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Budapest, 1942-44: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   Leave a comment

Every Picture Tells a Story:

Tom Leimdörfer was born in Budapest, seventy-five years ago this year, on 15 October 1942.  In Tom’s case, this is a milestone which is certainly well-worth celebrating. After all, in the mere fifteen years between his birth and mine, he had already survived the Holocaust and had endured two Soviet invasions of Hungary, his native land, a revolution, a counter-revolution and a hair-raising escape as a refugee across the Austrian border. He had also, as a young teenager, adapted to the very different language and culture of his adopted country, England. Tom has kept and carefully recorded the family’s archives and stories from these fifteen years, perhaps most importantly in respect of the first three, for which he has, of course, few direct memories of his own. As the older Holocaust survivors gradually pass on, the role of these younger ones in transmitting the experiences of this time will, no doubt, become increasingly important. In Tom’s case, as in many, the photographs and artefacts which they cherish provide the emblematic sources around which the transmitted stories and information are woven. In the initial part of this chapter, I have left Tom’s words as his own, indicated by the use of italics.

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A picture I treasure is taken on balcony. It was almost certainly the flat belonging to my great uncle Feri and great aunt Manci. Feri was my grandfather (Dádi) Ármin’s younger brother and Manci was Sári mama’s younger sister. Two brothers married two sisters and to make matters even more bizarre, they were cousins (once removed). I expect it was Feri who took the picture on one of their family days. The five people in the picture look happy, even though war clouds were gathering and laws restricting basic human rights for Jews were in the process of enactment. It was the spring of 1939. The photo shows my grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi) and my aunt Juci aged 16. The other two smiling figures are my parents. My father (András Leimdörfer) is in uniform, looking lovingly at my mother (Edit) and having his arms around her. They were married about six months before. My father is in his proper army uniform, with three stars on the lapels.  Two years later that was exchanged for the plain uniform of the Jewish (unarmed) forced labour unit serving with the Hungarian army. He was first sent to Transylvania in the autumn of 1941. His brief few months back home resulted in my conception. In June 1942, he was off to the Russian front, never to return. The war and the bitter winter took his life in February 1943 but the family only learnt the facts four years later.

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On the same page in the old album are two more pictures of my parents. One (above) relaxing, reclining on a grassy slope in summer (1939 or 1940), though looking far too smartly dressed for such a pose. The other (right) is taken in December 1938 in Venice outside St. Mark’s Cathedral, surrounded by pigeons and snow. It was their brief honeymoon in the last winter of peace in Europe.

The father I never knew was a very good-looking and bright young man. Known as Bandi to his family, he had an Economics degree from high school in St. Gallen in Switzerland and a doctorate from the University of Szeged in southern Hungary. It was the effect of the law known as ‘numerus clausus’ (restricting the percentage of Jewish entrance to universities in Hungary) that led to his going to Switzerland for his first degree. There he formed strong friendship with three other young Hungarian Jews. One of these, Pál Katona, was head of the BBC’s Hungarian broadcast section for many years. The second, Fritz Fischer, emigrated to America. The third and his closest friend was Gyuri Schustek, who was to play a significant role in my life as well.

My parents met on the social round of the Jewish middle class in Budapest. My mother’s elder brother (also called András and also known as Bandi) was the same age as my father and also an economics graduate as well as a first class tennis player. So one day, probably at a party, Bandi Lakatos introduced his younger sister Edit to Bandi Leimdörfer who promptly fell in love with her. Their months of courtship included outings to the Buda hills and rowing on the Danube, which they both loved. Their special friends Gyuri (Schustek) and Lonci (or Ilona) were also planning to get married. My father was nearly 27 and my mother nearly 23 when they married in December 1938. Unusually, everyone wore black at their wedding as my father’s grandmother had died just before. With the increasing anti-Semitism at home and uncertainties of a possible war, they decided to delay having any children and concentrate on setting up a life for themselves in their pleasant flat in the quiet Zsombolyai street in the suburb of Kelenföld. It was also conveniently near my grandfather’s timber yard and the office of their firm of Leimdörfer & Révész, where my father also worked.

