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A Letter From Your Grandfather
Dad and uncle Peter.jpeg

Tommy Shaw and his brother Peter, in Hamburg before World War II. (Grandpa is the smaller one)

Your grandfather stopped getting an education at the age of 10 and has never been great at writing, so I am putting this letter together for him – but this is his story.

I hope you will see it as a reminder of the extraordinary times the older generation has been through and how sometimes, seemingly ordinary people around us, those that you meet on the way to school or around you on the bus, have sometimes done unbelievable things.


Your grandfather arrived by boat when he was 10, fleeing from a Germany which was persecuting him and millions of others. He arrived - all four and a half feet of him - speaking no English, only knowing he was being picked up by a school matron called Shorty.

He almost never arrived. At the last minute, a German officer told him he couldn’t get on his train and directed him to another one that he was sure was leading him to a concentration camp. At the age of 10 he faced the soldier down, demanding to see his superior officer and saying he had specific permission to get on the train to the coast. Knowing when to stand your ground, may not make you liked, but the ones who weren’t difficult didn’t survive, he later told me.


Before he left Germany, despite being just a boy, he had been stabbed in the back with a gimlet and left to die in the street. No one would touch him because he was Jewish and he laid there until nightfall until someone took him in and patched him up. Getting him to talk about this later in life, he was very matter of fact - “I was stabbed – I am not sure what else to say”. I make more of a drama out of a delayed tube train, so it was something for me, the Englishman, to be taught about a stiff upper lip, by a German refugee


He arrived for the start of school in September. War was declared on September 3rd and the school promptly evacuated to Canada, but couldn’t take him with them. Grandpa was now stuck in England speaking little English and with no money. He was homeless and alone.


However, he heard that the historian, Lord Trevelyan renowned for his books on 19th century history, looked kindly on Jewish refugee children and was advised that if he could make his own way up to his estate in Northumberland, Lord Trevelyan might be impressed enough to take him in. Still in short trouser, Grandpa hitched all the way to the Manor and was given refuge with one of the tenant farmers.

From there, he heard that some people in Edinburgh had put aside an old large building, Polton House, which Jewish refugee children could live in. There were few adults, just children who organised themselves. It sounded like Lord of the Flies. Grandpa bred rabbits and somehow learned how to skin them and turn them into gloves. He remembers advertising in The Scotsman newspaper for "Ration Free" fur gloves. In those days, I think the front page of the paper was often crowded with adverts and its prominent position meant it attracted the attention of the police. They raided the house because you weren’t allowed to sell ration free goods. On finding a small boy in charge who said it was his only way of making money, they said they understood and would turn a blind-eye, but could he kindly stop advertising in the newspaper.


You may remember Grandpa often talked about being grateful to this country for offering him sanctuary, but I don’t think in the past you fully realised why he felt it so important that the whole family did its best to offer help to others in need. I know he was a tough man –not as cuddly as many of your friends’ grandparents – but I hope you understand why he felt so strongly, that we all had an obligation, however young you are, to help others in need, whenever you could.

At the funeral a few weeks ago, you’ll have heard some talk about his charity work. When I was a child, the house was filled with coffee meetings organised to help run a holiday home for mentally handicapped children, of which he was the unpaid Chairman. He became a Prison Visitor and a juvenile magistrate trying to steer a path for children who had fallen on the wrong side of the law. 


Once I remember being at home after mum and dad had gone to sit in the public gallery of a court. One man was up on a charge of theft but the magistrate said as a result of him being homeless he would have to wait in prison until the court hearing– it was unfair but there was no choice. Grandpa stood up and said the man could come home and live with us until his trial date. Hence when they returned, they brought back a rather furtive and confused looking stranger to stay.


It was one of the crazier moments for me to see my parents bringing back a homeless man accused of theft, after they’d just gone out for a day by themselves - and I don’t know whether it was me or the man who was more surprised and nervous as we stared at each other over a biscuit and a cup of tea.


Now as you know, Grandpa has left you a few things but I have to say that I think his example, might be his greatest gift to you.

Link to BBC Radio 4's From Our Home Correspondent where a shorter version of this ran in Jan 2020 

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