Gritta’s 80th Birthday

Stationer’s Hall, London EC1, 26 Oct 2004

At her 80th birthday party Donald was asked to propose a toast to Gritta, and in turn, asked her to provide him with a ‘few’ background notes about her life…..

One of the most difficult tasks is to try to be brief providing you with some details of my life, as it’s been such an eventful and remarkable one, totally impossible to put in a nutshell, so forgive the length, yet just the tip of the iceberg….so here goes!

Born and bred in Karisruhe on the edge of the Black Forest, a Protestant upbringing until the Nazis came to power, when in 1938 I discovered that we were classified Jewish. Father, who was a well respected pharmacist, was carted off to Dachau concentration camp from where he was released, inexplicably to this day, after one month, returning home in the middle of the night on November 5, 1938. The family were then ordered to leave the country within six months. We were due to emigrate to join American relations, but war intervened, so we got stuck in the UK.

I arrived here on one of the now famous ‘Kinder Transports’ on March 16, 1939. I then managed to get my parents over via the Quakers, and somehow through the then Bishop of Chichester, just two weeks before war broke out. An orthodox Jewish couple owning a home-made sweets and chocolate shop in Bournemouth were my first ‘hosts’ but I managed to extricate myself from them within weeks as, fortunately, I was still of school age. The Methodist community in Purbrook, outside Portsmouth, financed my brief PNEU schooling in a Dorset village, Verwood, where one of their flock was a Methodist minister.

When I reached the age of 16, I had to move further inland, due to the 30-mile coastal restriction zone for ‘enemy aliens’. A brief spell as parlour maid to a Quaker family followed. My parents and I moved to Oxford in 1941 when my father was released from UK internment, thanks to his nephew who was working for the BBC monitoring service.

I decided to take a six months secretarial course, and at the age of 18 found a job at the Oxford University Institute of Statistics, housed in the New Bodleian. Unbeknown to either of us, I started the job the same day as a young German economist, E.F. Schumacher. He had asked for someone to do dictation for him as he was writing a paper on Keynes. Not knowing anything about statistics or economics, he took me under his wing, and over the next three years I learned a lot! It didn’t take long for Fritz to tell me and my parents all about his UK internment, and how his friend David Astor, from his Oxford university days, had managed to get him out of the camp and become a farm labourer on Lord Brand’s farm near Banbury. His family was still there, but through these contacts he had eventually arrived at the Institute. While there, I used to man the switchboard, and frequently had to phone to The Observer for the then Thomas Balogh, later Lord Balogh, and EFS who was already a contributor to the paper. Frank Pakenham (Lord Longford) and EFS wrote the paper ‘Full Employment in a Free Society’ for Beveridge, I used to be a messenger girl taking copy from the Institute to University College to hand over to Beveridge. Frank Pakenham was a frequent visitor to the Institute and David Astor was also involved in the background.

While in Oxford I was a regular worshipper at the Methodist Church, and was the only non-student member of a group meeting there regularly, among them the then Margaret Roberts, with whom I used to make sandwiches in the church vestry on Saturdays for the US soldiers stationed around the town.

My close friendship with the Schumacher family lasted right through to his death. Towards the end of the war he thought it was time I moved on, and suggested he would find me a job, perhaps at The Economist or The Observer. The family were about to move to London and before long he wrote to say that he had fixed an interview for me with Fred Tomlinson, who was the News Editor at The Observer, which was then in Tudor Street, and just before my 21st birthday.

On Oxford Station I just happened to bump into Frank Pakenham and travelled with him to London. When he found out I was off to The Observer for an interview he said ‘when you see David Astor there, give him my regards and the job’s yours! I started as an editorial assistant in 1945, working in the news room with Willy Guttmann, Fred Tomlinson and Ken Obank, who was then doubling up as Chief Sub and Picture Editor!