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So back to the pictures in the album. There is a small photo of a group of Jewish forced labour unit workers in the deep snow along the banks of the River Don, not far from the city of Voronezh. There is another of my father on top of tank in the snow. After much internal political strife, Hungary entered the war on the German side in June 1941 in exchange for the return of part of the territories lost after the first World War. The 2nd Hungarian Army, sent to the Russian front in the late spring of 1942, included ‘disposable’ elements like the unarmed Jewish labour brigades, conscripted socialists and trade unionists as well as parts of the professional army from all over Hungary (‘to spread the sacrifice’). Their job was to hold the Red Army on the banks of the river Don (over 2000 km from their homeland) while the battle of Stalingrad was raging. On the 12th January 1943, in the depth of the bitterest winter with temperatures of –20 to –30 degrees, the Soviet Army attacked and broke through. They took over 25,000 prisoners within days. The food supplies were scarce and a typhoid epidemic broke out. My father died of typhoid in February 1943, five months before his 31st birthday. A Jewish doctor was there, one of his brigade, and he was released in the summer of 1947. When he arrived in Budapest, he informed my mother and my father’s parents. Till then, they hoped in vain. Only one-third of the army of 200,000 returned. Hungary then refused to send any more troops to help the German cause.

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The next pictures are those taken of me as a tiny baby. Plenty were taken and sent to the front for my father. There is the one in the hospital bed with my mother, just after I was born on the 15 October 1942. Then there are some professionally taken pictures. The one in sepia by a firm called ‘Mosoly Album’ (album of smiles) shows a cheeky nine weeks old doing a press-up a sticking out his tongue. It was the last picture to reach my father and he wrote back with joy. The other baby pictures were taken in hope of sending them to the prisoner of war camp, but there was no news and no way of communication. I am amazed at the quality of these pictures, taken at a time of war. One of the photos shows me holding a bottle and drinking from it, looking up with wide eyes. This picture appeared in a magazine, sent by the photographer. I wonder if the editor realised that he was publishing the picture of Jewish baby! If so, he was taking a risk.

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One poignant picture, taken in the spring 1944, shows me sitting on a chair with a toy lorry on my knee. It is the identical pose as a picture taken of my father when he was a little boy. Clearly my mother was thinking of him when she had that taken of me. At the same time, there is a photo with me clutching a large panda. I was told it was my favourite toy – and it has its story.

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One of my older pictures shows a strikingly elegant and beautiful woman in her thirties. Born Zelma Breuer, my maternal grandmother was the object of admiration both in her home town of Szécsény in northern Hungary and in her social circles in Budapest, where she lived most of her married life. My mother got her beauty from her and the two of them were very close. There is a lovely picture of the two of them, arms round each other in the garden in Szécsény. My mother’s father was a lot older than her mother. Grandfather Aladár Lakatos worked his way up in the Post Office in Budapest to the rank of a senior civil servant. He had changed his name from Pollitzer in order to feel more fully integrated. When the laws forbidding Jews from holding such senior posts came into effect, he was nearing retirement age. So his dismissal was in the form of early retirement. Zelma’s ageing parents still lived in Szécsény, so they decided to retire there, selling the flat in Budapest and buying a substantial brick house next door to the old Breuers wattle house. With increasing threat to the Jewish population, they thought they would be safer in a quiet town where the Breuers were well-known and well liked. How wrong they were! When my father did not return from the front in 1943, they urged my mother to join them. The air was also healthier for small child, they said. My mother decided to stay in her own flat in Buda and to stay close to her husband’s family. Whatever her reasons were, it saved our lives.

