A persecution foreign to Wales

Ned Thomas reflects on our shared web of interconnected European lives

Heini Gruffudd’s Yr Erlid is the story of Kate Bosse and her family. She came to Britain as a refugee from Nazi Germany in October 1937, a brilliant young Egyptologist who while working at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford met a young Welsh student of the same subject, J. Gwyn Griffiths, the son of a Nonconformist minister. Had they not married soon before the outbreak of war, Kate, as a German citizen, would almost certainly have been interned. Instead, she and her husband moved to the Rhondda where she learnt Welsh and was soon active, alongside her husband, in nationalist, pacifist and literary circles. On the evidence of this volume, Kate Bosse-Griffiths was the organising force behind the Cadwgan literary circle which met in the Rhondda during the war years, one of whose most celebrated members, Pennar Davies, married another German refugee in 1943.

After a period in Y Bala where Kate helped German prisoners of war interned there, the couple moved to Swansea where J. Gwyn Griffiths became Professor of Egyptology, and Kate became curator of the Egyptian antiquities collections now known as the Egypt Centre in the university. She was the author of novels, short stories and several works of  non-fiction in Welsh. They had two sons, each of whom has left his mark on Welsh society:  Heini,  the author of this volume, through his indefatigable work for the Welsh schools movement and the teaching of Welsh to adults; and Robat, founder of Y Lolfa, the publishers of this volume.

But the present volume, though it provides a lively picture of the young Kate after she arrived in Britain, is mainly concerned with the family she left behind in Germany. Its title translates as ‘the persecution’ and it is a tragic story, and all the more frightening because it shows Nazism at work not only in the monstrous spectacle of the trains carrying millions to the camps, but in the seeming normality of the life of the small town of Wittenberg. Kate’s father, Dr Bosse, was a well-respected doctor in the local hospital and became known more widely for his treatment of patients after an accident in the local explosives factory killed 120 workers and badly burnt others. Hitler visited the hospital at that time and accompanied Dr Bosse on his rounds. There is a photograph of them together in the book.

Kate’s mother, however, came from a Jewish family and was Jewish by blood but not by religion. Two generations earlier, the family had converted to Lutheran Protestantism. Wittenberg, of course, is the town most closely associated with Martin Luther whose sickeningly anti-semitic writings were used by the Nazis in their campaigns against Jews. In the 1930s leading Lutheran bishops joined the National Socialist Party and it was during this period that the town was renamed Lutherstadt Wittenberg. Heini Gruffudd makes us aware of all this. Neither does he overlook the irony that the Welsh Nonconformist culture which welcomed Kate acknowledged its debt to Luther and sang his hymns in chapel.

Kate’s mother’s family were as assimilated  into German society as it was possible to be and at quite a high social level. They were patriotic Germans during and after the First World War, but once the Nazi party came to power the net began to close around them. In 1937 Kate lost her first job as an Egyptologist at the Berlin State Museum when a colleague drew the authorities’ attention to the Jewish blood on one side of her family. That is when she moved to Britain. In 1938 her cousin Eva Monika came home from school to find that her mother Eva (Kate’s aunt) had hanged herself. She was married to an officer in the German army who had been told he would receive no promotion while he was married to a Jew and that their children would be considered Jews unless they divorced. Eva Monika believes that her mother killed herself to save her family.

Kate’s father too lost his job at the hospital and was invited to divorce his wife, which he refused to do. He managed to set up a private clinic and it seems that the Gestapo were long unwilling to move against him because of the respect he enjoyed in the local community. But their chance came after the unsuccessful bomb plot against Hitler in 1944. The Bosse family had no connection whatsoever with the plot or with the von Stauffenberg circle, but the event offered a pretext to arrest Kate’s parents. Her mother was sent to the notorious women’s prison camp at Ravensbrück where she died in dreadful conditions. Her father survived the war but died soon after.

These are just Kate’s immediate family and the most dramatic events. The book covers more ground including the story of her mother’s second cousin Kurt Ledien who was drawn into the student underground resistance to Hitler, arrested and executed at the very end of the war. And the story does not end with the war since Wittenberg passed into the Soviet zone which presented surviving members of the family with new problems.

Heini Gruffudd has handled a far-flung story and a mass of documentation with a proper balance of personal involvement and objective distance. History is viewed close up as a  complex web of interconnected individual lives which in this case span more than one country. It makes us aware of a shared European history in which an experience of terrible loss in one place nevertheless in time is turned to social gain in another.

Ned Thomas spent part of his childhood in the ruins of post-war Germany, an experience described in his recent memoir Bydoedd, Welsh-language book of the year 2011. Heini Gruffudd’s Yr Erlid is published by Y Lolfa at £12.95.

Also within Culture