prisoners.
One of the young prisoners, Matthias Schwalb, had been captured at the age of 22 in the Channel Islands and, because of the quality of his English, eventually given a job at a local technical college, teaching German. My father was an avid pupil, keen to learn the language of our one-time enemies.
Matthias later became a judge in Germany. When he knew he was to return to Germany in July 1948, after six and a half years away, he wrote to my parents explaining why he felt so sad. “You are all partly to blame – for making me feel so much at home. If someone had told me two years ago that it would be so hard to leave England I would have advised him to see a doctor.”
He added: “God bless you all. If there can be any real happiness in the world, I wish it you with all my heart.”
His letter is in a small suitcase, handed down to me after my mother’s death. It was one of many such letters from the Germans we loved and their families. My mother saved them all.
Matthias’s next letter was sent from his home. At one point his return journey had been interrupted by a long procession of prisoners returning from Russia. “These men looked broken in body
and soul. ‘Till late at night they kept telling us of their experiences, dreadful and incredible.”
He was welcomed in Germany by cheering crowds and children waving flowers. “Anyone would have thought we had won the war,” he wrote. But he also noticed that children were poorly dressed, many without shoes.
The poverty was never more evident than in the reception given to the parcels my parents sent to the families of prisoners they had befriended – packages of food, cigarettes, clothing and other items not only difficult to obtain but far more valuable than we consider them now.
My father cut the insides out of books so that he could hide chocolate and other goodies in the cavities created.
One letter is from the wife of Hanskarl, Muller thanking my mother for a parcel of my old shoes, trousers and other clothing along with food items such as a tin of apricots and a tin of jam. The shoes were the only pair their young son then possessed. The jam was being saved until her husband returned and the apricots for one of the son’s birthdays.
Years later I was reading a classic Cornelius Ryan book, “The Last Batle” about the fall of Berlin, when I read of the humanitarian efforts of the Rev Dr Arthur Leckscheidt, the Christian minister at the Lutheran Melanchthon Church, in Berlin, bringing comfort to his parishioners and others during the final days of the war. I learned how, as his church blazed from allied incendiaries, he sat
weeping at the organ playing the hymn “From Deepest Need I cry to Thee”.
Yet I recalled Pastor Leckscheidt as being one of those prisoners who played with me when I was a child. I quizzed my mother as to why he should have been imprisoned when the war was already over and he was so obviously not a soldier.
She explained that he volunteered to become a prisoner in England for several years to enable Hanskarl Muller to be repatriated, as his wife was having a tough time with their four children.
Later my parents began to travel to Germany in my father’s old Austin Ten. They were treated like saviours totheir great embarrassment.
Some of the former soldiers used to make the journey back to Britain too. Matthais was present at my mother’s funeral.
While I was on a business trip to Germany at one point I was able to visit Pastor Hanskarl Muller at his home, a few miles from Stuttgart, and meet members of his family who greeted me so kindly.
I was visiting my parents one weekend in 1966 when the doorbell rang. It was Christoph, Matthias’s son, with his two children – one only a toddler. He had brought them through the Channel tunnel for the weekend and had taken the train from London to Peterborough and a bus to the village.
I asked him why he had made such a tiring journey for such a short visit with two youngsters.
“I want my children to grow up knowing that there are good people in the world,” he told me. “Your parents were so good to my father that I wanted my children to meet them.”
When my father first saw the prisoners being taken in trucks through the town and heard the jeers of many who saw their misery, he said: “Only love can overcome such bitterness and hatred.”
My father died some years ago, but he was right.