Monday 28 April 2014


During a recent sort out, my mum found a small square of newspaper, cut out and neatly gummed onto a piece of glass cut to size. It had been sellotaped too, protecting the ink and turning the paper a deep golden-yellow, but before it was stuck down someone had penciled their name on it in three different places, as well as scratching their initials on the back. The date, handwritten alongside, is 28 June 1919.

The clipping is from the ‘London “Daily Express” Aeroplane Post’, and the headline is ‘Peace Proclaimed.’ You don’t get much of the story, but everything important is captured in sixteen words: ‘The Peace Treaty was signed by the Peace Emissaries of the Allied and Enemy Countries today’.

Dick Mulley's keepsake of the announcement of peace, 1919
The penciled name is ‘R Mulley’. This was my grandfather, Richard Mulley, better known as Dick, then a fourteen-year-old boy with very tidy writing. He was clearly hugely aware of how momentous that day was, marking the end of what was then known as The Great War. Little wonder, since one of his older brothers had served in the Royal Navy and was twice on ships that were torpedoed - although amazingly he survived to run a toyshop in the peace. Dick’s deep sense of moment is captured both in the number of times he scribbled his name on the paper, and in his determination to write so neatly on this small keepsake of history.

I have very little that once belonged to my dad’s dad, although there are a few photos of his many naughty, handsome brothers and long-suffering sisters. I love the fact that this small plaque has survived, a memento of a boy who had clearly been following the war, and had a sense of history as well as of victory. It is also a memento of my father, who must have cautiously held this fragile square of paper and glass, just like I have, and wondered about the boy who grew up to become his father. These two men carefully kept this small cutting safe for ninety-five years.

My husband, Ian, has similarly precious little from his father’s father; in fact he has even less. However, as a child he did inherit his father’s stamp collection, which he carefully stuck in an album bought for the purpose in the 1960s, adding to it as he went. Looking at the individual stamps, however, some of these must have come down from another generation, from Ian’s father’s father, Reiner.

This album contains stamps from all over the world. The smaller the country, the more fabulous the stamp, my dad once told me, looking at his own childhood collection with me. The same is true here, but the most fascinating stamps in this album come from Ian’s grandfather and father’s birth-country; Germany.

Germany first issued stamps in 1872. Sadly there are none in this album from then, but there are two Germany pages, very neatly distinguishing stamps dating from 1949 which were issued in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, ie post-war Eastern Germany, and look suitably Soviet, from an older collection from the Deutsche Reich.

These Reich stamps are fascinating. The oldest, perhaps, is a pretty dark blue one showing a stylised hunting horn for a value of 6 marks. The collection quickly moves up in face-value however to 200, 400 and 500 marks. In the years after the First World War the value of the German mark fell rapidly, mainly as a result of reparation payments and the penalties imposed on German trade, combined with the depression. As the German government printed money, the country experienced rapid, debilitating inflation. German stamps in circulation were overprinted to reflect this. A pink stamp in the album that had been issued at a face-value of 500 marks, had been given a value of 250,000 marks in around 1923, while below it a paler pink 200 mark stamp is overprinted with a value of 2 million marks! Some of these stamps do not even look used, as though even when revalued in the millions they could hardly cover the cost of delivering a letter.

Deutsche Reich stamps from the album, c.1920s
So while, as a lad, one grandfather, Dick Mulley, was cheerfully sticking his newspaper cutting on to some glass to keep it nice, another, Reiner Wolter was - possibly less cheerfully - not sticking stamps onto envelopes, but keeping them safe nonetheless, with a sense for preserving history that was just as keen as Dick’s.

So what happened to these two boys when they grew up? In the Second World War my father’s father, Dick, served as a chef in the navy, cooking Christmas dinner for 1,400 men one year; ie for two troopships. He survived the war, and later worked for the New Zealand Shipping Company. Story has it that one day, in a storm, he chopped his own thumb off but simply sewed it back and got on with dinner.

Ian’s grandfather, Reiner, was drafted too, but he was less lucky. There are several stories as to his end, but the one that seems most likely is that he was sent to the Russian Front, and died or was killed at Stalingrad, with so many others. We don’t really know. His widow, Ian’s beloved German grandma, fell in love again a few years later, with an English soldier based in the British-occupied zone of post-war Germany. They married, and although her older sons chose to stay in Germany, she brought her youngest son, Ian’s father, with her to England when her new husband was posted home. Very little came with them, no photos that we know of, but a few Christmas tree baubles and a small collection of stamps. And she sang wonderful German carols in their house at Christmas time.

So my children have great grandfathers who fought on both sides of that second terrible world war: men who were boys once, and collected small souvenirs of peace – little bits of gummy paper that still survive to tell us something rather wonderful about them, something about being aware of the zeitgeist that they might have recognised in each other.

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Jan Karski, messenger from the past

When we think about the Holocaust today, we mostly remember the victims, perpetrators, bystanders and collaborators. We should also think about those who risked their lives to protect individuals, families and groups, or even in the attempt to end the genocide altogether. Last month, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, I attended an event at the London Central Synagogue organised in tribute to the Polish Catholic, Jan Karski, who attempted just that. After Rabbi Barry Marcus, Cantor Steven Leas and Polish Ambassador Witold Sobk√≥w had welcomed guests, Martin Smith’s short film Messenger from Poland was screened, in which Jan Karski told his own story.

