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Monday, 22 September 2014

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How fleeing the Nazis opened a door to Alf’s lifetime in politics

The flash of a swastika on the arm of a German soldier. His mother’s anxious face peering back at him from the platform.

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PASSIONATE ABOUT POLITICS: Lord Alfred Dubs, life peer and former MP for Battersea, who fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia at the age of six, at his home in High Lorton

Prague at night through the train window.

These are the memories of Lord Alfred Dubs, 78, the life peer and former MP for Battersea now living in the village of High Lorton near Cockermouth.

“It was a traumatic parting,” he recalls.

“For the older children, who knew what was happening, I expect it would be even more traumatic. For me it was bewildering.”

An elegant man, with rheumy eyes and a strong face, answers the door to his Lakeland cottage where he lives with wife Ann.

Lord Dubs, who has two grown-up children, now divides his time between Cumbria and the House of Lords.

He fell in love with the Lake District many years ago and describes fell-walking as his idea of heaven.

Baron Dubs is his formal title but you can call him Alf.

“I don’t like titles,” he explains. “If you have a title people either treat you deferentially or they think you’re a complete nerd. Neither helps when you are talking to people.”

He is well spoken but occasionally his consonants give away his central European origins.

It is now more than 70 years since his exodus from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on board the Kindertransport which ferried hundreds of mostly Jewish children to safety before the outbreak of World War Two.

Some of them would never see their parents again. He was aged six.

His Jewish father had already fled to England when the Nazis invaded and met him in Liverpool Street Station in London.

His relatives were not so fortunate. Some were taken to concentration camps while another took cyanide.

Several months later, his non-Jewish mother was able to rejoin her son and husband, although not before a Gestapo thug had thrown her downstairs for having the audacity to ask for permission to leave the country.

The joyful reunion was to be short-lived. Alf’s father died shortly afterwards of a heart attack, which his son believes was brought on by the stress.

But Alf prefers to look forward rather than dwelling on the past.

He quickly realised that if politics could be a force for evil then it could also be a force for good.

“I was passionately interested in politics from an early age,” he says.

“I was trying to work out what had happened to me and came to the conclusion that if evil can cause so much harm perhaps other people could reverse the harm.

“I was concerned about the position of minorities and politics gives you a chance to argue for them.”

He has made a lifelong commitment to stamp out human rights abuses.

He has just returned from a parliamentary delegation to the West Bank and describes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of the biggest political sores in the world.

He has campaigned to ban cluster bombs, played a key ministerial role in Northern Ireland’s peace process and was the first genuine refugee to be head of the Refugee Council.

Closer to home, he has been trying to get more recognition and cash for the mountain rescue team.

But any mention of Alf’s political achievements, which are too numerous to list here, would be incomplete without reference to the man who saved his life.

Without English stockbroker Nicholas Winton – Britain’s answer to Oskar Schindler – none of this would have been possible.

It was he who masterminded the escape of 669 mostly Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Prague.

But Alf did not discover he was one of the “Winton children” until much later when the story was featured on an Esther Rantzen programme.

Since then, he has met his saviour, now 102, many times.

He says: “He is a great man. Anyone who saves your life must be a great man. Without him it is pretty unlikely that I would have survived.

“I had to assume that what happened to my uncle and aunt would have happened to me. I was Jewish enough for the Nazis.”

One of Alf’s earliest school memories is of being told to rip out a picture of the Czech president from a book and to replace it with one of Adolf Hitler. He also remembers German soldiers in Prague.

Surprisingly, it was not the military muscle of the Third Reich that made the biggest impression on him. It was the sight of women marching in army uniform through London and the grey barrage balloons in the skies overhead helping to defend the city’s inhabitants from the bombing raids of the Luftwaffe.

And to think that he had earlier expressed doubts that he would make an interesting subject for interview.

It is not that he thinks his story is boring, but that he finds people who seek out publicity for themselves “embarrassing”.

He seems relieved when told that the article will make it clear that it was me who looked him up, and not the other way around.

Publicity, he feels, should always be for a cause or an issue, not to feed the ego of an individual.

And so it is perhaps inevitable that the bulk of the interview is spent talking politics, from electoral reform of the House of Lords to the national pastime of vilifying our hard-working politicians.

It is a futile endeavour to separate a man like this from his politics. The two became inextricably linked more than 70 years ago when a frightened boy was bundled on to a train at night under the threat of Nazi persecution.

That was when his political journey began.

Have your say

As reported in The Jewish Chronicle and other publications, it was Trevor Chadwick and others who were equally responsible for the rescue of the Prague Jewish children. As Sir Nicholas (Winton) has/said and written "Trevor Chadwick was in a trickier situation: he managed things at the Prague end, organising the children and trains and dealing with the Gestapo...this work he continued...when it became more difficult and dangerous.... He deserves all praise".

Posted by mary teale on 1 May 2011 at 11:25

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