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   Andrew Bradford​

The story of Charlie and Kathy Bradford​

“The Passenger” by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz

Less than a year after Kristallnacht – the 1938 pogroms against Jewish citizens of Germany and Austria - Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, a twenty-four-year-old Jewish refugee who had sought asylum in Sweden, France, Luxembourg, and Belgium before arriving in Britain published “The Passenger”. This novel tells the story of Otto Silbermann, a man who, like the author, had never considered himself Jewish. Both the author and his protagonist were the sons of fathers who had married Christian wives and converted to Christianity. However, the Third Reich saw things differently, and Silbermann was forced to sell his home and business for a fraction of their true value and was now reduced to making long journeys on the German railway network in order to seek refuge elsewhere in Europe.

The novel sold only a few copies and disappeared from bookshops almost immediately. A few months later, the author, like over 20,000 other Jewish refugees in Great Britain, was arrested, interned as an enemy alien, and deported to Australia. In 1942 he wrote to his mother to tell her that he was due to be released from detention and would shortly return to England carrying a revised version of the novel. His letter describes the nature of his revisions in considerable detail. But neither the author nor his new manuscript ever arrived. On October 29, 1942, Boschwitz was a passenger on the troopship MV Abosso when it was sunk by a U-Boat seven hundred miles north of the Azores. The author and 361 other passengers were drowned. He was twenty-seven years old.

The novel begins with Silbermann fleeing his home when it is ransacked by the mob. He then takes a train from Berlin to Hamburg to meet a former employee who has just purchased his business for a fraction of its worth, which is paid in an amount of cash which most of us would be wary of carrying on our person. But he can’t pay it into a bank, as banks no longer accept deposits from Jews. Carrying his briefcase full of cash, he takes further train journeys, back to Berlin, then on to Dortmund and Aachen, back to Dortmund, east to Dresden, and finally back to Berlin. At Aachen, he pays what we today call a people-smuggler to get him across the Belgian border, but he is captured by border guards and forced to return to Germany. He avoids the company of his fellow Jews because he does not look Jewish and can pass as an Aryan, which is safer. He meets people who are prepared to help him, and others who are more than happy to fleece him and betray him. Many people he considered close friends, such as his Christian wife’s brother, refuse to help him. Each leg of the journey depletes his stock of cash, his self-esteem, and his physical and mental health.

Just as the parallels between the lives of the author and his protagonist are striking, so too are the parallels between the lives of the refugee from the Third Reich, and the refugee of today. British people have memorialised our ancestors’ decision to accept 10,000 child refugees under the Kindertransport operation, but we forget that the British state refused asylum to their parents. Silbermann had tried to join his son in Paris, but his visa was refused, and when he tried to walk into Belgium he was sent back. The author was granted a kind of asylum in our country but met his death because of the British State’s decision to expel him to Australia. Australia seems to be the Rwanda of the 1930s.

“The Passenger” was published in German for first time ever in 2018 and re-published in English in 2021. These editions came about because Ruella Shachaf, Boschwitz’s niece, heard a radio interview with Peter Graf, a German publisher who had had some critical success in re-publishing anti-Nazi German novels of the 1930s. She drew Graf’s attention to the original German manuscript which lay untouched and unloved in an academic library in Frankfurt, and his 1942 letter to his mother, which outlined the changes he intended to make. Peter Graf then made those changes, as far as he could in accordance with the author’s wishes.

Jonathon Freedland, writing in The Guardian, describes the Passenger as “part John Buchan, part Franz Kafka and wholly riveting.” I thoroughly agree. Because the story of the novel is just as engrossing as the novel itself, it is well worthwhile reading the introduction, and the afterword, which is written by his current publisher and editor Peter Graf.

Some Thoughts About Slavery and the Culture Wars

Slavery has been part of human life since the dawn of history. It is still with us today, as shown by American singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens’s twenty-first century re-write of ‘Barbados’, an eighteenth century poem by the abolitionist William Cowper.

Cooper Wrote:

What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans

It's almost enough to draw pity from stones

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum

For how could we do without sugar and rum?

Especially sugar, so needful we see?

What? Give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea?!

Besides, if we do, the French, Dutch, and Danes

Will heartily thank us, no doubt, for our pains

If we do not buy the poor creatures, they will

And tortures and groans will be multiplied still

And Giddens re-wrote those lines as:

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum

For what about nickel, cobalt, lithium?

The garments we wear, the electronics we own?

What? Give up our tablets, our laptops, and phones?!

Besides, if we do, the prices will soar

And who could afford to pay one dollar more?

