by Dr Bea Lewkowicz, Director, Refugee Voices Testimony Archive of The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR)
I received an e-mail earlier this year from Jo Willer who had heard from The Wiener Library about our project to record video testimonies of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. She asked if we would be interested to interview her father, Paul Willer, who had come to Britain as a ten-year old refugee from Wuerzburg. My camera man and I drove to Mr Willer's home, one of a row of cottages near Cirencester in Gloucestershire. He seemed very pleased to meet us; we had a cup of tea together and he showed us his collection of beautiful clocks before we recorded his story.
I was surprised when Paul told us that when he first arrived in the UK, on an endorsed visa by the British consul in Frankfurt, he had been hosted by Clement Attlee and his family, the then leader of the Labour opposition. He just told us this as part of his fascinating life history and didn’t make a big deal out of it. He then went on to say that after a few months with the Attlee family, he moved on to a boarding school in Northern Ireland and lost touch with them.
After the interview, I started to Google Attlee and found no reference to the fact that he had hosted a Jewish refugee from Germany. I did find out, however, that one of Attlee’s grandsons was a Conservative peer in the House of Lords, Earl Attlee, and that there is also a grand-daughter of Attlee’s who is a Lib Dem Councillor for South Somerset, Jo Roundell Greene.
A few months later I met Jo Willer for coffee and she gave me the memoir written by her grandmother Franziska Willer, a doctor and trained midwife. The memoir describes in great detail the story of her escape from Germany and how her two boys were fostered by two families in Stanmore, one of them the Attlees.
That was when the idea was born to bring Paul together with Jo Roundell Greene and Earl Attlee. When the AJR was planning the anniversary debate of the Kindertransport in Parliament in November 2018, it seemed the perfect occasion for this reunion and my colleagues from the AJR set the wheels in motion. I was privileged to be present in the lobby of the House of Lords with Jo Roundel Greene and Lord Attlee when they were waiting for Paul Willer to arrive.
Jo Roundell Greene told me that she hadn’t known that her grandfather had taken in a refugee child, and was very excited to find out more. It was an emotional moment when Paul and Jo Willer arrived and greeted Jo Roundell Greene and Lord Attlee. The first thing Paul said to Lord Attlee was, ‘You look exactly like your grandfather!’. Chief Executive of AJR Michael Newman and I then joined everyone for tea at the House of Lords. Jo Roundnell Greene showed photos of her mother and her siblings at the house in Stanmore, where Paul had lived when he was with the Attlees. Paul told them that he fondly recalls his time with the Attlees and that he communicated with Jo’s mother in Latin, as he did not speak any English when he arrived.
After tea we were greeted by the Speaker of the House, John Bercow and the press. There was a lot of interest in the story. The journalists asked many questions and Paul did his best to recall details of his stay with the Attlees. I was very happy to present Jo Roundell Greene and Lord Attlee with a DVD of Paul’s Refugee Voices interview on this memorable occasion. The next day, Paul Willer was on all the major news channels and the story was also picked up abroad. It was even tweeted by the Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson.
I am personally very pleased to have had the opportunity to facilitate this emotional reunion between the Willer family and the Attlee family. To me, as an academic, this encounter illustrates the enormous power of oral history. If Paul Willer had not told us his story, the fact that he stayed with the Attlee family might have remained hidden. While the press simplified the story, the nuanced story of Paul’s life is publicly available in the Refugee Voices Testimony Archive. Even if other stories do not involve such well known figures as Clement Attlee, I hope that future researchers will find similar surprises in the stories we have recorded for our archive.