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Obituary: The Revd Gunter Helft

07 August 2015

Canon John Everest writes:

THE Revd Gunter Helft was told more than 30 years ago that he probably wouldn’t survive that year — but has just died, on 17 June, aged 92, after a long and eventful life. In his autobiography, Not Lost for Words, he takes us through the main events of his life, marked by the sheer determination which enabled him to face whatever life threw at him.

Born in 1923 in Berlin, as part of a Marxist atheist Jewish family, Gunter witnessed the beginnings of Nazi brutality. At the age of ten, he heard his neighbour’s door being kicked in by Nazi thugs, and his Jewish neighbour being beaten to death, with the indescribable howls of his little daughter Rosie, who had been tied to a chair to watch.

He saw Rosie being led away afterwards, presumably to extermination in one of the camps. Suddenly, Gunter became aware that he was Jewish, not just German, and that this was dangerous for him. Although he was not a practising Jew, the mere fact of his ethnicity put him at risk. Talking about this, Gunter hoped that it helped us to understand his insecurities, anxieties, and attitudes to life as he experienced it.

With his parents, he fled to London in 1933, with no knowledge of English, and was assimilated through his schooling at elementary and grammar schools in London. There were many Jewish children in the area, which again confronted him with his Jewishness; but he also explored Christianity, which eventually led to his being ordained in 1948 at Chelmsford.

His curacy at the district of the Ascension, Chelmsford, was linked with his appointment as chaplain at the Essex Home School, an approved school in the district, which began his interest in education, and in the reasons for criminal behaviour. He considered that the boys had been more sinned against than sinning.

From there, he went to Holy Cross, Billesley Common, Birmingham, where he did what was in those days an unforgivable thing: he fell in love with a girl in the parish: Diane. He was forbidden to have any contact with her in the parish, and Diane was banned from all parish activities. Not to be put off, however, they were married 13 months after his arrival, and it was a marriage that lasted for 62 years, producing two sons, Michael and Peter.

From there, they went to Kobe in Japan, where Gunter worked as chaplain in the Missions to Seamen; and then to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. This was difficult for their health, with Michael as a baby, and so they were sent home for Gunter to work as Schools and Candidates Secretary for the Mission, where he also started their newspaper, the Flying Angel, which ceased publication only very recently.

Gunter’s interest and work in education continued. He became the Bishop of Oxford’s Youth Officer, then leadership training officer in the Youth Council of the Church of England’s Board of Education. From there, he went to become head of the large Archbishop Temple Comprehensive School in Lambeth, and subsequently Head of the Don Valley School in Doncaster.

But then, in 1983, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and had the operation that left him without a voice. After that, he had yet another operation to remove a lump in his shoulder, leaving him with impaired muscle use.

Again, with typical Gunter resolve, he began learning to speak again, through speech therapy. With Diane’s help, he began to manage. It was then that they moved to Worcester, and contacted me for holy communion at home.

Gradually, we managed to encourage Gunter to take up his priesthood again, first of all with him celebrating at the altar, while I said the words for him, then him doing it himself. He began to preach with electronic help — which he threw away histrionically fairly quickly.

He took a full part in the life of the parish staff, and also became Chair of Governors at the then Elgar School. But, in 2008, he had a stroke, which disabled him and annoyed him: but still he fought on.

Throughout all this time, Gunter was a committed member of the Labour Party, clear that his Christianity came out of his socialism, and not his socialism out of his Christianity. He made a point of always wearing his clerical collar at meetings, to underline that for him the two philosophies were as one.

Gunter was at the point of death on a number of occasions, and so it is difficult for many of us to believe that he has finally gone. But in his book, he says what many of us have thought over the years. He says he wishes people wouldn’t just say how amazing he has been, and what difficulties he has been through, but would recognise it as even more true for Diane, who has been the rock at his side throughout. She has supported him and cared for him far beyond what anyone could expect.

Our memories of Gunter are many and varied, and we shall miss him. His resolute approach to the trials and tribulations of life came out of a deep Christian faith, which was both thought out and lived out. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

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