The Growing Shadow of the Eagle:

To give some broader context to these early years of Hungary’s war into which Tom was born, I have been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which, in dealing with the controversial ‘hero’ of the Holocaust, also provides the most comprehensive information about the situation in the Jewish communities of Budapest and Hungary during the war. In January 1942, Hungarian military units executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied part of Yugoslavia, including 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, could grow up to be enemies. Joel Brand, Rezső Kasztner’s colleague, found out that close to a third of those murdered had been Jews. The thin pretext that they were likely to have joined the Serb partisans was no more than a nod to the government authorities who had demanded an explanation. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to lands which had once been part of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon awarded them to Yugoslavia. The new arrivals had terrible tales of mass executions: people had been shoved into the icy waters of the Danube, and the men in charge of this so-called military expedition continued the killings even after they received orders to stop.

By the early summer of 1942, Baron Fülöp von Freudiger of the Budapest Orthodox Jewish congregation had received a letter from a little-known Orthodox rabbi in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a cry for help, mostly financial, but also for advice on how to deal with the Jewish Agency on the survival of the surviving Jews of Slovakia. Deportations had begun on 26 March 1942, with a transport of girls aged sixteen and older. The Germans had already deported 52,000 Slovak Jews by the summer and Rabbi Weissmandel, together with a woman called Gizi Fleischmann, had founded a Working Group as an offshoot of the local Jewish Council, with the sole object of saving the remaining Jews in Slovakia. In subsequent meetings with Wisliceny, a Nazi officer, the Working Group became convinced that some of the Nazis could be bribed to leave the Jews at home. It also realised that this could, potentially, be extended to the other occupied countries in Europe. Weissmandel called it the Europa Plan, a means by which further deportations could be stopped. Rezső Kasztner and Joel Brand, working for the Va’ada, the Zionist organisation, from still sovereign Hungary were unconvinced: Hitler would not, they said, tolerate any Jews in Europe. But Kasztner agreed that fewer barriers would be put in the way of Jewish emigration, provided it was paid for, and quickly. The rabbi’s Europa Plan sounded very much like the Europa Plan devised by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, which had earlier allowed large-scale emigration from Germany to Palestine, until it had encountered stiff opposition from the Arabs and had led to the imposition of harsh quotas by the British.

In December 1942, Sam Springmann, a leading Zionist in Budapest, received a message from the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul that the Refugee Rescue Committee should prepare to receive a visit from Oskar Schindler who would tell them, directly, about those regions of Eastern Europe occupied by the Wehrmacht. Schindler endured two days of uncomfortable travel in a freight car filled with Nazi newspapers to arrive in Budapest. He talked of the atrocities in Kraków and the remaining ghetto, the hunger in Lodz and of the freight trains leaving Warsaw full of Jews whose final destination was not labour camps, as they had assumed, but vernichtungslager, extermination camps. In the midst of this stupid war, he said, the Nazis were using the railway system, expensive engineering, and an untold number of guards and bureaucrats whose sole purpose was to apply scientific methods of murdering large numbers of people. Once they became inmates, there was no hope of reaching or rescuing them. Kasztner did not believe that adverse publicity would deter the Germans from further atrocities, but public opinion might delay some of their plans, and delay was good. With luck, the war would end before the annihilation of the Jews was realised.

By this time, but unbeknown to the Va’ada leaders in Budapest, most of the politicians in Europe already knew about the disaster which was befalling the Jews. During October and November 1942, more than 600,000 Jews had already been deported to Auschwitz, including 106,000 from Holland and 77,000 from France. Newspapers in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States and Palestine, carried reports, some firsthand, from traveling diplomats, businessmen, and refugees, that the Germans were systematically murdering the European Jews. But anyone who followed these news stories assumed that the German’ resolve to annihilate the Jews would likely be slowed down by defeats on the battlefields. Stephen Wise, Budapest-born president of the American Jewish Congress, had announced at the end of November that two million Jews had already been exterminated and that Nazi policy was to exterminate them all, using mass killing centres in Poland. In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not better anticipated.

