Monday, November 21, 2011

Actress June Brown discovers a family divided by war

In the last series of Who Do You Think You Are? on the BBC, actress June Brown (Dot in the series Eastenders) explored her family history, and I was struck by the story of one of her ancestors, Isaac Bitton.

Isaac Bitton was June Brown's great, great, great grandfather. He was a famous prize fighter in England in the early 19th century, but he had been born in Holland. He came over to London with his father, Abraham, at the end of the 18th century because the Dutch economy had been devastated after a war with England. Isaac's mother, Rachel, and his siblings had remained in Amsterdam and the plan was probably to have them come over to England once Abraham had got himself settled in.

But Holland was then invaded and occupied by the French. England was at war with France and the Channel was blockaded, so there was no possibility of Rachel and the other children being able to leave Amsterdam and come over to London. The family were never reunited. Rachel and the other children died in Amsterdam. Abraham and Isaac died in London.

It can't have been easy for Isaac, separated from his mother and siblings, and trying to settle in a foreign country. But, despite his life being turned upside down, he made a success of his new life and became one of the most famous prize fighters in England, who remained undefeated throughout his career – an extraordinary achievement.

I was struck by the similarities between Isaac Bitton and my mother, who also had her life turned upside down by war and ended up in a foreign country. She was born in 1925 in East Prussia in Germany, very close to Poland and Russia, and towards the end of the Second World War, her father – though he was too old for active service and was not fully fit – was called up by Hitler and sent to Leningrad to fight the Russians. There he was killed and when the telegram arrived, confirming his death, my grandmother knew the family had to flee to West Germany, if they wanted to escape the Russians.

So my mother and the rest of the family (5 children in total) left their home, their school friends, everything and embarked on a hazardous journey westwards. Eventually, they arrived in Berlin, and from there they made their way to relatives in Hamburg (though my mother first went with her sister-in-law to Prague to try and rescue my German uncle, who was in a military hospital near the city, though they never got to the hospital because of a Czech uprising that forced them to walk back to Germany in stifling heat, being offered poisoned water on the way by the locals).

My mother, Hamburg, 1950
It was all they could do to feed and clothe themselves once they were in war-torn Hamburg. My mother was on a starvation diet and, at times, there was nothing to eat at all. And any kind of cloth they could lay their hands on e.g. curtains or sheets, they turned into clothes. She managed to find a job at the British Army headquarters and there she met my father, who was an officer in the British Army.

They courted and married in 1952 and my mother came to England, to start a new life. It wasn't easy for her, coming to terms with new customs and crazy English spellings and pronunciations, but she made the best of it, as did Isaac Bitton. She became a much valued secretary and helped my father convert an old, dilapidated Victorian house into a wonderful home, whilst successfully raising two children.

The stories of both my mother and Isaac Bitton show us that we don't have to become victims of adversity. On the contrary, adversity can make us resourceful in ways we might never have thought of and, whilst our lives might take a different path from the one we originally planned, that doesn't mean to say it can't be rewarding.

“Resistance makes us all grow stronger
and fly ever higher on the wind of life,
so the difficulties we meet are what we need
if we want to be the highest flying kite.”

Do you have a story of a family member who also has overcome adversity and made the best of a difficult situation? Then please feel free to share.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Niece To Cherish And Amaze

This September my niece started sixth form - unbelievable! I still remember when she was just a baby (see above) and now she's studying for her A levels. How time flies.

To mark the occasion, I thought I would post an extract from my poem 'The Niece' in my book Family & More - Enemies or Friends? Enjoy!

Such a small,
fragile-looking being,
this newborn babe,
crumpled face
and delicate limbs
fascinating all who look
with their phenomenal
miracle of creation,
eating and sleeping
her only desire
in this foreign world
of noise and people.
The eyes shine bright
with sparkle and life
and hands lift and agitate
when the new and wondrous
suddenly appear
in this amazing world
of her imagination.

Inquiring into everything
with mouth and tongue
and later with stumbling feet,
curiously watching
bumble-bees hover
and snails slither,
joyously creating
game after game
with books and toys,
packets and tins,
twigs and leaves
and anything else
you'd care to name.

Playing she loves,
other babies, too,
and a playmate at home
is what she'd like,
a baby girl or boy, if you please.
Her wish suddenly granted
she can't wait to see
the baby brother
waiting for her in hospital
at the appointed time of three.

