Memory and Humanity: Dame Stephanie Shirley
28 January 2015
In 1939 Dame Stephanie Shirley’s father, a distinguished German judge, tried to prepare his daughters for a new life in England by teaching them some useful phrases. ‘Slow-combustion-cooker’ was one. Another was ‘wined-screen-wiper’. Stephanie was five years old; her elder sister, Renate, was nine. The girls were leaving Vienna on one of the Kindertransport trains bringing Jewish children out to London Liverpool Street Station. They did not know anyone else, they did not even know how to ask for the loo, but they made it to England, sleeping on corrugated cardboard laid out the floor, or sometimes in luggage racks, occasionally frightened by interruptions from uniformed guards, and remembering above all the oily smell of the sea and the nauseous night crossing. When they arrived at Liverpool Street station, ‘we spilled out, speechless and wide-eyed, as if in a dream’. Each child had a luggage label around their neck, as if they were lost luggage, ‘which in a sense we were’, she says.
Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russian Red Army – now Holocaust Memorial Day – and Dame Stephanie was speaking at London’s Wiener Library, the world’s oldest Holocaust archive, under the theme of ‘Keeping the Memory Alive’. For Dame Stephanie, memory has proved complex. Arriving at such a young age, her memories of her journey and arrival are emotional as well as factual. Was the platform really silent, as she remembers but now doubts it could have been? Were the trains really sealed, as she has read, although she recalls one boy being repeatedly sick outside?
More than this, while Dame Stephanie vividly remembers her father’s last attempts to teach them a little English, perhaps as much as a distraction during their desperate farewell as anything else, she found that in England she soon ‘deliberately forgot’ her German. She quickly bonded with her warm foster family, her aunty and uncle – people who did not know her but had saved her and her sister, and who joyfully took on the role of parents. Brought up within the Church of England, she now has no faith. Incredibly, both her Jewish father and Gentile mother survived the war, but although Dame Stephanie spent time with them individually, she did not live with them again. In 1951, she and her mother adopted an English name when they took British citizenship – choosing Brooke after the quintessentially English poet. ‘I found that name change empowering’, Dame Stephanie says, and so much did she inhabit her new name that once, when post arrived under her German name, she had reached the second flight of stairs to her apartment before she realized it was meant for her. As an adult she even found herself giving 1939 as her date of birth on official forms, ‘entirely subconsciously’.
Since then Dame Stephanie has taken steps to remember her past. She, her sister and mother returned to Vienna to meet old friends. Their mother had sentimental memories of the city, but Dame Stephanie found strangers asking her whether she was from the camps – so rare was it to see a Jewish face. At that point she knew that Vienna meant nothing to her, and ‘felt the weight of the past vanish’. She and her sister passed time wondering, as people walked by, ‘what were you doing when they threw stones at me’.
Dame Stephanie vowed to make hers ‘a life worth saving’. Brilliant at maths and business and fascinated by computers she set up a pioneering software company. Seeing the numbers of women now out of work, she promoted innovative home-working and flexible hours for an all-female workforce. She gave 25% of her company to the team, and they built it together, until in 2001 many were millionaires and Dame Stephanie herself was on the Sunday Times female rich list, just a few places below the Queen. She is no longer on that list. She reinvested over £15 million in IT and donated £50 million to autism organizations, following the death of her only son who was autistic.
Dame Stephanie is proud of her Jewish heritage but chose to become aligned not with refugee organizations or Jewish groups, but with IT development and autism, the passions of her life. She has chosen her own identity, but that does not mean she wishes to forget her past or has a simplistic view of who she is. When asked why she did not choose to live in Israel she has replied that she is not Jewish. When asked why she does not visit as a tourist, she says she feels she cannot go as a tourist because she also is Jewish.
Dame Stephanie says her terror of persecution was deep-rooted. For a long time she felt such hatred, bound up with survivors’ guilt, that she could not revisit her past. But although seeing images of Auschwitz are still almost more than she can bear, last night she said that, ‘Germany has made impressive efforts to come clean with its Nazi past’ and ‘it is precisely for people like me to reach out’.
It is important both to honour the memory of those killed, of those who resisted, and those who had no such opportunity, and also to work towards preventing the repetition of atrocities. Another former kindertransport veteran at the Wiener Library event told me that Hitler had been encouraged by the lack of international memory of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915. Remembering makes repetition less possible.
Dame Stephanie’s life talks of courage, determination, identity and above all humanity. Asked about growing anti-Semitism she talks also about rising anti-Muslim feeling, and her opinion that that some politicians are doing Britain ‘an enormous disservice’ by pushing anti-immigration. ‘My own belief,’ she told me at the end of the talk, ‘is that people are people, and most people are just trying to get on with their own lives’. What we need to do is take small steps against intolerance.
Not so long ago, Dame Stephanie, now in her 80s, was driving through the countryside when she saw a large swastika painted on a barn. Her first reaction was horror, a rush of painful memories. Her second was to find the farmer and explain how this graffiti made her feel, and how important it was to get it removed. The farmer did not consider it his responsibility. She then went to the local police station with similar lack of result. Finally she bought a large tin of paint, got up at 4am the next morning, and went and painted over it herself. I will remember her example.