Sitting here typing it seems well worth the price

And you there, listening on your favorite device

This bargain we're in, well, it's not quite illicit

So relax, my friend, we're not all complicit

It might be argued that today’s western consumer, who also enjoys the ability to vote and influence political discourse, knows and cares far less about slavery than his or her eighteenth century counterparts. Our forebears, who by and large, were unable to vote, regularly packed town squares and churches to protest against slavery and used their economic power to boycott slave-produced sugar and rum. Why doesn’t the twentieth-century consumer do the same? Could we make a difference if every time we bought a garment from a high-street store, we asked whether it was made from cotton produced by coerced Uighur labour in China, for example?

However, to argue that slavery has always been, and by inference will always be, part of humanity, runs the danger of minimising what happened to thirteen million Africans at the hands of white Europeans from the sixteenth until, in the case of the Belgian Congo, the early part of the twentieth century. More than a million died on the journey to the New World, and those who were enslaved in the West Indian sugar plantations, once sent to work in the field, measured their life expectancy in months not years.

Today, a lot of political discourse is centred around the so-called ‘culture wars’. Crudely, the culture wars are presented as a conflict between older people, who are concerned about familiar and loved local landmarks being renamed or demolished; and younger people who are accused of trying to ‘re-write history’. The National Trust has come in for a lot of criticism for daring to examine the relationship between many of its properties and collections. Specifically, the Trust is researching whether the wealth that established some of its large estates was created by the ownership of other humans. This criticism is, in my opinion, entirely malevolent and unjustified. What is the point of a body such as the NT if it doesn’t carry out historical research on its assets? Why should some areas of research be deemed acceptable while others are considered beyond the pale?

In 1784 Samuel Greg opened Quarry Bank Mill in the remote village of Styal, which is now on the outskirts of Manchester. The Mill took cotton that was produced by West Indian slaves and spun it into thread using water-power from the River Bollin. Greg needed a labour force to work the new machinery, and within Britain itself, slavery was not acceptable. Greg needed to find a way of subduing labour without enslaving it, and the solution was to tour the workhouses of London to find children as young as eight years old to work ten-hour days in the mill. These children lived in the cramped Apprentice House, which was controlled by superintendents who, to be fair, did their best to educate them. However, industrial accidents such as severed fingers were common.

Quarry Bank Mill has been owned by the National Trust for many years, and the Trust has always presented visitors with an honest and balanced visitor experience about the role of coerced child labour in the mill’s early history. But how was the Mill financed in the first place? The Trust’s research concludes that the initial capital came from the Greg family’s ownership, over several generations, of slave plantations in Dominica and St. Vincent. When slavery was finally abolished in 1833, Samuel Greg’s son Thomas claimed £5,080 - more than half a million pounds in today’s money – as compensation for the loss of 210 slaves.

Slavery is only the most extreme form of coerced labour. The young boys and girls who were sent to Quarry Bank Mill’s Apprentice House from the workhouses of Hackney and Chelsea were also coerced, but by a lesser degree. In terms of the culture wars, those who criticise the trust should answer the question why they consider it acceptable to point out the Greg family’s involvement in the exploitation of children but unacceptable to point out their involvement in slavery. For a nation both to have an honest record of its history, and to understand its place in the modern world, we need to be able to hear, and be prepared to listen to, both stories.


Earlier this month I retired after 13 very fulfilling years as a board member and former Chairperson of


. Here are my thoughts:

Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies

In July, just one month before my seventy-third birthday, I heard that I’d been awarded my BA in History from Birkbeck, University of London. A ‘second-class upper division’ (or 2.1) to be precise. So, my student career is over. I can honestly say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience and met many really interesting people of all ages who have come from many countries to teach or learn in London. How lucky we are to live so close to such a dynamic, cosmopolitan city.

Of course, the whole learning process was disrupted by Covid. In March 2020, towards the end of my second year, teaching moved online, and stayed that way until the end of my third and final year. I know that the teaching staff moved heaven and earth to make the process of mass online learning as fruitful as they could, but it’s just not the same from the student perspective. Online learning is a solitary experience. The main thing that you miss is chatting with fellow students before and after the lecture. From the teachers’ perspective, it must be even more frustrating as the teacher has so few body language clues about how his or her message is getting across. In theory, this year’s graduates should be attending a graduation ceremony in November, but we don’t know whether that too will be forced online. I will be really disappointed if it is.

In the first year of the course, students choose to study history by period, and there are nine periods to choose from, from classical times to the twentieth century, I chose to study three periods of world history covering from 1500 to the present day. My main interest is twentieth-century history, but I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about the early modern world (from 1500 to 1789), which is of course the period when Europeans first encountered other civilisations. Spaghetti Bolognese is a quintessentially European staple, but what would it taste like without pasta - from China - or tomatoes and chilli peppers - from the Americas - or basil - from Africa? What would be left on the plate?