She looks at the child
with fascinated eyes,
at last a baby of her own,
reminding the aunt of
that picture of the mother,
who as a toddler
had looked in just that way
at the baby sister
who had arrived
after the long, painful
labour of a day.

To school she goes,
only just four,
yet others are five already
or a bit more.
Keen to please
but shy with new children,
learning strange things
called numbers and letters,
tiring stuff for one so young,
but determined she is
and give up she won't
no matter how hard it all is...
She'll try and try until she bursts!
The effort pays off
and great strides she makes,
reaching the top group in English
when secondary school starts.
Who would have thought it
all those years before,
when reading was an uphill struggle
and all those words just one big muddle?
But anything can be achieved
with strong focus and desire,
all that's needed is motivation
and a heart truly on fire.

Copyright © Helena Harper 2010

What do you remember about a son/daughter/niece/nephew or any other person you know when they were young?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dad's Army, Clive Dunn and Grandads

As a child in the UK, I grew up watching Dad's Army. I loved it and more than 30 years since the series stopped, it is still being shown on TV! That is testament to its enduring legacy of wonderful writing, wonderful acting and wonderful humour. I was watching one of the reruns at the weekend and, as ever, was thoroughly enjoying it.

One of my favourite characters is Lance Corporal Jones, played by Clive Dunn (seen here on the far left of the picture), whose stock phrase of "Don't panic, don't panic!" always brings a smile to my face. You can't help but like the elderly soldier - kind, gentle, loyal, bumbling but always well-intentioned. So successful was he as an 'old man' that he actually had a number one hit single "Grandad" in 1971, where he sang with a children's choir. They couldn't have chosen a better person for the song - he looked every inch a loveable, wise, gentle grandpa! 

Many of us, perhaps, have not been fortunate enough to grow up with a grandfather around (both of mine died long before I was born), but we can still learn from them and be inspired by them as we look at old photos and listen to our parents. I have grown up listening to my mother talk of her father, whom she adored. I would have loved to have met him - he was hardworking, intelligent, generous, kind and loving to his family (though stern when he needed to be), a great sailor and swimmer, had a wonderful singing voice and was very gifted with his hands. 

He was every inch the family man, so when he was called up at the end of the Second World War by Hitler (he was German and lived in East Prussia), it must have been heartbreaking for him to leave his family. He was too old for active service, of course, but what could he do? It was his duty. He was sent off to Leningrad, where he knew immediately that the situation was hopeless. He wrote a letter to his wife and children in which he explained that there was really no hope - the Russians were due to attack the next day and defeat was certain to happen quickly - and, indeed, soon afterwards my grandmother received the fateful telegram. And with the Russians on the advance, she decided that the family had to flee to West Germany. 

There are times, perhaps, in life where we have to put personal interests and wishes second to some greater cause or purpose. Whilst I abhor the way my grandfather lost his life - it was so futile, because whether he had fought or not fought, the outcome of the war would have remained unchanged - I admire him for his sense of duty and, as a loving partner and parent, he set a wonderfully positive example to others. 

One thing, of course, that grandparents can contribute to our lives is a wealth of knowledge and experience. I wasn't able to get that from my grandparents, but I did get that from my father, who was 50 when I was born, so he had a lot of great advice and knowledge to give me as I grew up into my teens and early twenties. My maternal grandfather and father have had a great influence on me, even though one of them was long since gone when I was born, and I have paid my own tribute to them in my book Family & More - Enemies or Friends? It is important, I think, that their stories are told so that others can learn from them. 

What about your family stories? What have you learnt from your grandparents? Why don't you write down what you know? The written word will help their stories live again and educate others. Perhaps leaving a comment on this post would be a start or sharing something on my Family & More facebook page. Don't let the stories of your grandparents disappear into the mists of time - they are too precious...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Air blown through a ring of soapy water,
countless bubbles being born,
each taking a different path -
reaching skyward,
skimming low
or somewhere inbetween...
A long path for some,
a short one for others,
then finally a pop,
signalling the end...
or another beginning?

Separate and alone they seem,
but look! There's a twosome
transforming into three,
another merging seamlessly
with the twins
so that all can continue
in oneness and unity.

The memory of a common origin
lies buried in forgetfulness,
yet all are joined
and the separateness
of the journey
is just an illusion -
wonderful, elegant
and clever.
We mistake it for reality,
but in truth, that it can never be:
no, never!

Copyright © Helena Harper 2008