Life & Culture

Learning from the past - and my survivor mother


When John Browne was eight-years-old, he returned from school one day to find his parents’ house in Cambridge filled with the aroma of goulash. His mother was entertaining a group of refugees who had fled Hungary after the 1956 uprising.

As she conversed in their native language, it was the first time he had felt she was foreign, the former BP chief executive, now Lord Browne of Madingley, recorded in his memoir Beyond Business. From a mixed Hungarian-Jewish family, Paula Browne had not only been a refugee herself a decade before — she had survived a year in Auschwitz.

But she kept a firm lid on the past. “My mother didn’t approve of looking backwards,” he recalls to the JC at his Mayfair offices. “Until about a year before she died, she really didn’t talk about it. I think that was pretty well in common with many survivors. The future was the point. We had to learn from the past, but not dwell in it.”

When asked about her wartime ordeal, she would say: “‘I had a very interesting life until 1944. In 1945 I met your father.’ When you’d ask what happened in 1944-5, she’d say: ‘That wasn’t a life.’”

But it is the memory of her experiences, as much as he could piece them together, that have inspired him to take a leading role with the Holocaust Educational Trust. On Monday week he will be launching its Ambassadors programme, designed to ensure its mission continues into the next generation.

Only in “snippets” did he gain a glimpse of his mother’s past. A photograph might occasionally spark a story. And her experiences could explain certain anxieties.“My mother wouldn’t go underground, she wouldn’t go on the tube. She was terrified,” Lord Browne confides. “She didn’t like people touching her particularly. She got very nervous when people were too close to her. And she wouldn’t talk extensively on the telephone because she was confident that someone was listening.”

Born in 1917, Paula grew up in Oradea (reoccupied by Hungary during the war but now in Romania) after her Viennese-Jewish mother married a Catholic cattle farmer. “My mother said that her grandmother, who used to come and stay, would always think she’d married well below her status. And she would never talk to my mother’s father.” Paula was educated in Vienna, and started a business making hats and dresses back in Hungary. The Jews of Oradea were confined to a ghetto in the spring of 1944 and then transported to Auschwitz. “As best as I can tell, my mother was hiding people,” Lord Browne explains. “She said that when she was taken, she and a friend sewed jewels into their shoulder-pads to have enough, without fully understanding what was going to happen.”
In Auschwitz, she was put to work as a slave labourer in the munitions factory. Of her immediate family, only two of her five sisters — who subsequently went to Israel — and a brother survived.
But what she heard and saw in the camp she kept to herself. “Every time I pressed her, she’d say: ‘Not for you.’ She was very determined, even when I was much older, to protect me.”

After liberation, she worked as a translator for the Allies, which is how she to came to meet her husband John, a British Army captain who was part of the Allied administration in Europe. Lord Browne himself was born in Hamburg in 1948.

Yet despite his mother’s desire to put the past behind her, “she was unmistakeably Hungarian. In the 50s, she used to dress beautifully, whereas everyone in the UK was dowdy. She’d wear make-up — women didn’t wear make-up at that time. She spoke with a Hungarian accent until she died. So she wasn’t exactly blending into the crowd. When it would say wear black for an evening, she might decide to wear red.”

But when it came to non-conformism, “the reverse applied” to her son. “She didn’t want me to be anything other than English — just in case,” he recalls. At the age of 11, he was sent to an Anglican boarding school — “ghastly” — where “we had to worship every day. It didn’t matter what you believed. The most peculiar thing is I kept having more Jewish friends than not — I don’t know why.” When he was bullied, it was not because of any suspected Jewish descent. “I was bullied because one of my skills — which I have now lost — was I spoke German. I had a German nanny. At school, boys found out and said: ‘You’re a Kraut.’”

After his father died in 1980, his mother came to live with him until her death in 2000. Around 25 years ago, Lord Browne went on what he calls a “pilgrimage” to Auschwitz. It had been “important to go because it’s about the only way to commemorate my family. It seems more important to me as I get older.”

His mother did not accompany him. But later, and then in a wheelchair, she went with him to Yad Vashem during a trip to Israel and to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington.

The Washington visit, however, left her “remarkably unmoved. I was far more moved. When she put a candle on the Auschwitz memorial, I couldn’t contain myself [emotionally]. She was quite angry with me when I left. She said: ‘What’s wrong? It’s just a museum. It doesn’t smell. No noise!’”

When she was dying, he recalls her feeling “guilt-ridden” about her survival. In her final year she spoke more about her past with a family friend, one of the most eminent German-Jewish émigrés, Claus Moser. “I found out things I hadn’t discovered at her memorial service,” Lord Browne adds.

His concern now is with understanding the “dynamics of exclusion” and the responsibility of leaders for influencing the values of those who come under their sway. He is writing a book on homophobia — having tried to keep his personal life private, he was outed as gay six years ago in a chain of events which led to his resignation from BP.

“Inevitably — and I don’t know how — my book is clearly influenced by my background in more than one way,” he says. “I think my mother would not accept explicity that I was gay and I couldn’t talk to her about it. I think that was the last thing she wanted because she did not want to see happening to me what she had seen happen to other people. She had a model of what happens to people who are gay in Auschwitz.”

Earlier this month, Lord Browne went back to Auschwitz with his partner Nghi Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee, and more than 200 teachers on one of the educational trips organised by the HET. He will be mentoring some of the young ambassadors from the HET’s Lessons from Auschwitz programme, along with a number of other figures including anti-racism campaigner Doreen Lawrence and BBC political editor Nick Robinson.

He believes that unless the lessons drawn from the Holocaust are renewed for each generation, there is the risk of it becoming “just a page in the history book, like the Magna Carta. We need to keep learning the lessons, as the historical context changes. As an ambassador, that’s what I’m doing and I’ll lead some of these trips and make sure HET keeps doing what it does so well.”

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