Ordinary people in extraordinary times

By Anne Sebba, September 21, 2012
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What makes two people with identical backgrounds turn in completely opposite directions at critical moments? I have just finished an intriguing book called The Horror of Love, by Lisa Hilton, about the relationship between the socialite Nancy Mitford and her French lover, Gaston Palewski. I thought I knew all I ever needed to know about the Mitford sisters (and perhaps I did) but reading it made me struggle with this question once again. Of course, with the Mitfords - Unity and Diana, the Hitler worshippers, and Jessica, the communist - the problem is writ larger than in most families. Nancy vehemently opposed both extremes and devoted herself to writing (Love in a Cold Climate) not politics. Palewski was one of General de Gaulle's closest advisers and the "horror" refers to his refusal to commit to a relationship with Nancy.

With ever fewer eye-witnesses to the real horrors of the 20th century, this is an important and powerful moment to look back. Barely a week passes now without an obituary for someone who survived the Second World War with an extraordinary story of which many who knew them may never have been aware. Even now, in 2012, fresh accounts of heroism as well as cowardice are still being revealed. And age-old arguments about morality in wartime are fought over anew, as the unveiling this summer of the Hyde Park memorial to Bomber Command made clear.

No other arm of the forces suffered a casualty rate as bleak as that of the 125,000 courageous young men who flew with Bomber Command - 55,573 of them were killed, their bodies mostly never recovered, 8,400 wounded and 10,000 taken prisoner. Yet, because their task to bomb enemy targets led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the long overdue central London memorial has also revived the debate about whether or not such air raids on German cities were justified or helped end the war more quickly.

War unquestionably brings out the best and the worst in people. This summer, on a visit to Paris, I had a powerful reminder of that, as 2012 is the 70th anniversary of the 1942 mass arrest of almost 13,000 Parisian Jews, including 4,000 children, many of whom were subsequently killed. It is known as the Vel D'Hiv roundup after the Paris cycling stadium where the Jews were taken before transportation to Drancy and then to Auschwitz. As Tatiana de Rosnay vividly showed in her novel, Sarah's Key, recently made into a film starring Kristin Scott Thomas, many were dragged to the stadium, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, with little food or water and then faced days with grossly inadequate facilities.

Sixty per cent of the younger generation is unaware of the largest deportation of French Jews in the country’s history

These chilling activities could not have been accomplished without the brazen collaboration of French authorities. How many ordinary Frenchmen, even if not actively collaborating, compromised themselves in those years of German occupation? Some, like Nancy Mitford's lover, the Jewish-born, Catholic convert Gaston Palewski, escaped to Britain to support General de Gaulle and work for the liberation of their country. Others, farmers or shopkeepers, provided food and shelter at great risk to themselves, or joined the Resistance. But what is almost equally shocking is how long it has taken France, which has often struggled with its complex response to its Jewish population, to acknowledge the truth of what happened during the years of its German occupation and Vichy government.

Sixty per cent of the younger generation is, as a recent survey has just shown, completely unaware of the July 1942 events, the largest deportation of French Jews in the country's history. In 1995, the then French Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac, publicly apologised when he declared that France had "committed the irreparable" and "owed [Holocaust victims] an everlasting debt." Only 10 years later, in 2005, did Paris finally have its own Holocaust museum, the Mémorial de la Shoah. As part of the Vel D'Hiv 70th anniversary commemorations, French police archives were opened to public view for the first time. These include photos, signatures and records of personal possessions from many of the victims and are on display at a Paris district town hall.

This summer, my father - a hero to me - would have celebrated his 100th birthday. What made him, along with several of his friends, as well as my father-in law, as I was later to learn, join up before conscription was introduced, in the belief that it was the right thing to do, even though it played havoc with their studies and careers? These were, after all, young men, lucky if they lived to old age and mostly dying without formal obituaries.

My father became Major Eric Rubinstein MBE. He was part of the 79th Armoured Division in the Royal Tank Brigade that crossed the Channel to France on D Day plus one, and spent the remainder of the war fighting its way through Europe, from Caen to Nijmegen and Copenhagen. My father-in- law, then Captain Sam Sebba, went over on the night before D Day in a glider to capture Pegasus Bridge, for which he was Mentioned in Despatches. It was an operation vital to delay the oncoming Panzer divisions in Northern France from reaching the landing beaches where my father was to come ashore a day or so later.

Among many battles and terrifying moments my father found himself, shortly after D Day, as one of the officers deputed to speak on behalf of Lt William Douglas-Home - the playwright brother of the (later) prime minister - who had been court-martialled for refusing to obey an order. Douglas-Home, although not a pacifist, opposed the government insistence on the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany as a war aim and in September 1944 refused to participate in the Allied operation to capture the port of Le Havre, which he believed to be immoral because thousands of French civilians had not been permitted to evacuate.

