Next week is International Women’s Day. To honour my maternal grandmother, I’d like to share with you a story from her life. To fill in some background, Audrey Muriel Rudolf (1911-2005) was born in Jamaica. She came to Oxford University on a scholarship and met my grandfather, Patrick Gordon-Walker, who subsequently became a Labour MP (at a time when Labour seemed less troubled than now), serving briefly as Foreign Secretary in Harold Wilson’s Cabinet. He is chiefly remembered for being ousted in the racist election the Tories ran in Smethwick in 1964. To be honest, his cards were probably marked when he opposed the introduction of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, which sought to restrict the entry into Britain of black migrants from Commonwealth countries. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/15/britains-most-racist-election-smethwick-50-years-on
Wind back to the start of World War II: Patrick was employed by BBC radio to broadcast to the German people, telling them the truth of what was happening, which apparently didn’t endear him to Hitler. So much so, in fact, that my mother Caroline (2) and her elder sister Judy (4) were evacuated to their grandparents in Jamaica (the feeling being that they would not be safe anywhere in the UK if Hitler invaded). It was only meant to be for a few months. Their safety was paramount, which is what I imagine Audrey told herself, when suffering this unbelievable wrench at being parted from her children.
However, boats were being torpedoed and it was not safe to travel. They were there for five years. FIVE YEARS of not seeing your parents. When they came back, Audrey did not recognise her children and walked past them on the railway platform. This memory has stayed with my mother for life. She says she remembers sitting in a café thinking, ‘What shall I say to this woman who is my mother?’
During the war Patrick was one of the first non-military to enter the concentration camps after they had been liberated. He wrote a short book, ‘The Lid Lifts’, about his observations and the interviews he had conducted with the survivors of the Holocaust. Like many who saw these unspeakable horrors, he wanted to blot out the memories. My mother says she never heard him talk of it. She happened upon a copy of the book in his study when she was about 12 and was horrified. http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/holocaust/5135.shtml
So now we finally come to Audrey’s story. In the mid-30s, as fascism was on the rise, my grandparents lived in Oxford. They travelled to Germany several times to try and help people escape before it was too late. They both spoke good German, Patrick having studied there. She told me this story several times when I was a teenager, but I only recall the general sense of it and frustratingly I don’t have all the full facts. I assumed she had told everyone else in the family too, so I recently asked my mother, aunt and uncle about it, but none of them remember much more than me. My uncle Alan was told by her that they were trying to get trade unionists, then considered a threat to a totalitarian regime, out of Germany and to Oxford where they put them up. The trade unionists were being watched by the special police, so Audrey was sent out the front door to adjust her stocking to distract the soldiers (!), while Patrick and the trade unionists escaped out the back.
The story she told me was that she and Patrick were in a hotel room somewhere near the border (with Poland we think). They had train tickets for the two people they were with. My mother thinks Audrey hid the tickets under her pregnancy bump, so this would be 1935 when she was pregnant with Judy. Audrey had been told to check the coast was clear, so opened the door of the room and saw two SS guards standing further down the passageway. The natural instinct would have been to slam the door shut, which would have given the game away. Instead, she came out into the passageway, walked to the bathroom, smiling sweetly at the men. She was a very beautiful woman, so I’m sure they were delighted. She went into the bathroom, closed the door, waited a minute or two, flushed the toilet, ran the taps, then came back out and to the room. Closing the door behind her calmly, she reported the presence of the guards, whereby the men escaped by the window, to freedom, we hope.
It is only a small story, but demonstrates nerves of steel and an incredible presence of mind for a 24 year old pregnant woman. If the guards had suspected anything, no doubt all four of them would have been shot on the spot. And I wouldn’t be alive to tell this story…..