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Obituary: Joe Stirling, former Sheriff of Norwich, who fled Nazi Germany

PUBLISHED: 17:51 12 February 2020 | UPDATED: 17:53 12 February 2020

Joe Stirling 
holding his only photograph of his parents.

picture by Adrian Judd

Joe Stirling holding his only photograph of his parents. picture by Adrian Judd

Joe Stirling was the only survivor of an entire family wiped out in Nazi Germany. He found refuge in Britain and went on to serve his adopted city as a charity fundraiser and Sheriff of Norwich. He died this week aged 95.

The launch of Phyllida Scrivens book 'Escaping Hitler', about the life of Joe Stirling.  Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe launch of Phyllida Scrivens book 'Escaping Hitler', about the life of Joe Stirling. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Joe Stirling escaped from Nazi Germany twice as a child. He was just 14 when he waded a river and walked for a week through Luxemburg and Belgium to the Netherlands, only to be sent back to Koblenz. His life was saved by a place on the final Kindertransport train from Cologne to sanctuary in Britain.

Joe spent the rest of his life repaying the kindness of strangers, devoting much of his spare time to charity fundraising and fostering links between people and nations.

He was born Gunter Stern in a village near Koblenz. The only Jewish child in the community, he was nine when a boy he had known all his life, set a dog on him. It was his first encounter with the hatred which was engulfing his country. Soon he had to leave school, and his father was forced into slave labour. Joe found work on a farm but his parents, terrified by the regime that had destroyed their peaceful rural existence, applied for a place for him on the Kindertransport. As the restrictions and humiliations gathered and no visa to travel arrived, Joe feared he would be trapped in Germany and, leaving a note for his parents, ran away. He trudged anxious, hungry and alone, through Luxemburg, Belgium and Holland, desperate to reach the freedom he had heard might exist in England.

A Dutch policeman discovered him and, knowing that if the child had arrived at the Hook of Holland without a visa he would almost certainly have been refused. Instead he helped Joe write to officials in England then smuggled him back to Koblenz. Less than a week later Joe's ticket arrived. Joe's twin cousins might have survived too, but neither Joe nor his cousins had ever seen the sea and one was so terrified of going on a boat that she refused to leave.

Joe Stirling helped raise tens of thousands of pounds for charity with the Lions. Picture: EDP Library 1979Joe Stirling helped raise tens of thousands of pounds for charity with the Lions. Picture: EDP Library 1979

Joe never saw his parents or cousins or aunt and uncle again. The last words he heard his father say were whispered to his mother as she struggled for composure on the station platform. "Don't forget what you promised me - no tears until he is gone."

For two years their letters reached him via the Red Cross. Then his mother wrote that they were being moved to Poland. He never discovered which extermination camp they were sent to in railway cattle trucks, which gas chamber they were pushed into, or where their bodies were incinerated, with the 327 other Jews still in Koblenz.

The only physical memento of their existence is a single photograph, taken on their wedding day, treasured through his own escape from Germany, his teenage years with a foster family, and on to his own home in Norwich.

Joe was always hugely grateful to the family who took him in and thrived at the school they found for him, but as soon as he was old enough, he volunteered to join the Army, anxious to play his part in the fight against Hitler. It was here he was given a new, British-sounding name but a training injury left him unable to fight, so he worked in an ammunition depot before being transferred to the education corps at the end of the war, where he found himself teaching young British serviceman about their language and democracy.

Shire Horses pull the civic coach carrying Sheriff of Norwich, Joe Stirling in 1976. Picture: EN LibraryShire Horses pull the civic coach carrying Sheriff of Norwich, Joe Stirling in 1976. Picture: EN Library

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The following year he and his sweetheart, Jean, married in her home town of Attleborough and the couple settled in Norfolk. Joe's interest in politics led him to join the local Labour Party and he became the constituency agent for central Norfolk and then the two Norwich constituencies.

A keen Norwich City fan he also loved classical music. He joined the Lions too, helping to raise tens of thousands of pounds for charities. He also co-ordinated voluntary work around Norwich and was made Sheriff of Norwich in 1975.

Inspired by friends who asked him to help them plan a trip to Germany he became a travel agent. Stirling Holidays eventually had offices in Norwich, Yarmouth, Cromer, Sheringham - and even Scotland when some of Joe's oil industry clients relocated to Aberdeen. Joe sat on the national committee of travel association Abta and worked into his 70s, when the business was eventually sold.

Joe Stirling will be one of the real life books at the Human Library event.
copy pic of his parents.

picture by Adrian JuddJoe Stirling will be one of the real life books at the Human Library event. copy pic of his parents. picture by Adrian Judd

Joe and Jean had four children, and Joe, who was widowed 15 years ago, leaves six grandchildren, five great grandchildren, and many friends.

Phyllida Scrivens' biography of Joe is called Escaping Hitler. She said: "Together we researched and wrote up his life story, then presented and shared the stories with groups all over the county, often working as a double act until he decided he could no longer accompany me. He was a very special person and I was privileged to know him so well. Everyone loved Joe. I will miss him."

Joe's son Ian said: "He remained positive to the end looking for the good in people and would like to be remembered as someone who was active in his community."

His son, Martin, said: "As a travel agent he travelled all over the world but he always said he had never seen anywhere he would rather live than Norwich."

Liberal Democrat campaigners welcome Baroness Shirley Williams to Norwich where she met activists, candidates and her former colleague Joe Stirling.  Picture by SIMON FINLAY.Liberal Democrat campaigners welcome Baroness Shirley Williams to Norwich where she met activists, candidates and her former colleague Joe Stirling. Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

Joe Stirling, born Gunter Stern in Germany in 1924, died in Norwich on Sunday February 9, aged 95. His funeral will be held at GreenAcres, Colney, at 3pm on Friday March 6.

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