A story of overcoming adversity during one of humanity’s darkest hours.
In the sleepy village of Koblenz, Germany, a young boy named Josef played happily, oblivious to the storm of propaganda brewing across the country. No one could have foreseen the horrors, prejudice and discrimination that was to come, cruelly destroying lives and communities in the process. Josef was to be one of the millions of children from all over the world (most of them young boys) who would one day be swept up in the tragedy of war.
In 1936, three years before Germany declared war, enrolment into the Hitler Youth was made compulsory for all young people. Josef, then 15, was no exception to the rule and, on one occasion, witnessed one of Hitler’s infamous propaganda speeches in person. He went on, like all boys (for that is what they were) to honour the call-up to fight for his country in 1940.
Thousands of miles away, in Derbyshire, 11-year-old Rebecca, fondly know as Betty, was in school. Sadly, Betty and her friends were robbed of a carefree childhood and were instead forced to practice timed Air-raid evacuations to the nearest Anderson shelter.
As children, Betty and Josef didn’t know it yet, but their paths would cross many years later…
After Germany invaded Greece, Josef, now a young man, was stationed in Crete. While he was there, Germany was in the early stages of its defeat. It was ordered that any German soldier was to be hung if caught and so Josef, along with his comrades, handed themselves into the American army. He was shipped to Germany, then Belgium, and, eventually, Derbyshire as a Prisoner of War.
Fortunately, Josef was known for being a ‘character’ and, occasionally, he was able to talk his way round the guards until they let him and his friends out for a cheeky drink at the local pub. It was here that he struck up a friendship with an older gentleman. They soon found mutuality, as the man was also German and had stayed in Derbyshire after being as Prisoner of War during WW1.
As Britain began to rebuild itself after the war, an appeal was staged for locals to invite a Prisoner of War to tea. Although it was a bold and uncertain move, the queue for volunteers was said to have stretched for miles. Josef’s new friend invited him to meet his family, including his daughter: Betty, now a beautiful young woman. In the months that followed, Josef would sneak out a hole in the fence at the prison camp to visit her. Eventually, he was allowed to apply for a working licence in Britain and the two married.
Josef found work as a farmer, working seven days a week, 365 days a year, caring for a menagerie of animals. Betty, a true woman of her time, became head of the household when they settled in a humble, yet happy, home in Nottingham. Over the years, they welcomed five children, and later became grandparents to 14 (of which I am one). I have fond memories of visiting them at their home: of my Grandma scolding my Grandad for teaching me German curse words, the roses in the garden which my Grandad was so proud of, and the ever-stocked ‘magic cupboard’ of chocolate. Many years came and went, many happy memories made, tears shed, and babies born.
In January 2007, as the final pines had fallen from the browning Christmas trees, Betty fell ill.
Shortly after, Josef fell and broke his hip. They died a mere 5-months apart. Although both deaths were dealt with swiftly and written off as old-age and circumstance, it has never been disputed between those that truly knew Josef that he died of a broken heart.
At Marriage Care, our focus is supporting clients irrespective of their background, class and status. Our aim is to guide clients as they take their vows and support them through the hard times. Josef and Betty, a couple who looked past their differences and instead embraced their diversity, were married for 49 years. They were very much looking forward to receiving their 50th wedding anniversary telegram from the Queen, but sadly never got there. I like to think they are still fondly bickering somewhere together, reunited.
It would be easy to resign life to a few possessions and faded photographs but, do we ever really die? For Josef and Betty, their legacy continues, as their family continues to grow, with 33 great-grandchildren (and counting). Continuing to pay our respects on Remembrance Day ensures that future generations will always know of the many men and women who paid the ultimate price in the line of duty to ensure we can live – and love – freely.
Written by Rachael O’Brien
National Support Administrator for Counselling