Quite soon afterwards, a few Oxford students I knew from the Institute, also started their careers on the paper. Alan Fairclough was Industrial/Labour correspondent, Henry Fairlie, political reporter, and Martin Wright who had been with Chatham House, based at Balliol College during the war years, but where the Institute moved to from the New Bodleian. I was later to discover that while I was at the Institute, Nora Beloff had also been there doing a secretarial course after getting her degree!

David Astor used to come in for the Wednesday editorial conference, often with his and TJ’s father, and Christabel Bielenberg, who was also a close friend of the Schumacher family, and I ended up working for him before a secretary was appointed. Soon after, a leaderpage on the Marshall Plan was in the making with David getting all his specialist friends together, including Wm Clark, Haffner and Fritz, who came over specially from Germany (where he was Economic Advisor to the British Control Commission) and lots of parliamentarians. We all worked on Friday until 2am when David arranged for a car to take Ivan Yates and myself home!

Highlights of my early Observer days also included the arrival of Patrick O’Donovan, his unforgettable early Saturday evenings in bowler hat and rolled umbrella, rummaging through Fred Tomlinson’s wastepaper basket searching for his discarded crumpled and screwed up news items, ending with his virtual fury! Michael Davie’s arrival and William Clark of course. William, who used to arrive in the Tudor Street news room on Saturday mornings doing his famous handstands on the secretaries desks with all his jacket pockets emptying out, money rolling all over the floor!

Fred Tomlinson asking me to join J.C. Trewin, and our then political correspondent Ernest Atkinson, to go with them to the House of Commons at 5pm for the evening events on VE Day when the royals arrived by barge on the terrace for a memorable firework display.

Being sent to the HoC on a Friday with a typewriter to type a leaderpager Hugh Gaitskell was asked to write, he had no secretary! I stayed the day and was invited to dinner with him, gossiping about mutual friends such as Schumacher, Balogh, DA and many other old Oxford chums.

Working on the Diaghilev exhibition which was brought to London from the Edinburgh Festival by Dickie Buckle, the then ballet critic, and attending the private midnight opening party of the exhibition in Forbes House, West Halkin Street, and having a very funny encounter with DA’s mother!

The beginning of my association with Glyndbourne via the Vienna State Opera’s great international prima donna at the time, Ljuba Welitsch, who sang at the Edinburgh Festival in 1948 and 49. Being invited by her to both festivals, was the start of a close friendship until she died, and of course, many of the other opera singers of the day including John and Audrey Mildmay Christie, and not forgetting another lifelong friendship with Carl Ebert, his wife Gertie and all their family, and remaining in touch with Alda Noni, then of La Scala Milan. In fact, it is her daughter, Tiziana Sojat, who I have known since she was born and is herself an opera singer, but now lives in Cyprus, is coming over for my birthday and will be coming with me to the FOBS lunch tomorrow!

There’s of course so much more to tell, about the lasting friendship with the Schumacher family, even the younger generation to this day, and David, all the more through the years, especially later with Gavin, David never missed a week without phoning  to inquire about Gavin’s illness. His very regular visits to us, sitting at Gavin’s bedside, my close association with Gavin and with every one of his books. Haffner during his Obs years. Lajos, Nadal, Philip Deane, Andrew Shonfiels, John de St. Jorre, Dennis Bloodworth, Sunanda Datta-Ray, and everyone connected with and working for the paper, particularly during the early Astor editorship.

I keep remembering a touching moment, in the midst of Gavin’s illness, when he sat at the edge of his bed, still just about able to talk and communicate with difficulty, asking me, ‘what are you going to do when I leave this world?’

The answer to this, which I couldn’t bring myself to tell Gavin, is that I’ll always remember my stroke of luck from the moment I set foot on British soil. I am so indebted by so many encounters with so many wonderful people, that I couldn’t ever have dreamed or wished for a better existence. Frankly, I never stop thanking Hitler and the Nazis for having been instrumental in making my life so rich, full and remarkable!

blowing bubblesin front of shop on step with dogs feeding sheep in wooly jumperholding chicken


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