A tribute to dad

Sandie - dad in the army.jpgSandie Gordon, our Resident Communications Manager, shares the story of her German-Jewish father's difficult experiences in Germany shortly before the outbreak of World War Two, and how they influenced his decision to join the British Army.

"Remembrance Day always brings back memories of my family history. This is a tribute to my dad Alan Bright (formerly Horst Gunther Breitbart).

Dad was born in 1925 in Berlin to a Jewish family. The family owned five large shops in Berlin selling ladies hats – a very good business as everyone wore hats.

Once Hitler came to power in 1933 things got gradually worse for Jewish people and it because more and more difficult to run the business. Jewish shops were targetted and windows smashed. Jews had to wear yellow star badges, were not allowed to go into shops or restaurants, and many were arrested at the slightest provocation. Even my dad’s best friend he grew up with was no longer allowed to speak to him because of his religion. 

Very few countries would accept those Jews who wanted to leave Germany. Anybody who left had to go with nothing, leaving behind any goods or money. As it became impossible to continue the business my dad’s grandparents, who were in their sixties, both committed suicide, as no country would take them as refugees. 

As things became worse my grandfather became ill with tuberculosis. He was not allowed to go to the mountains to get cured (pre antibiotics) because he was Jewish and so died through lack of treatment in 1939 aged 36.

By this time more and more people were being arrested and taken away to concentration camps. The Jewish authorities organised a scheme to get children out of Germany known as the ‘Kinder-Transport’. About 120 children went each time about once a week, but they had to have people in England who would look after them until they were 18.

Due to his father’s death, my dad and his little brother (aged 13 and 9) got priority to come to England in May 1939 leaving their mother behind in Berlin. This was just three and a half months before the war started and just in time to escape.

Fortunately at a later date my grandmother managed to get out too through having the right connections, and came to England to be a housemaid for a Jewish family. This was tough on her as she had previously had her own maids. 

After a long journey the two boys were taken in by the most amazing Christian family from Sheffield who looked after them, encouraged them to keep their religion, and educated them until they were old enough to make their own way in the world. My family owed these fantastic people such a debt of gratitude that a strong bond was forged between the two families and we spent as much time as possible with them up until they passed away.

Once dad had mastered the language, he excelled academically and did well at school. He went on to become a Draughtsman and Engineering Manager at a large textile mill in Oldham.

At 18 though he decided he wanted to give something back to the country that had adopted him as a refugee, and so went into the Army in the Duke of Wellingtons.

Sandie - dad in the army Deolali.jpgAfter a short period of training, he was selected to become an officer, a Lance Corporal. In June 1944 he was sent out to Bombay, a journey that took 6 weeks by ship as they had to go in convoy for the protection against U boats. From Bombay he was sent to Deolali, which was at that time the main British Army transit camp.

He was later posted to Kohima to join the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. Kohima is a small town on the north east border between India and Burma and was the place that the Japanese reached when trying to invade India. There were famous and fierce battles at Kohima with many British casualties, but it was the place where the Japanese were repelled and pushed back into Burma.

Dad was in charge of an Indian division consisting of Ghurkhas, Sikhs and King's Own Scottish Borderers. They managed to push the Japanese back along the Irrawaddy River all the way to Mandalay. Not long afterwards the Americans dropped the atom bombs and the Japanese surrendered.

Promoted to Sergeant at the tender age of 20, Dad then went on to serve in Kandy in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Bangkok, Burma and Singapore, helping to free the prisoners of war held by the Japanese who worked on the Burma railway. He is the proud owner of a Burma Star medal.

Dad is now 91 and getting more frail. He gets very emotional about his youth and his army days. He has never let his difficult start in life hold him back.

He now watches the Remembrance Day ceremony with tears in his eyes and a strong sense of pride, remembering those who were left behind in Germany and comrades he lost. My dad is a quiet gentle man and a true gentleman, and his story and those of others like him should never be forgotten. He is a survivor and my family’s hero and I am proud to be his daughter."

Sandie - dad and the family.jpgThree generations together - mum, dad, me and my children Sam and Sasha at dad’s 90th birthday party in 2014