The most extraordinary thing has happened. I’m still reeling.
Recently I received an email from a complete stranger, a collector of “trench art”, engraved shell casings from the First World War.
One of the items that she’d bought in a junk shop ten years ago had a name and regiment number engraved on it as well as the location ‘Ypres’. It sat on a shelf in her home for a decade until one of her ten rescue cats knocked it over. On picking it up she decided to google the name and found a war record online. And when she searched again using the full name, what came up first was a recent article in the JC about Spare Room Sorted.
As regular readers may recall, this was a project that I launched last month to help people in Britain to declutter their homes if they were preparing to house a refugee from Ukraine. I dedicated it to my paternal grandfather Hyman (Chaim) Poberevsky and outlined the backstory on the website. And his was the name marked on the shell casing so the collector reached out to me with a carefully worded email, inquiring gently if my grandfather might have served in the Great War.
After a rapid exchange of emails and an emotional phone call, I drove down to Bagshot in Surrey the next day to meet Eugenie Brooks. She welcomed me like an old friend and we spent a riveting afternoon in her beautiful garden, sharing stories. I told her about my grandfather who fled from Ukraine in 1907 at the age of 18 to escape antisemitism. He settled in the East End of London and after working for two years was able to bring his parents and four siblings to England too. During the First World War he served in the labour corps of the British Army and was awarded two campaign medals for his service — the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. His name is also recorded in the 1922 British Jewry Book of Honour.
After the war my grandfather married and set up a barrow-hiring business in Petticoat Lane Market. The family name was shortened in 1934 when he opened “Pope’s Garage”. My father would often recount how my grandfather had gone door-to-door to find homes for Jewish children rescued from Nazi-occupied Poland by the Kindertransport shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. The Popes also “adopted” a 10-year old girl from Danzig, my beloved Auntie Esther. It was these memories that inspired Spare Room Sorted.
I showed Eugenie a book published by my Israeli cousin Michael Gal who has tirelessly researched the Pope family history. It includes a rare photograph of my grandfather in military uniform and a copy of his service records. Eugenie marvelled at these images because apparently most service records from the First World War were destroyed when London was bombed in the Blitz.
In turn, Eugenie spoke with pride about her own family’s military background. Her grandfather served in the Rifle Brigade in the First World War and her father Flight Sergeant John Brooks was a pilot in the Second World War. She served for over 30 years in the police; her career ranged from managing traffic to firearms security at Windsor Palace. She’s also volunteered for many years for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and now leads tours of battlefields in France and Belgium as well as tours of Cracow and Auschwitz.
As she handed me the shiny, brass ’18-pounder’ artillery shell case that my grandfather either made or bought 103 years ago in Ypres, we both fought back tears.
Sadly I never met my grandfather because he died in 1958, before I was born. But thanks to Eugenie – and to the JC — this extraordinary piece of art has been returned to our family.