• a searching and hopeful spirit

    'One of the things that we must take with us is the searching and hopeful spirit that always inspires us, as we consider what we should say about the events of these times.'

    These were the words of Hermann Ziock, a PoW at Featherstone Park, in his farewell speech as he was repatriated in January 1947. During his last months in the camp he had been much influenced by the Interpreter, Captain Herbert Sulzbach – the man the prisoners refered to as 'The Good Spirit of Featherstone'.

    Thirty five years after his captivity, Ziock published his diary of that period, and dedicated it to Sulzbach. As one of the editors of the camp newspaper, Ziock had his own sphere of influence and in its first issue he wrote,

    'There will be many who will look without hope and even despair upon their country and cannot believe that we can overcome the chaos of the time. We can not afford today to tire and give up or fall into passive pessimism.

    'The main thing we need is the truth about ourselves, and that we dare to say what must be said. By a spirit of democracy, we mean that freedom and respect for individuality which the most intellectual of Germans saw as the highest value of mankind; poets and philosophers with a world-wide reputation like Goethe or Schiller, Herder or Kant. We do not want propaganda and illusion that would mark our vision of reality. We want truth and outspokenness, not prejudice and hate, but objectivity and real teamwork.'

    It was Sulzbach who had encouraged the serious, educated, and thoughtful officers to consider the influence of the Enlightenment on an earlier Germany. Further inspiration came from the Camp Commandant. In his welcoming speech, Colonel Vickers always told the prisoners of his own imprisonment under the Germans during WW1. As Ziock noted,

    'He had been treated as a gentleman, which was unforgettable for him. In any case, he would do all that he possibly could to make our captivity easier.'

    When Vickers left the camp, Sulzbach told him, 'If I was able to do things for the sake of the PoW, it was through your inspiration.'

    Many years later, tributes were paid to Herbert Sulzbach by his many friends, one of whom wrote,

    'His simple but dedicated belief in the necessity for mankind to forgive and forget, and live together in harmony, is infectious. His generosity of spirit, an inspiration.'

    (Photo: sketch and plan of Featherstone camp by a PoW. Text © Ainslie Hepburn, with her translation of ‘Jeder geht seinen Weg allein. Tagebuch eines deutschen Kriegsgefangenen’, by Hermann Ziock, published in 1981 by J.G. Bläschke. Translations of newspaper articles by pupils at Haydon Bridge High School.)



  • being stubborn for a cause

    'In his gentlemanly way, he could be stubborn and persistent at times. But when he insisted, he was stubborn for a cause.'

    Everyone who knew Herbert Sulzbach discovered that he could be very tenacious. The above description was given by the then German Ambassador, Baron Rüdiger von Wechmar, at a memorial event for Sulzbach on 5 November 1985. Sulzbach's cause was well-known. As his friend, Eric Henderson, explained,

    'Everywhere he met people, he collected people – for a purpose. His purpose was reconciliation.'

    Baron von Wechmar was clear:

    'From the early post-war years as an education officer at Featherstone Park camp, through his long years at this Embassy, well into his retirement, he gave his energy, his time, his devotion – he gave everything – to that one goal; friendship between the two countries which were closest to his heart.'

    In an article in 1983, a 'Guardian' journalist noted that,

    'Sulzbach's faith in the possibilities and, of course, the importance of re-education gave him and his colleagues a steadfast moral purpose, enviable today when only fanatics, it sometimes seems, are certain they know the difference between right and wrong.'

    The journalist and broadcaster, Ludovic Kennedy, was often at the receiving end of Sulzbach's persistence:

    'Hardly a month went by in all of the fifteen years I knew him without him writing or telephoning or sending a sheaf of press cuttings to jog my elbow about a possible interview or film or article or introduction that would help forward his lifetime's task of bringing the British and German people closer together.'

    But this persistence was matched by great charm. As the politician Bernard Braine remembered,

    'I've never known such a magnetic personality. How many times he would come up to me, and he would buttonhole me and he would say, “My dear Bernard” in that lovely soft voice of his, and those marvellous blue eyes would light up, and his pink cheeks would glow, and the broadside would be delivered, you would fall into the water, and then he would fish you out with loving arms and you would simply have to listen to everything that he had to say. He was one of the biggest charmers I have ever known.'

    (photo: Herbert Sulzbach (lt.) and Ambassador von Wechmar 1984)

    text ©Ainslie Hepburn photo ©Rainer Dobbelstein



  • serving as a British soldier

    'For the first time I stood to attention when “God Save the King” was played.'

    It was November 1940 and Herbert Sulzbach had just found another way to fight Nazism – as a British soldier. On this occasion, he was at a church parade of his company. Most of his fellow soldiers attended the synagogue but Sulzbach – a non-religious Jew whose Service and Pay Book described him as 'Protestant' – went to the Anglican Cathedral with a few others.

    'Our Pioneer Company was a mixed confusion of Germans, Austrians, Poles and Czechs – all refugees from the Third Reich. There were men from all age groups from eighteen to fifty, and all professions – uneducated people and intellectuals, former civil servants and lawyers, young enthusiastic freedom fighters and older disillusioned men.'

