A city reborn

We used to spend a night in Arras in northern France when we made driving holidays to stay in rented houses on central and southern parts of the country.

To casual visitors, such as we were, the centre of Arras looks like a perfectly preserved old baroque city.

Yet, it is not.

During WW1, Arras, close to the front line fighting, was almost totally destroyed. Pictures of the city taken after the “War to End All Wars” resemble pictures of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on it.

The reconstruction of the old centre of Arras was so successful that if you were ignorant of its history, you would believe that you are seeing the original city.

By the way, Arras is one of the few places in the rather bleak north of France really worth visiting.

Photo taken about 15 years ago.

A German bride

 

As World War II (‘WWII’) drew to its conclusion in Europe Jim arrived near Aachen in Germany with the British forces. He was stationed near the home of Minny, a young German woman. They met, fell in love, and, after considerable delay, married in Liverpool (UK).

“The Bride’s Trunk” by Ingrid Dixon is about her parents Minny and Jim. It concentrates more on her mother’s history, her life in Germany before, during and after Hitler’s regime. Minny’s is the story of an ordinary German girl growing up in times of ever increasing difficulty and hardship. That alone would make the book interesting, but her encounter with a soldier belonging to the ‘enemy’s’ forces and the difficulties put in the way of intermarriage between Germans and British military personel add to this concisely told story.

Nazi figures who have written about their lives, such as Albert Speer and  Brunhilde Pomsel (one of Josef Goebbel’s secretaries), claim little or even no knowledge of the attrocities perpetrated against the Jewish people and many others during the Nazi regime. It was refreshing to read in Dixon’s book:

The excuse offered by so many after the war -‘Davon haben wir nichts gewusst’ – ‘we didn’t know about any of that’ – is no longer credible … evidence for the fate of Jewish citizens mounted daily as rumours circulated and eye-witness reports increased …”

Amidst a good summary of the history of the Germany in which Minny grew up, there are many intriguing details about the daily life of ordinary German folk living in the rural outskirts of a big city (Aachen).

On the whole, this is a good book, but I would love to have greater detail about Minny’s reception in post-war England. This is dealt with to some extent, but after reading what Dixon wrote, I would have liked to have discovered even more. The book is copiusly illustrated and includes some maps. Many of the illustrations are specific to the story of Minny and then later Minny and Jim, but there are a few of general historical interest, which I have seen in many other publications.

Would I reccomend the book. The answer is ‘Yes’. It is a quick and fascinating read, a useful contribution to the history of Germany.

 

“The Bride’s Trunk”

by Ingrid Dixon

ISBN: 9780993508028

A lady in Budapest

My PhD supervisor’s wife was fondly known as ‘Wink’. When she learnt that I was about to visit Budapest in the early 1980s, she told me the story of her friend Dora, who lived in that city.

Sometime during the war, Wink got her first job. She became a supervising chemist at High Duty Alloys, a company that had its premises on the huge Slough Trading Estate, which had been established near Slough in 1920. It was the middle of the war, and there was a great need for metal for aircraft and armaments. Everything was being melted down in order to extract vitally needed metals. Wink was involved in developing ways of improving the extraction of the highly reactive metals magnesium and aluminium from seawater. Everyone was donating whatever metal items that they could spare to help the war effort. A great number of metal cooking pots reached High Duty Alloys. Sadly, Wink related, many of these were so full of unwanted metals that separating the desirable ingredients was uneconomical; the cooking utensils had been donated in vain.

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Dora Sos in 1985 in Budapest

Soon after joining High Duty Alloys, Wink was assigned a technician. She was a Hungarian called Dora, who had been visiting the UK as the representative of a Hungarian chemical company when WW2 broke out. She was briefly interned as an ‘enemy alien’ until the authorities decided that she did not pose a security risk. When she was released, she took up the job at High Duty. Wink and Dora, who was a little older than her, became close friends. After WW2 was over, Dora was given British citizenship. However, she was getting homesick and decided to return to her home in central Budapest.

Every now and then during the late 1940s, the British embassy in Budapest held parties and receptions for British subjects living in Hungary. One evening when Dora was on her way to attend one of these, she was prevented from entering the embassy by Hungarian police officers waiting near to its entrance. She was taken in for questioning, warned never to try to enter the embassy again, and her British passport was confiscated. Dora continued her life working in a scientific laboratory in Budapest, but under appalling conditions. Each night at the end of a day’s work, all of the laboratory notebooks had to be locked up in drawers for which she had no keys. The Stalinist authorities who ran the country at that time were terrified of espionage and sabotage. Conditions became so bad in the laboratory that Dora, who was fluent in German and English, gave up being a scientist, and became a language interpreter.

Wink told me that after a few years when Hungary’s Communist regime became a little less strict, Dora was issued with a Hungarian passport and was given permission to travel to the West for a holiday. She went to The Hague in Holland and visited the British Embassy there. She related her story to the ambassador and his staff, and after they had checked up that she had once been issued with a British passport, they issued her with a replacement for the one that had been taken from her in Budapest. She was told that she could use the British passport whenever she was out of Hungary. All that she needed to do was to enter whichever British Embassy was near her, and then arrangements would be made to issue her with another British passport. And, before returning to Hungary, she could return her British passport to the nearest embassy for safe-keeping. Thus, she was able to visit Wink in Britain on a number of occasions.

When I began making regular visits to Hungary in the early 1980s, Wink gave me Dora’s address, and I met her. We became good friends. Whenever I was in Budapest, I used to visit her in her first floor flat in a late 19th century apartment building near to Moskva Ter in Buda. She always asked me for news of Wink and her family. A chain smoker, she was also a good cook. Whenever I visited her, she would serve me generous helpings of her home-made chicken paprika. This was always accompanied by noodles that she had just prepared with freshly made dough that she extruded through a mesh straight into boiling water.

Dora told me that under Communism very few young people learnt English in Hungary. Learning Russian was compulsory. Therefore, there was a shortage of English interpreters in the country. Often, she was asked to interpret at scientific conferences. She was able to perform simultaneous translations from German into English and vice-versa. This is no mean feat for someone whose mother tongue was Hungarian. Before my visits to Budapest, I used to write to Dora and my other friends there, announcing my travel plans. On more than one occasion, Dora commissioned me to bring the latest editions of particular technical dictionaries from London to her in Budapest, where these volumes were not available. She told me that whenever she was able to travel to the West, she would buy copies of Solzhenitsyn’s works. These were strictly forbidden in Hungary. She told me that whenever she returned to Hungary from the West, she would be asked by the Hungarian customs officials whether she was carrying any of these so-called ‘solzhis’.

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In the house where Bela Bartok lived in Budapest

When I visited Budapest with my wife in about 1999, we visited the apartment house where Dora lived as I had been unable to get through to her by telephone. When we reached the door of her flat, which opened onto one of the galleries surrounding the building’s courtyard, I looked at the name on the doorbell.

It was no longer Dora’s.