Victory and a Brighter Future

War, it is often said, is made by old men for younger men to fight and die. Although this is true, as is the realisation that many wars are wars of vanity and/or stupidity, sometimes sadly, they are necessary. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War 2 in Europe, we need to reflect on the suffering it caused to the peoples of all nations. We also need to reflect that just as the First World War wasn’t ‘the war to end all wars’, neither did peace in Europe bring a future of peace throughout the world. It is with immense gratitude to our parents and grandparents that the end of hostilities in 1945 brought an enduring peace to Europe and the West. However, peace is a fragile object to be nurtured and handled with great care and the recent turn of events with Covid-19, Brexit and the tensions arising from the radical changes in USA diplomacy gives considerable rise to concern. We can only hope that our leaders remember how the rhetoric of the 1930s became the reality of the 1940s.

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Like virtually every other family in the land, mine suffered mixed fortunes. My father, the eldest of three boys survived the conflict as did the middle brother. Sadly, the youngest of the three died, not by enemy gunfire but by his own hand in Austria. By the age of 23 he had already seen more pain and suffering (we can assume) than he could endure and the thought of returning to civilian life proved too much. He is buried in a Commonwealth War Grave beside his fallen comrades in Klagenfurt. For his parents it must have been very hard to receive the news when they had believed all three sons had survived the fighting. My grandmother received a telegram reporting quite simply ‘single bullet wound to head when unsound of mind.’

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My father (middle) with his two brothers during WW2

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My father’s youngest brother in happier times

My mother’s family suffered an even worse fate. Her parents, my grandparents, were Polish Jews who had come to England around 1912 and, with my grandmother’s sister who also lived here, were spared the fate of the majority of their kin. To learn that all but three of their extended families had been killed in the Holocaust must have been an unbearable burden to be carried for the remainder of their lives. They never showed their suffering – at least, not to us grandchildren – and they never spoke of Poland or their families again.

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My Polish grandparents never spoke of the enduring pain they both must have suffered

If it is hard to imagine the anxiety our forebears suffered during the conflict. It is, in some ways, even more difficult to imagine the joy, excitement and sense of relief that they must have felt as the news of impending victory circulated, followed by the reality that victory had finally been achieved. No more black-outs, no more uncertainty and, within a few short years, no more rationing. In our family no-one ever discussed such emotions but the retaining of various memorabilia stands as the record of their feelings. The letter from Field-Marshall Alexander and the Service of Thanksgiving booklet that my father kept and the left-over furniture ration tokens of my mother’s perhaps show how their priorities differed for it was always down to the womenfolk to ensure that there was food on the table and a comfortable home to return to.

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The letter foretelling victory from Field-Marshall Alexander, April 1945

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Thanksgiving for Victory in Europe order of church service

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Ration stamps – everything was rationed, even furniture

This week, while acknowledging the pain and hardship of war, there is much to be celebrated on this 75th anniversary. Not only have we as a family and a nation, survived and thrived there is also much that unites the world. The internet has given the ‘ordinary person’ a much greater and louder international voice, mostly for the better. For me, it means I keep in touch with cousins scattered across the world, descendants of the Polish family that hatred had so very nearly completely wiped out. Through my blog and through Facebook I am in conversation with and have ‘met’ people from all walks of life and cultures – something that would have seemed unlikely if not impossible only thirty or so years ago. So, as we move forward from the celebrations, let us all strive for a world where peace, love, respect, kindness, concern and trust remain dominant. Wherever we are today, tomorrow and in the longer future, may we stay safe, stay well and be thankful for the peace of yesterday.

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The start of a new day

The Peak District’s Soft Centre

Ask people what they associate with the Peak District and you will receive many different answers: Chatsworth House and the Devonshire’s, Bakewell Tart, grouse moors, rock climbing and caving.  The UK’s first designated national park is all of these things and more.

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Chatsworth House

A whistle-stop tour last weekend of the Peak District didn’t allow a thorough exploration of all its diverse scenery.  A drive through Chatsworth’s historic parkland and a visit to their farm shop gave a glimpse of the famous cascade in the gardens but that and the house interior will have to wait for another occasion.  If ‘farm shop’ conjures up a vision of a limited choice of vegetables covered in mud at a wayside shack, think again.  Chatsworth’s huge selection is impeccably presented along with breads, cheeses and meat in the former Shire Horse stallion stable block, now beautifully converted.

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Quality is key at Chatsworth Farm Shop

The town of Bakewell is renowned for Bakewell Tart or to be more accurate, as I now know it should be called, Bakewell Pudding.  Forget the oversweet, thickly iced versions available nationwide, the traditional version is packed full of almonds, the shortest of sweet pastry and not much else.  The queues of people waiting to purchase them stands testament to their quality and flavour.

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Prepare to join a queue!

