Remembering Joe Stirling, one of our greatest citizens
- Credit: Adrian Judd/Archant Norfolk 2010
Joe Stirling, whose funeral is this Friday March 6, at Green Acres Woodland Burial, Colney, near Norwich, was a truly remarkable man
I first visited Joe Stirling on a sunny day in June 2010. He was elderly even then, his hearing failing, his movements slow, but his brain was sharp, his manner gentle and courteous, his story mind-blowing and world-changing.
Of all the people whose stories I have told in this newspaper, my interview with Joe is perhaps the one I remember best and now treasure most.
He had been a Sheriff of Norwich, a charity fundraiser all his adult life, a businessman and employer, a man who forged great friendships from unimaginable hate, a doer, a democrat, a dearly loved family man.
With his death, aged 95, Norwich has lost one of its greatest citizens. His funeral is this Friday March 6.
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Nine years ago we sat in his home, looking out on to a tree-filled back garden. It felt as if the events he was recounting should have filled the room with darkness and obliterated the sunshine outside. And yet, for every terrible memory, of hurt, hunger, fear, murder, destruction and genocide, Joe's exceptional personality conjured hope too.
He was born Gunter Stern in Germany in 1924. His dad, Alfred was a cattle trader and unofficial village vet, called out to tend to difficult calvings or injured horses. He had been a horseback messenger in World War One, wounded four times. He was also Jewish. At first it was of little significance that Joe was the only Jewish child in the village school. Later he could not go to school at all. When the horrors of Kristallnacht were unleashed across Germany, Joe remembered his father trying to show officials his war medals as he was dragged away.
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Gradually Joe realised there would be no future for him in Germany. He was 14 when he seized a chance to wade across a drought-diminished border river, and trudged, anxious, hungry and alone, through Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands, to try to reach the sea, which he had never seen, and then England, where he had heard Jewish children might survive. As he spoke he admitted his enduring shame that he had not told his parents. As I listened I thought of my own 14-year-old son, safe at school.
He never made it to the sea and his actual escape came a few weeks later, via the Kinderstransport trains. This time he did bid his parents farewell. He never saw them again.
His final contact with his family came in a letter from his mother sent via the Red Cross. They were being sent to Poland. Not a single relative survived the war - parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, all murdered.
Joe was forever grateful to the strangers who took him in. He learned English so quickly he won a place at university, but refused to go, preferring to join the British Army so that he could be part of the fight against the evil which had overcome his native country.
Joe could have withdrawn, gratefully, into the safety he felt so lucky to have found. Or his tragedy could have overwhelmed him, left as he was with a single photograph of his parents, his only link to his childhood.
Instead he reached out.
In the Army, immediately after the war, he taught British soldiers about the basics of their language and their democracy. In his adopted county of Norfolk, he became a constituency agent for the Labour Party, was a dedicated member of the Lions International, giving his time and energy to serve his own community and help charities worldwide, and he set up Stirling Travel, a business which encouraged travel and friendship, beginning with tours of the country which had once rejected him.
To me, it seemed unbelievable, unbearable that he would return but to Joe, it was essential.
Every time I see the poignant sculptures of Kindertransport children, at Liverpool Street Station and the Hook of Holland, I think of Joe. One holds a violin. Joe loved music passionately, and before horror overwhelmed his childhood he had played the violin. Even as his hearing failed many decades later he continued to host a group of friends to listen to recordings of his beloved operas.
It feels such an honour to have met Joe. In a comment beneath his obituary on this paper's website someone wrote: "Everyone who ever met Joe came away feeling special."
Truly he was a remarkable man who, to paraphase a saint, where there was hatred he sowed love; where there was despair, hope; where there was darkness, light.
Read more: Joe Stirling - obituary