In return for the indigenous Americans introducing us Europeans to tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, maize, and a whole host of other food staples, we gave them horses, which they found quite useful; but we also introduced them to measles and influenza, which may have killed more than forty million of them. If that wasn’t enough, we then sent thirteen million Africans to the Americas to be enslaved, but several million of them never arrived on American shores, because the journey was so dangerous. So much modern history is about slavery and genocide that it was a great relief to choose, as one of my second-year modules, a course called ‘Being Good in the Modern Age’ which is history of altruism and morality. This course began by examining why the Enlightenment philosophers considered kindness and politeness to be important, and went on to cover, inter-alia, the campaign to abolish slavery, the campaigns of the nineteenth century feminists, and, from the twentieth century, the disability rights movement, environmentalism, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think that if I had to choose the course that I enjoyed the most, it would be this one.

In the third and final year I wrote my dissertation. Those of you that are already familiar with my blog  will know that one of my interests is disability rights, and that I have written the life stories of my parents, both of whom were disabled by polio as young children. So, you won’t be surprised at my choice of research project, which was a study of the foundation of the British Polio Fellowship in 1939 and its work between 1939 and 1970. This charity was a self-help movement which in many ways was years ahead of its time; as most charities with this kind of ethos did not emerge until the 1960s. Writing a dissertation during various stages of lockdown is not to be recommended; the library that holds most of the relevant material for a dissertation about polio is the Wellcome Library in Central London, but at no point when I was working on this project was this library open to new readers. Other students will have had similar problems, so I guess we’re all in the same boat. Anyway, these are trivial problems compared to what many other people have had to endure during the pandemic. At least it was my final year of university that was disrupted. I feel a lot of sympathy for those eighteen-year-olds who had to endure the stress of the 2020 A-level examinations fiasco, and then go into a university hall of residence to be solely taught online. They deserved better, and it’s not the fault of the colleges that things weren’t better for them.

The question that I’m asked most often is what next? Am I interested in a master’s degree? I have to say that the answer is no. There is no government funding for the over -sixties to go further, and while there are scholarships, I think that there are many younger people who deserve them more than I do. I will carry on writing and start to update my seriously unloved and dated blog more often, starting now. But would I recommend going to Uni to other seventy-somethings. You bet I would! 


More Family History: Red Cross Volunteers in World War 1

Posted on October 22, 2014 at 6:10 PM

I'd always thought that none of my relatives served in World War 1. But that's because I was thinking about young men, and the sacrifices they made. But I've started to read "Daughters of Mars" by Thomas Kenneally, which tells the story of two sisters - Naomi and Sally Durrance - who were brought up on a remote dairy farm in New South Wales and, when they were in their early twenties, joined the war effort as nurses; first of all at Gallipoli and then at the Battle of the Somme.

Reading this book made me remember that I had a relative who played some role in the health services during the war. I'll tell you Great Aunt Ethel's story a bit later.

Now, I'm less than half way through Kenneally's long, epic and gripping book. It's 1915, and so far Naomi and Sally have sailed on a hospital ship -the Archimedes - from Melbourne to Alexandria. The early days of their war are easy. All they have to do is to treat young Australian men who've caught venereal diseases in the brothels of Cairo, and their leisure time is taken up with tea dances and visits to Greek, Roman and Egyptian remains, in the company of Australian and British Officers, many of whom have studied classical civilizations at Oxford or Cambridge, and wanted impress these naive young women with their knowledge. The girls' experience of the world is already far broader than it would have been had they stayed on the farm.

Then the Archimedes makes its first voyage to Gallipoli. They've taken what was thought to be three months worth of morphine and bandages with them but supplies begin to run out after twenty four hours. Aboard the ship, country doctors are asked to perform major surgery of the kind they've only read about in journals in inadequate conditions. Kenneally's highly detailed and sometimes quite technical description of some of the injuries turns the stomach.

On the Archimedes' second voyage to Gallipoli the ship is torpedoed and the main protagonists have to take to the lifeboats - if there is room - or cling alongside while treading water if there isn't. This scene is depicted over forty highly turbulent, descriptive and emotional pages. The main characters are eventually rescued by the French navy and taken to a British Hospital on the Island of Lemnos to recuperate.

And that's as far as I've got - 167 out of 519 pages. But I know from the reviews and the cover blurb that the two sisters will eventually serve at the Battle of Somme, and they may or may not find love, and that some relationships will probably be terminated by sudden death. This book has prompted me to find out more about my mother's aunt Ethel - her mother's sister. So I googled "Ethel Bridgeman World War 1" and immediately got the result I was looking for.