    Most of them were Jews, and many – like Sulzbach – had been recently released from internment. Aged 46, he was one of the older men.

    'The drill is not easy for us older men. I am feeling my bones, but no doubt it is healthy.'

    At first, he found the constant company and the lack of any private life difficult. All 350 men had to get ready in forty-five minutes before breakfast,

    ' and there are always fifty of us in one little room to wash and shave – but this is a soldier's life.'

    His duties brought back many memories.

    'Yesterday my section had guard. It was a marvellous night; the moon rose behind a church, which was silhouetted against the sky. Then you saw far away on the horizon the flashes of guns and searchlights – a hundred or more miles away – and my thoughts again went back a quarter of a century. It seemed to me that no time had passed since then. I am back in uniform and the picture is the same – only I am on the other side!'

    And he was realistic about the dangers of his situation:

    'Please never write abroad, not even to a neutral country, that I have joined this country's army as all letters can reach a Nazi spy.'

    (photo: Herbert Sulzbach as a British soldier in 1943)

    (©text: Ainslie Hepburn, from Sulzbach papers ©photo: Yvonne Klemperer)



  • fighting right-wing politics in his own way

    'Laughter passes one by. There remains only sorrow and shame.'

    Otto Riese wrote this brief message on a postcard to Herbert Sulzbach a couple of days after an extreme racist attack by right-wing activists in Germany that came to be called 'Kristallnacht', from the shattered glass that littered the streets.

    At the time - mid-November 1938 - both men were in Switzerland. Sulzbach had fled from Germany because he was Jewish, and had been working in Basle for the previous three months to produce anti-Nazi propaganda and to campaign for opposition to Hitler. Riese (who was not Jewish) had chosen to relinquish his job in the German Ministry of Justice to become Assistant Professor of German Law at the University of Lausanne. The two men had been friends since their school days in Frankfurt.

    Sulzbach was enraged that British politicians seemed to misunderstand the mind-set of the German leader, and offered no opposition.

    'If Chamberlain has never read anything from “Mein Kampf”, is there no-one in the Foreign Office who knows Hitler's ideology?'

    With other German emigrés in Basle, he worked to produce written propaganda, such as

    'a brochure-style booklet in all languages of the world – short - with slogans about the crimes of the leaders of the Third Reich; no commentary – just let the actions speak for themselves, to enlighten the people – not the leaders – about this murderous Reich.'

    He wrote letter after letter to newspapers in Britain, France and Switzerland, and to the leaders of western European countries calling for co-operation and a united, positive resistance to extreme right-wing views.

    'The only concern now is to stir up the ordinary people and the humane people out of their lethargy, from their sleep and their resignation. It seems to me that all good Europeans, true friends of peace, should come together and it is that which I ask of you. Don't you think that something ought and could be done to make an organised propaganda for the truth? If we can manage to unite the spirits who fight for human rights, humanism, freedom - and can improve their activity - there is a justifiable hope that the poison can be successfully opposed.'

    He was not successful, but he had played as active a part as he could in fighting extreme right-wing politics.

    (photo: Herbert Sulzbach in the 1930s)

    (©text Ainslie Hepburn, from the Sulzbach papers ©photo Yvonne Klemperer)



  • looking to the future

    The day after Remembrance Day in 1982, Eric Henderson - the Headteacher of a school in Northumberland - wrote to Herbert Sulzbach to say,

    'I have been playing your message of peace from the tape, “Just for Today”, and the children are writing their thoughts and impressions of what you say.'

    Sulzbach and some of the men who had once been held as German PoW in nearby Featherstone Park kept in close contact with the youngsters at this school for several years. They sent messages by tape, wrote to the children, and visited when they were in the area. Remembrance Day was precious to Herbert Sulzbach as a reminder of past conflicts, but his focus was on the future – on the coming generations who could avert war and build peace. As a man who worked with him at the German Embassy explained,

    'Mr Sulzbach loved young people. He invested his time in young people because he said, “They are our future. If we can make them understand what wars can do, and not forget, we can make better people for tomorrow, and they have to understand the suffering. It's the attitude of the people that has to change.” Mr Sulzbach was thinking about the future.'

    Those who had been so much influenced by Herbert Sulzbach when they were prisoners agreed with him. Kurt Schwedersky was also in contact with the school children and after Sulzbach's death remembered how,

    'We used to speak of the Sulzbach spirit. We felt obliged to transmit this spirit and we tried to do it again and again, especially to the next generation. I myself could visit a school in Northumberland, and I was able to speak to the pupils about my experiences as a PoW at Featherstone Park and about the Sulzbach spirit. It is so consoling to know that Herbert Sulzbach has set in action something which will be continued beyond his death.'

    Another man, Engelbert Hoppe, who had been inspired by Sulzbach at Featherstone Park insisted that,

    'These stories should be told, because they show the spirit that Herbert passed on and that the torch has been passed on from people to people - from man to man, and to our generation.'

    (photo: Herbert Sulzbach (lt.) and Kurt Schwedersky at Haltwhistle Church, 1982)

    ©text Ainslie Hepburn ©photo Thomas Schwedersky



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On my blog I write about biography, Anglo-German reconciliation, and the life of Herbert Sulzbach.


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