Helping friends to get reunited
For over 10 years, writer Monica Porter has been putting people back to in touch with each other. She recalls her most moving stories.
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Lost and found: Dan Benjamin with wife Brenda
Since 1999 I've been writing the Daily Mail's weekly Missing and Found column, something of a trailblazer in the burgeoning "reunion industry". The column has reunited countless long-lost friends, colleagues and relatives, while providing evocative glimpses into the past. And it will not surprise JC readers to learn that many of its reunion stories have involved Jewish people.
One poignant tale emanated from Australia. Melbourne-based artist Craig Forster got in touch on behalf of his wife Alena, whose Czech mother Eva Weisl was an inmate in Belsen. They hoped to trace Bill Bellamy, the former British soldier who had found Eva near to death from starvation when the British Army liberated the camp in April 1945. Bill had cared for her, feeding her tiny amounts of chocolate powder until she grew stronger.
In the late 1940s, Eva and her husband Paul Weisl emigrated to Australia. She was now 90 and Alena wanted, while there was still time, to reunite her with Bill. As Craig wrote: "We have him to thank not only for Eva's life, but for the existence of all our succeeding generations - my wife and our two daughters, both now expecting babies of their own. How easy it is with compassion and a big English heart to turn the tide of destruction back to life."
Sadly, I learned that Bill had died only a year earlier, after a full, wide-ranging life. But I was able to put Craig in touch with Bill's daughter Elaine in Glamorgan, as well his 93-year-old widow. "We deeply regret Bill's passing," emailed Craig, "but our family is delighted to be exchanging messages with Elaine and learning of Bill's life. We have invited her and her husband to stay with us."
One light-hearted story from the swinging '60s featured Edgware resident Dan Benjamin, who with partner Colin Wild owned the famous Carnaby Cavern boutique off Carnaby Street from 1965 to 1978. Its regular customers included Benny Hill, Jimi Hendrix and Shirley Bassey. Feeling nostalgic for his days at the cutting edge of London fashion, he was eager to trace the people who had worked for him, "such as those brilliant tailors - Otis, who made leather cat suits for Alvin Stardust, and Roger, who made the jackets for Hi-de-Hi, which had to be made badly (as jackets were in the 1940s), so I got him drunk".
We found his erstwhile employee John Banyard, now based in Jersey. He first worked for Dan in 1964 as a 13-year-old schoolboy running errands after school and on Saturdays. "I'd take clothes to be altered to a Mrs Chambers, who made shirts with enormous collars for the bands Deep Purple and Sweet," he recalled. "I remember being at the Cavern one day when Dan threw fireworks up and down the street to try to lure people into the shop." No wonder Dan remembered the era as "one long magical moment".
The column also reunited Ronnie Frankel - who at 82 was still running badminton classes in Hertfordshire - with his boyhood friend, the equally active Cyril Goldberg. In the 1930s Ronnie and Cyril had belonged to the Hackney Boys' Club in the East End of London. "When war broke out most of my pals from the club became Bevan Boys and went down the mines, but I joined the RAF," said Ronnie. He became a physical training instructor, stayed on past the required two years, and was promoted to sergeant. "If there were more boys' clubs around today, the country would benefit enormously," he observed.
His old friend was quick to respond: "I am Cyril Goldberg, now known as Cyril Gee. I have happy memories of the Hackney Boys' Club and my friend Ronnie. I left school at 14 to work at a music publishers in London, and at 81 I'm still in the music business. In 1958 I was made managing director of Mills Music, and when it merged with another publisher to form Belwin-Mills Music, I ran the new company. At one time we employed a young lad called Reg Dwight, better known as Elton John."
Frances Gibbs and Pamela Leff were also childhood friends back in the 1950s, when they lived at the Norwood Jewish children's home in south London. Frances, who was taken into care aged seven, recalled: "We had no families of our own, but at the home we were like one big family. Each year we'd go on a taxi outing to Brighton with a lot of London cabbies and their families. They were great occasions which we would talk about for weeks afterwards. Pam and I were on the netball team and played against the north London Jewish clubs. It would be wonderful to see her again after so long."
A few days after her story appeared, she received a surprise phone call from her old Norwood friend, now Mrs Pamela Shaw. A member of the Norwood Old Scholars' Association (and friend of Pam's) saw the story and made contact. "What a thrill!" wrote Frances. "Pam and I didn't stop talking for an hour on the phone - goodness knows what we'll be like at our forthcoming Norwood reunion in Essex."
On occasion I have reunited the long lost by a mere fluke. Mary Davison of Exeter was searching for her wartime school friend, Rosemary Lenart. "Rosemary and her sister Helena were among the 669 Czech children brought to England in 1939 on the Kindertransport set up by Sir Nicholas Winton," she explained. "We were together at Sidcup and Chislehurst Technical School in Kent, where we became close friends. For some time after the war we wrote to each other, then Rosemary's letters stopped and we lost touch."
Mary was unaware that Sir Nicholas is my partner Nick's father. I told him about the search for Rosemary and by sheer luck, the Lenart sisters are among the handful of his Kinder with whom he is in touch - they live in Budapest. I gave Mary their contact details. "I'm happy and excited and can't thank you enough," she emailed. "Now we have 60 years to catch up on!"
After a decade of Missing and Found, I still get a kick out of a happy ending.
'Long Lost: The Story of the Newspaper Column that Started the Reunion Industry', by Monica Porter is published by Quartet at £12