He was convicted and sentenced to be cashiered and to serve one year's imprisonment with hard labour. Douglas-Home, born the same year as my father, was the only one of three million people in the British armed forces during the Second World War to be convicted of the wilful refusal of orders where the defence was based on a claim of moral justification. The proceedings lasted just two hours.

My father would barely talk about his war experiences and I, to my chagrin, never pressed him. I knew his decision to join the Tank Brigade was prompted by the knowledge that, if the worst happened and the tank was hit, he would likely die in the explosion rather than be taken prisoner. Yet my sister and I knew about how he faced the moral dilemma of defending Douglas-Home only because for several years my parents would receive first-night tickets to all Douglas-Home's plays. And on this story he was clear. Douglas-Home's behaviour, however courageous in its way, endangered not only other British soldiers but was an unthinkable risk at such a critical stage of the war. Yet he still had to be given a defence because the war was about behaving justly and decently.

What makes a hero, or an ordinary man behave in heroic ways? Professor Frank Vajda, a neurologist, vividly remembers his own rescue by the young Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg when, as a nine-year-old boy in Budapest, little Frank was denounced by the authorities for the simple yet symbolic act of removing the yellow star the Nazis forced him to wear.

He had been hiding in a protected house with his mother, following the murder of his father. He was marched to a military barracks and lined up in front of a machine gun. At that critical moment, Wallenberg arrived, negotiated with the authorities and led him away to safety.

Frank became a professor of clinical neuropharmacology at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and, now aged 78, has devoted much of his adult life to making sure that the world knows of Wallenberg's tireless and unselfish efforts to save 100,000 Jews in Nazi- occupied Hungary through a variety of actions, including issuing passports, establishing protective housing, organising soup kitchens and personally rescuing Jews from sealed deportation trains among other heroic deeds. When he learned of Adolf Eichmann's "final solution", the young Wallenberg had a note delivered to General Schmidthuber, the commander of the German army in Hungary, explaining that the general would be held personally responsible for the massacre and that he would be hanged as a war criminal after the war was over, thereby saving the lives of 70,000 Jews. How to explain this extraordinary heroism?

According to his late step-brother he was "flesh and blood, not a hero of legends nor a mystical figure."

Professor Vadya told me that he believes that Raoul was "an ordinary man, not born a hero. He loved life, friends, girls, and ordinary pursuits. Like many of the Righteous, he had a tremendous conscience and wanted to help those in need." Vadya believes that Wallenberg was originally inspired by something as mundane as watching a film, Pimpernel Smith, which was produced by and starred the British actor of Jewish Hungarian roots, Leslie Howard, when it was shown privately in Sweden in 1941.

"Like many who risked their lives to save others, Raoul did what he did out of a deep-seated human impulse of decency," Vadya says. "He knew the dangers he faced, but pressed ahead. I think he felt as threatened as any of his protégés, but he pretended to be invulnerable."

There was one other notable episode in my father's war. In 1945, while waiting to be demobbed, he was befriended by a handsome and charming, downed South African pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel Armstrong, a former Cambridge rugby blue trying to get back to England. Or so the man told my father. They shared a few drinks while exchanging their life stories and, after a couple of days together searching out Brussels lace underwear for my mother's meagrely rationed trousseau, said goodbye.

Several months later, the police came knocking at my father's door, having tracked him down from the visiting card he had given to his new friend, the stranded South African airman, who was in fact a British-born man with many aliases. As my father now discovered, to his abject horror, he had been spending his time with one of the most-wanted murderers in Britain, Neville Heath, a barber's son from Essex, Borstal boy and compulsive liar who had used the war to try and escape his past.

Heath first joined the Royal Army Service Corps and was posted to the Middle East where he lasted less than a year. He was shipped home but on his way escaped the guard and headed for Johannesburg where he managed to join the South African Air Force, eventually rising to the rank of Captain. He did eventually get back to England in 1946, and that summer committed at least two such horrifically sadistic murders of young women that I can now understand why this might not have been a story for my father to share with his daughters in any detail.

Heath was tried at the Old Bailey on September 24 1946, where he pleaded insanity, but two prison doctors testified that, although he was a psychopath and a sexual pervert, he was not insane. The jury took only one hour before returning a guilty verdict and he was hanged on October 16 1946. Heath's waxwork image can be seen today at Madame Tussauds in the Chamber of Horrors.

Raoul Wallenberg has no grave but many monuments around the world and lives on in the gratitude of many of those whose lives he saved and their descendants. While few others saved lives on such a heroic scale as he, there are many unsung heroes and heroines remembered only by their families for deeds of courage which often appeared quite ordinary at the time. Today, they seem anything but.

Anne Sebba is the author of 'That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor' (Phoenix)

Last updated: 10:45am, September 21 2012