Only moments away from the busy town centre is the River Wye (one of several in the UK with that name), a place of calm and surrounded by historic, stone buildings.  On Sunday morning, Remembrance Day and the 100-year anniversary of the end of the Great War, brought silence to the town.  As elsewhere throughout the country, the focus at 11 o’clock was the war memorial with the traditional wreath laying ceremonies of scarlet poppies.

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The old mill at Bakewell is available for holiday lets

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WW1 memorial to the fallen men of Bakewell

As already hinted, the Peak District has broad expanses of heather moorland as well as limestone crags and outcrops.  This weekend’s exploration of the Peaks revealed the softer side of the national park; its gentler views were bathed in unseasonably warm sunshine highlighting the last of the autumn colours.

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Peaceful grazing with a view!

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Lengthening shadows as the autumn sun sets

Another visit to the Peaks is planned, next time exploring on foot the passes of the High Peaks, the Chatsworth estate and the village of Eyam, where in 1665 the villagers chose to isolate themselves during an outbreak of bubonic plague.   Of the three hundred villagers, only eighty survived but their self-sacrifice prevented the disease spreading to the neighbouring population.

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Isolated cottages are scattered throughout the national park

Although time was short, a visit to the Blue John Mines couldn’t be ignored.  The story of this rare semi-precious stone and the descent into the caves via two hundred and fifty steps will come next.  If you suffer from claustrophobia or struggle with steps this isn’t the place for you – it’s a long (and sometimes low and narrow), old climb back to the top!

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The descent into the mine

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Several years ago I wrote of my fruitless search for my great-aunt.  I hadn’t physically lost her for she had died many years earlier – she was just one, albeit an important one, of the conundrums that constantly arise when researching your family history.

Aunt Baba had left a lasting impression on me when I met her for the first and only time; me just entering my teens, she as an elderly lady of ninety.  Although she certainly was elderly (ancient to my young eyes) she still had the quiet energy and sparkle that had endeared her to my father and his siblings as youngsters.  Perhaps because of the happy visits to her that he would tell me of, I too, adored her instantly.

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Aunt Baba, aged 90, c.1965

As youngsters, my father, uncles and aunts, around the time of the Great War,  would travel to Rudgwick, Sussex in what is now the South Downs National Park to stay for short holidays.  There they were allowed to run wild, roam the fields and woodlands and generally be spoilt in a way that would never be allowed by their authoritarian parents.  Brought up as Plymouth Brethren, a strict Christian sect, their usual life was one of bible study, education, chores and prayer meetings.  At aunt Baba’s, although she too was Plymouth Brethren, life was very much more relaxed.  In later years, when I was a child, the Brethren became more rigid and dictatorial about who they could associate with.  My father had rebelled as a young man and as a consequence, contact with us became forbidden.  Family meetings were very few and aunt Baba’s visit was shrouded in secrecy for fear of her being ‘caught’.  Many years later, long after both she and my father had died, I realised I had no idea whether she was a relative or not and my research was drawing a blank. In desperation, I wrote of her  in the hope that someone ‘out there’ might respond.

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Relaxing in the 1940s?

The blog post (link here) created quite a lot of interest but no hard leads.  It did generate correspondence from the Rudgwick Preservation Society which although useful didn’t produce the breakthrough I hoped for.   Fast forward to a couple of months ago when I discovered a letter from my father’s eldest sister.  In it she told of how, when staying with aunt Baba, she had met her future husband whose parents also lived in the village and were Brethren.  This was the first ‘hard’ fact I had to go on and from there aunt Baba’s story unfolded.

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My aunt as a young woman with aunt Baba, about 1924

Born close to midsummer’s day 1875, aunt Baba, who remained unmarried, by 1916 had become housekeeper to an elderly farmer and his son who lived in the wonderful, ancient house of my father’s memory, Greenhurst.  By the time of the Register that was conducted of all households immediately prior to WW2, it can be seen that by 1939 she had moved to a house in the heart of the village.  Within its grounds stood a Plymouth Brethren Meeting House.  Further correspondence with the Rudgwick Preservation Society has revealed that when the son died, (his father predeceasing him by several years), the house had been left to their loyal and long-serving  housekeeper; a wonderful gesture.  By 1943, old telephone directories show that she had moved once more, this time to a smaller house in the same street.  She was still living there in 1953.  She may have continued to reside there after that date but the trail disappears until the record of her death in 1965 – which means she must have died within months of my meeting her.

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The house where my father ran wild c.1918

The research has revealed that her name was, as I had thought, Frances White, and that she was a close family friend and not a relative.  I am rather sad that she isn’t blood related for, in theory, she doesn’t belong on my family tree.  I have placed her there for posterity anyway as an honorary member, in the process, no doubt, causing some confusion to future genealogists.

Is there more to find out?  Indeed there is, for how on earth did she end up being called aunt Baba?  That is the part of her history that, I suspect, she has taken to her grave.