The Norfolk travel boss who escaped Nazi Germany

The Norwich Civic Association's St George's dinner, held at the Great Hospital. From left, Sheriff o

The Norwich Civic Association's St George's dinner, held at the Great Hospital. From left, Sheriff of Norwich, Graham Creelman; speaker, Joe Stirling; and The Lord Mayor, Keith Driver. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

Those of you of a certain age will remember the Norwich blitz and the bombing raids across Norfolk and Suffolk during the Second World War…now those days of blood and tears have returned to Europe.

Turn the clock back to the 1930s and it was Jewish people trying to escape from Nazi Germany as Hitler launched his own war on them – and the rest of the world.

It is appalling to see that in the 21st century the long march to freedom and peace is happening all over again because of the actions of an evil dictator in Russia.

And while many women and children are escaping, they are leaving loved ones to fight for their freedom. Many have already lost their lives.

Today I would like to pay tribute to a gentleman who died two years ago at the age of 95…his name was Joe Stirling. It was a privilege and an honour to call him a friend.

We can all be proud that Joe Stirling arrived in Norfolk. His story of survival captured our imagination, and he became a much-loved and respected gentleman who devoted much of his life to helping others.

Born Gunter Stern he was a Jewish boy growing in 1930s Nazi Germany where the tide of hatred was building by the day.

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An enemy in his own land, he was aged 10 when, as he cycled near his home, a lad in the same village wearing a Hitler Youth shirt set his dog on him. For the first time he felt real fear in his own street.

Aged just 14 he walked alone from his home in Koblenz to try and reach England only to be turned back at the Hook of Holland…because he didn’t have a visa.

He was helped by a Dutch police officer to write for a visa and then smuggled back to Koblenz.

Joe Stirling and his Lions work. date: 1979. Picture: EDP Library

Joe Stirling and his Lions work. date: 1979 - Credit: Archant

Eventually he got one and managed to climb aboard the last Kindertransport train out of Cologne - one of the Jewish children saved by the offer of a home in Britain.

There was an emotional farewell on the platform at the station with his mother and father who arranged the journey to safety.

The last words he heard his father whisper to his mother as she struggled for composure were: “Don’t forget what you promised me – no tears until he is gone.”

He never saw them again. They were taken to a concentration camp along with other members of the family.

Young Joe arrived in this country and was looked after by kind and friendly people in North Wales and Gloucester and at the first opportunity joined the army – to join the fight for freedom.

Gunter became Joe and fell in love with Jean Skitmore of Attleborough…moving to Norfolk.

We are fortunate that he did.

He worked as an agent for the Labour Party in the early 1950s and in a foreword to a book about his life and times called escaping Hitler: A Jewish Boy’s Quest for Freedom by Phyllida Scrivens, Shirley Williams wrote the foreword praising Joe saying: 'The boy from the Rhineland had become a Norfolk man'.

Joe was never one to stand still. He went on to form his own famous tour company with offices in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and other parts of the country – Stirling Travel, providing work for more than 70 people.

He took holidaymakers across the world...and back to a very different Germany.

He was an extraordinary man and a bundle of energy. Goodness knows how much money he raised helping others in so many different ways.

A leading member of Norwich Lions Club for more than half a century, he helped to set up the Norwich Volunteer Bureau which became Voluntary Norfolk, and worked for many different charities and good causes.

It was a February lunchtime in 1975 when Joe ( a great Canaries fan) received a phone call from his friend Sir Arthur South asking him if he would like to be the next Sheriff of Norwich.

Phyllida Scrivens launching her book 'Escaping Hitler', with 91-year-old Joe Stirling, who is the ma

Phyllida Scrivens launching her book 'Escaping Hitler', with Joe Stirling - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

He had been chosen because of his tireless services to the voluntary sector in Norwich….and how the people loved him.

Joe told us at the time: “Though I have travelled the world extensively, there is no other place than Norwich I would rather live.”

A loving husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather, dear Joe died peacefully two years ago…we will remember him.

And he would want us to offer the hand of friendship to those escaping from war today. 

Escaping Hitler: A Jewish Boy’s Quest for Freedom and his Future by Phyllida Scrivens published in 2016 by Pen and Sword is a fascinating read and signed copies are available by contacting