Ethel was sixty-two in the year of my birth and she died when I was thirteen. A Londoner by birth, she lived in Edinburgh with her husband Sandy Stevenson and they had no children. I've always known that they had met during the Great War, and I think that Sandy may have been quite a lot younger than Ethel, who was twenty-nine when she became a Red Cross Volunteer. Family folklore says that they met when she was nursing him, and that she had continued to nurse him - whether he needed it or not - throughout their long marriage. I recall my Mother telling me that she had visited them at home in Edinburgh when she was a young woman, and had seen Ethel waiting hand and foot on her husband. "She used to blow on his soup to cool it" she said.

There's nobody around to ask any more, but could it be that Sandy's experiences in France had damaged him to such an extent that he couldn't function without this sort of attention? He came to our house only once after Ethel died, and was clearly totally disorientated and incapable of looking after himself without her. He died only a few months after Ethel.

Ethel and Sandy always made an annual trip by train to London, and they would stay with Ethel's sister-in-law Ada in Clapham. And during that trip the three of them would always come to afternoon tea with our family in North London. Ada was very old and very deaf and used an ear trumpet which both fascinated and horrified me as a small boy. It didn't seem to do very much for her hearing, as when she was in the house everybody had to shout very loudly to make her understand. She was , by far, the dominant personality of the three of them.

Ada was also very wealthy, unlike most members of my extended family. My Dad knew Ada years before he met my Mum because in the 1930s she used to knock on doors on the street where he lived to collect debts. She was a Great War widow who had, after her husband was killed, taken over the running of his family's business, which was that of a "Tally Man" - a firm that sold cheap clothes and household goods on credit to working class people on the 'never never', or hire purchase; and visited each household at the same time each week to collect the payments of just a few pennies or shillings. At some time after World War 2 she'd sold the business to Freemans of London, a public company that operated a mail-order catalogue business, and she was a substantial shareholder in Freemans. My mother bought from the Freemans Catalogue and so did many of our neighbours. Ada had no children , and when she died she left my parents a small legacy - £250. When they received this cheque they opened their first bank account. They were by then in their sixties.

But back to Ethel. I only dimly remember her from these childhood visits because of Ada's dominant personality - when Ada was in the room it was difficult for anybody else to get a word in edgeways and everything had to be repeated loudly several times before Ada got the gist. Ethel was one of over 90,000 people who volunteered for the British Red Cross during the conflict. She joined one of the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), which were attached either to the Red Cross, the St Johns' or the Territorial Forces. The Detachments were intended to be used for home defence only, but in the event they served in France, Belgium, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. Each women's detachment consisted of a Commandant (either male or female), a Lady Superintendent (preferably a trained nurse) and 20 women (four of whom had to be trained cooks).

Twenty-nine year old Ethel joined her VAD in May 1916, and her first position was that of a lift attendant at the King George Military Hospital in Stamford Street, Waterloo. Reputedly the largest hospital in the United Kingdom, the King George Hospital was a converted warehouse that had 1650 beds. The convoys of wounded men were brought by boat train to Waterloo Station, and then taken to the hospital through tunnels which were built as an integral part of the warehouse. The tunnels enabled badly wounded men to be conveyed to the Hospital out of sight of the public, so as not to damage civilian morale. Perhaps that's when Ethel and Sandy first saw each other; maybe she brought this wounded man up from the tunnels in her lift?

The Red Cross and the St Johns' equipped the wards, operating theatres, dispensaries, the chapel, day rooms for the patients and sleeping quarters for the staff, all paid for by public donation. The British Farmers' Red Cross Fund donated £4,000 to purchase equipment for the operating theatres and the X-ray Department. There were 149 doctors, a Matron, 3 Principal Sisters, 10 Senior Sisters, 37 Sisters, 228 Staff Nurses and 80 female orderlies, including of course my Aunt Ethel.

On the 29th August 1919, just over eight months after the War had technically ended, Ethel was transferred to a "Casualty Clearing Station" in France. Her service record doesn't say where in France this was. There were over thirty such stations, which were generally located on or near railway lines, to facilitate movement of casualties from the battlefield and on to the hospitals. The job of the station was to treat a man sufficiently for his return to duty or to enable him to be evacuated to another hospital. The Wikipedia entry for this topic says that the station "was not a place for a long-term stay", but this cannot actually have been the case if Ethel was still working at such a centre so long after the end of hostilities.

Ethel was finally discharged on 16th March 1920, Her role was then a storekeeper. She married Sandy in her home town of Wandsworth in 1924 when she was thirty eight and went to live with him in Edinburgh. She died in 1962. This is her service record.

What a pity that the young boy she took afternoon tea with every summer holiday never asked her or Sandy more about their experiences. But those who served in the Great war became taciturn, they probably wouldn't have wanted to tell me even if I'd had the forethought to ask.

Finally, here's an image of Thomas Kenneally's great book that stated me on the on the quest to discover Ethel and Sandy:


Categories: Bridgeman Family, Red Cross Nurses World War 1, Thomas Kenneally

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