Rabbi Barry Marcus opens the Jan Karski tribute evening
at the London Central Synagogue. 
In the winter of 1943, Karski was selected by the Polish Underground State to alert the international community to the mass murder of the Polish Jews by the Nazis. The young former diplomat was already a veteran of clandestine war-work. Taken prisoner by the Russians in the early weeks of the war, Karski had been released in a prisoner exchange, thereby avoiding death in the Katyn forests. In August 1940, having escaped from a second detention, this time by the Gestapo, Karski served as an underground courier with the Polish resistance, smuggling information out of the country. 

Jan Karski, 1943
Eighteen months later he was chosen to bring news of the genocide to the outside world. It was felt that his diplomatic credentials, along with the fact that he was not Jewish himself, made him a strong emissary. To give him even greater authority, Karski was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto where he watched two boys from the Hitler Youth 'shooting mindlessly' into the miserable scene of ‘poverty, hunger and death’. Then, disguised as a Ukranian militiaman, he was taken to Izbica, a Nazi ‘sorting station’ where he watched ‘masses of Jews’ being sent to the Treblinka death camp for ‘liquidation’. Karski reached London in November 1942, where he put a simple plan to the Polish Government-in-Exile. Germany should be leafleted with details of the camps, Karski began, 'so the German nation could not say that they did not know'. The Nazi government should be directly lobbied to stop the genocide, and if they failed to do so the Allies should respond by bombing key sites in retaliation until action was taken. ‘In the name of common values’, the Pope should be called to publically intervene, calling on German Catholics to find their consciences. 'Who knows', Karski argued, perhaps if the Pope threatened to excommunicate those who did not protect the Jewish population, enough Germans might take a stand. Karski also wanted blank passports and hard currency to bribe Nazi officials, and the Polish resistance to operate a strict policy of execution for those who betrayed their Jewish neighbours.

Republic of Poland report for the United Nations, 1942
Karski’s was not the first report of mass killings to reach the West but it was one of the most detailed, an eyewitness account, and considered very reliable. But despite his testimony, the Allies remained largely indifferent to the fate of the Jews in Poland. All those who met Karski gave various reasons why nothing could be done. The Pope took six weeks to respond, and then only stated that he had already done all he could. In Britain Lord Selbourne, who met Karski in place of Churchill, told him that no political leader would comply with the idea of providing hard currency to bribe Nazi officials, which would effectively mean subsidising the enemy regime. Roosevelt ‘looked like a master of humanity’, Karski felt, but seemed more interested in the fate of Polish horses than Polish Jews, and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, possibly the most influential Jewish man in the USA, simply said he could not believe Karski’s report. When asked if he was suggesting that Karski was lying, Frankfurter replied only that not being able to believe was not the same as doubting the reliability of the source. Karski was horrified by the lack of action, despite his reaching the highest authorities. ‘I swore to them’, he told film-maker Martin Smith at the end of his interview, ‘as long as I will live, I will speak about it’. Karski was true to his word, but Smith felt that he seemed ‘weighed down by doubt and death’. Karski died in July 2000, believing to the end, Smith told me, that he had achieved nothing. In fact his constant lobbying had helped lead to the development of the USA’s War Refugee Board, an important achievement but not the goal he had set himself. In 1982 Yad Vashem recognised Karski as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. In 2012 he was honoured with the USA’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and this year, 2014, has been designated Jan Karski year by the Polish parliament. 

Film-maker Martin Smith talks with a member of the audience.
Important though such recognition is, Jan Karski has been honoured as a hero too late. Over drinks after the film, I asked why Karski’s testimony had been so largely ignored. The responses were diverse. Some felt that Karski had been treated by suspicion because he was known to be a socialist. Others, that the Western powers were fearful of giving too much weight to the Jewish question when there was so much general suffering caused by the war. Certainly there was also the refusal to believe, as expressed so starkly by Felix Frankfurter. Above all, however, the feeling was that no government felt justified in diverting any resources from the ultimate goal of defeating Nazi Germany. What everyone seemed to agree, however, was that if we remain silent, then we too, in a sense, are tacit.

During the Second World War, despite Karski’s unceasing meetings with journalists, authors, officials and MPs, and his own writing, the vast majority of people did not know the truth about the genocide until July 1944, when the first Nazi death camp was liberated. Those who did know had other priorities. Today the world has changed. Courageous reporters, and members of the public armed with mobile phones and internet access, have taken the place of brave couriers like Jan Karski, and there are few conflicts around the world where atrocities, state-sponsored or otherwise, go unreported. If anything people feel overwhelmed. General knowledge is not lacking, and nor perhaps is public conscience; what is lacking is clear solutions to these complex situations. What is certain, however, is the importance of constant vigilance and repeated challenges to those who abuse human rights. Perhaps the most significant lesson from Karski’s story is that without knowledge nothing can be achieved, but with knowledge comes both collective and personal responsibility.

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