Book : Leopard in my backyard
A Leopard in my backyard, and other tales, memories and experiences of the twentieth century from residents of A2 Housging Group's sheltered accommodation
I have always been interested in the stories and memories of our many sheltered housing residents, and find it fascinating to learn about their adventures and experiences spanning across the decades. They have lived through the most terrifying wars the world has ever known, survived in times when modern conveniences were just something in science fiction books and have had to adapt to massive change in society and culture throughout their lifetime. These are the people who built the foundations for the world we live in today, and they are living storybooks from the past.
This is how this book of memories first planted itself as a seed in my mind. We must make the most of these enchanting and captivating tales of the past, as there are many lessons to be learnt from their fortitude and passion. The residents of A2 Housing Group’s sheltered accommodation have kindly allowed us to enter into their worlds and take a wonderful trip with them through their many experiences, some beautiful, some puzzling, some heart-warming, but all entrancing.
This entire project has been made possible by a grant from the Lottery Fund’s ‘Home Front Recall Project’, which was set up in 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
The grant enabled us to organise a variety of celebrations to mark the event, and Reminiscence Groups were set up so that residents could share their wartime experiences with one another. These groups proved so successful that many of the residents’ stories were recorded and now form part of this book.
Reminiscence, the sharing of memories, is a powerful tool and acts as a positive catalyst for social interaction. When people discover they share common experiences, new friendships can open up which for those feeling isolated in their later years can be a life-line. For this reason, reminiscence has always been an important part of A2’s activity provision.
Head of Housing (Care & Support)
A Debt Repaid
When I was When I was living up in Derbyshire just after the war, we had a German prisoner of war camp about eight miles away – the prisoners worked in a big ICI quarry. Just before Christmas one year our local paper asked if any residents would like to invite prisoners for Christmas dinner. I discussed it with my husband and we thought that we would be only too pleased if our English ‘boys’ were in the same position and were being treated the same – so we agreed (only recently I told someone about this at my local Women’s Institute who said she wouldn’t have done anything like that, which I felt was sad).
So these two young men turned up – Wolfgang and Gerhard -and they were lovely boys. I remember them telling us that if they hadn’t joined the armed forces they would have been sent to a labour camp. We enjoyed each other’s company so much that they kept coming to us for meals after that. They were a great help in our very large garden, and our children, Pauline and George, who were very young at the time, really enjoyed having them around. After the war ended they carried on working in the quarry for about two years before they eventually went back to Germany. We kept in touch - I kept sending them food parcels – by letter for a few years but then suddenly it went dead. This was when the Russians put up the Berlin Wall and we didn’t hear any more. We kept writing but there was no reply and finally we gave up. And although I thought about them occasionally we had no more contact for nearly fifty years.
Then just before Christmas last year (2005) I was going through some papers with my daughter, and I came across a box with all the letters in from Wolfgang and Gerhard, and we started thinking about tracking them down. Pauline got busy on the internet using the addresses on their letters. They had moved but eventually we managed to get in touch with Wolfgang through his brother. He then contacted Gertrude, who was Gerhard’s widow – he sadly had died at 50. Then Wolfgang rang up and said – “Please let me return the compliment after all these years – come and see me. I’ll put you up in a hotel”. And so off we went at the beginning of January.
Wolfgang lives in Wismar, a beautiful port on the Baltic coast in what was East Germany. They met us at the airport and we stayed for three nights. We were the last to get off the plane – because I’m 92 and everything takes a bit longer – and I think Wolfgang was getting a bit worried. But when he saw me he gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. We went back to our hotel and had a meal, and he was so glad to see us – he kept saying how he had never forgotten the kindness we showed to him and Gerhard and it would always in be his memory. The next day he drove us round the town and we went back to their house. On the Sunday Gertrude came over from Luebeck – a two-hour journey – with her family of five. We all met up at the hotel and had a lovely meal.
On the Monday we went out to an island - because it was cold everything was frozen and it looked beautiful.
We had a wonderful time although I must confess I did find it difficult to keep up with the German after a while. Wolfgang spoke some English but he was out of practice and hadn’t swotted up – Johanna his wife didn’t speak any at all. But Pauline had taken German lessons before we went, and so between us all we managed.
We also met Harry, who was the grandson of Gertrude, who worked for a local radio station in Luebeck, and he got permission from the hotel to record some interviews with us. First went Wolfgang, and then it was my turn – he asked me to speak very slowly but in English because he said a lot of his listeners understood English. Then it was Gertrude’s turn and finally Pauline.
When we left Wolfgang stood outside the hotel and said - “I’m not coming with you to the airport – I shall be too upset”. He had ordered us a taxi. And as we were driving the taxi driver said he had heard all about us on the radio, so it seemed we had missed the programme. But Harry is going to send us a tape of it - Pauline’s neighbour speaks good German so we will be able to understand. It will be a lovely memento of a wonderful weekend.