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Lasting bonds formed after the bombs

07 January 2022

Through the letters of his grandparents, Andrew March uncovered a post-war love story that modelled a greater reconciliation


Mass cremation in the Altmarkt after the bombing of Dresden in 1945

Mass cremation in the Altmarkt after the bombing of Dresden in 1945

I WAS 18 when my grandfather died. He’d suffered from Alzheimer’s in the final years of his life; so he was a bit of a mystery to me. I remember him talking at the dinner table, and accompanying him to the university library in Exeter, but otherwise he was quite a distant figure.

His funeral and the weeks following his death were a revelation to me. What I discovered through the moving and passionate eulogy delivered by his younger brother, George, was that this old and somewhat distant man whom I knew as Grandpa had led an extraordinary life.

From the modest beginnings of a Liverpool grammar school, his adult life had begun with astounding academic success. He won a plethora of prizes, and was described by Alan Turing as the “most learned man I ever met”.

Fred in 1940

In what he described as “the redeeming act of my life”, he organised the rescue of two Jewish boys from Austria, saving them from certain death. I was so proud that he was my grandfather; in fact, it was one of the first things that I told my future wife on the first evening that we spent together.

My relationship with Rike, my grandmother (or “Nanny”, as I knew her), was different. We were always close. I loved her warmth, openness, and hospitality. I basked in her interest in my life and her pride that I was studying German for A level. Through her letters and journals, my admiration for her has grown. She was just as remarkable as my grandfather, but in different ways.

I DIDN’T think much more of my grandparents and their stories until 2014, when I was a vicar in Coventry. Both Coventry and Dresden had been destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, and there was a strong history of reconciliation between the two cities.

In February 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Coventry, the Lord Mayor, the Dean, and others were to make an official trip to Dresden. I had a deep sense that I ought to be part of this visit. To my great joy, the Bishop agreed.

I had written a blog to tell the story of my grandparents and my personal reason for going to Dresden. Much to my surprise, it attracted interest, and, in a peculiarly surreal week, I ended up appearing in the Church Times (News, 13 February 2015) and on local radio, national German TV, and Radio 5 Live.

With my shaky A-level German, and in the presence of the Archbishop, I told the story in the Frauenkirche, the great Lutheran church rebuilt in 2005, and known as the city’s most beloved symbol.

Rike in 1947

It was a powerful experience, revealing and reliving my grandparents’ experience in the place of, perhaps, the worst bombing in the European war. It made an indelible mark on my life.

A few months later, I was part of a conversation about sabbaticals, and I happened to mention that, if I were to take a sabbatical, then I would use it to write the story of my grandparents. Much to my surprise, Coventry diocese said that this would be a great idea. So the journey began.

In the months before the sabbatical, I raided my parents’ attic and discovered a treasure trove of material that formed the basis of Loving the Enemy: my grandfather’s notebooks, recalling his experiences in Dresden, Vienna, and during the war; the diaries that my grandmother kept; and, of course, most importantly, the letters which established the basis of their relationship and led to their marriage.

More than friendship

FRIEDERIKE Luise Büttner-Wobst was the youngest of five children, a surprise addition to the family. The family rumour was that Dora, their mother, had had her head turned by a younger colleague of Werner, their doctor father. A fresh passion had ensued between the doctor and his wife, made hotter by jealousy, and Rike was the result.

Rike was almost determinedly happy. She loved to laugh. She loved to run and play. The Dresdner Heide was her playground, and she felt so liberated when she was deemed old enough to go out on her own to explore the forest. It was even better when she could persuade her older siblings to play with her.

Of course, war had changed all that. War had changed almost everything. Now it was 1946, she was an adult, and those pre-war days seemed far, far away.

One day, a letter came from Fred Clayton. The name sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place it at first. Then she remembered. He was the English teacher who had stayed in Dresden for a year in 1936.

Years before, Fred had expressed his hope that he and her family would remain friends even if their countries were at war. Now, seven years on, he was clearly hoping to rekindle that friendship. He wrote:

I know it has been a long time since I last wrote to you. Over the past seven years since war broke out, I have thought of you and your family often. I deeply regret the enmity that sprang up between our nations.

I have never thought of you all without a deep sense of love and friendship. I was always very grateful for the kindness you all showed me during my time in Dresden, which seems such a long time ago now.

I am writing simply to ask how you have fared in these difficult times? I spent most of the war years in India as part of the Allied forces fighting against the Japanese. These were difficult times, but I’m sure that is no different from many other people.

I was horrified when I heard about the bombing of Dresden and thought about you all and your wellbeing. Please write whenever you can; I am anxious to know how you all are.

With kindest greetings

Fred Clayton

Rike began to write her response on behalf of the family that evening. Fred was grateful for the warmth of restored contact. They made him feel that he had, after all, built a few slender bridges, which survived. And a new one was being built with Rike.

Andrew MarchFred and Rike’s wedding in 1948

Was there a way he could help her? He was, after all, well aware of the situation in the Russian zone. It was clear that the ongoing difficulties of the political situation in Germany were likely to persist.

As a single woman, Rike was more vulnerable than her sisters, and Fred felt a responsibility to her somehow. So, with this in mind, he wrote to her with a suggestion that she might come to England where he might help her find work: “There is talk here that perhaps German girls will be able to come to England for certain types of jobs, but for the moment it is all very vague. I just wanted to say that I might be able to get you a reasonably pleasant position here.”

He was fretful about how this must have sounded. Was he being too patriarchal, or even controlling? He didn’t even know the woman, and here he was offering to help her.

Fred need not have been concerned; Rike was grateful for his interest in her, and for the way he sought to help. She replied warmly from the state farm where she had worked during the war, visiting old friends: “Dear Mr Clayton! If only you knew how much pleasure your two letters gave me. I found your suggestion about coming to England to work really interesting. I’d be delighted to come, because I really believe I would be well looked after under your protection. Of course, a secure job would be the first step towards such a move.”

As their friendship evolved, plans for Rike to come to England under Fred’s protection became more concrete. At first, in the early stages of their correspondence, Fred saw himself as the strong protector of a lonely child, motivated by his regard for the Büttner-Wobst family.

But he began to realise she was so much more. Each letter simply added to the impression that was forming in his mind of a powerful, resilient, fearless, down-to earth — and funny young woman.

He prized her letters, parts of which he could recite word for word. Although he had not heard her speak as an adult, he imagined the way that she might read these letters aloud to him. He began to rely on them to lift his spirits, to quieten the anxiety that still followed him like his shadow — and it worked.

Something about her presence, conveyed through her words on those pieces of paper, brought him peace. If she could do this through her words — he dared to think — then how much more would this be true if she were there in person? What if she came to England as his equal, not for work, but for life . . . for love?

This is an edited extract from
Loving the Enemy: Building bridges in a time of war by the Revd Andrew March, published by Halwill Publishing at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-73980-510-4. Signed copies can be obtained direct from the publisher.

Listen to an interview with Andy March on the Church Times Podcast.

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