Oskar Schindler’s firsthand information was a warning that the use of extermination camps could spread to the whole population of Poland and Slovakia, but Rezső Kasztner and the Aid and Rescue Committee still hoped that the ghettos would remain as sources for local labour. They knew of several camps, such as Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, where the treatment, though harsh, could be relieved by a supply of food parcels, clothing and bribes. The couriers reported the starvation and the rounding up of work gangs, but not the extermination camps. As Schindler’s story circulated to the different Jewish groups in Budapest, it initiated an immediate if limited response. Fülöp von Freudiger called for more generous donations to help the Orthodox Jews in Poland.The leader of the Reformed Jewish Community in the city, Samuel Stern, remained confident, however, that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. His group was busy providing financial assistance for recently impoverished intellectuals who could no longer work in their professions because of the Hungarian exclusionary laws. Stern did not want to listen to horror stories about systematic murder. Such facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner that in the months to come we may be left without our money and comforts, but we shall survive. The very idea of vernichtungslager, of extermination, seemed improbable. Why would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means to defend themselves?

The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp, while in the House of Commons, British PM Winston Churchill gave a scating adddress that was broadcast by the BBC and heard throughout Budapest. Referring to the mass deportation of Jews from France, he claimed that this tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme. Meanwhile, Jewish organisations in Budapest continued to provide learned lectures in their well-appointed halls on every conceivable subject except the one which might have concerned them most, the ongoing fate of the Jews in Germany, Austria, France, Poland and Slovakia, and what it meant for the Jews of Hungary. Two million Polish Jews had already disappeared without a trace.

In January 1943 the Second Hungarian Army was destroyed in the Battle of Voronezh. The losses were terrible: 40,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, 60,000 taken prisoner by the Soviets. The news was played down by the media and the politicians. In Budapest, news of the disaster was only available by listening to the BBC’s Hungarian broadcasts, or to the Soviet broadcasts. Under the premiership of Miklós Kállay, Hungary’s industries continued to thrive, supplying the German army with raw materials. Mines were busy, agricultural production was in full flow and the manufacture of armaments, military uniforms and buttons kept most people employed and earning good wages. Kállay’s personal antipathy towards further anti-Jewish laws lent credence to Samuel Stern’s belief that it cannot happen here.

By the summer of 1943, rumours were circulating among Budapest’s cafés of an armistice agreement with Britain and the United States. Kállay’s emissaries to Istanbul and other neutral capitals had been fishing for acceptable terms. Kállay even went to see Mussolini in Rome to propose a new alliance of Italy, Hungary, Romania and Greece against Hitler. Mussolini declined, and it soon became obvious to ministers in Budapest that the Germans would soon have to terminate these breakaway plans.

Samuel Stern knew in advance about Regent Horthy’s meeting with Hitler in late April 1943. He had been at Horthy’s official residence in Buda Castle playing cards, when the call came from Hitler’s headquarters inviting Horthy to Schloss Klessheim. Horthy was too frightened to decline the invitation, although he detested the ‘uncultured’ German leader. Hitler ranted about Kállay’s clumsy overtures to the British. As a show of loyalty, he demanded another Hungarian army at the front. Horthy stood his ground. He would not agree to sending Hungarian troops to the Balkans, nor to further extreme measures against the Jews. Hitler, his hands clenched behind his back, screamed and marched about. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister attended the dinner that followed, and wrote in his diary that Horthy’s humanitarian attitude regarding The Jewish Question convinced the Führer that all the rubbish of small nations still existing in Europe must be liquidated as soon as possible. 

Meanwhile, terrible stories were circulating in Budapest about the actions of Hungary’s soldiers as they returned from the front with the Soviet Union. In late April 1943, retreating Hungarian soldiers in the Ukraine ordered eight hundred sick men from the Jewish labour force into a hospital shed and then set fire to it. Officers commanded the soldiers to shoot anyone who tried to escape from the flames. Neither the Hungarian press nor the Hungarian Jewish newspaper reported these deaths. Instead, the pro-Nazi press increased its vitriolic attacks on Jewish influence at home, persisting blaming food shortages on the Jews, who were falsely accused of hoarding lard, sugar and flour, engaging in black market activities, and reaping enormous war profits from the industries they controlled. That summer, Oskar Schindler returned to Budapest, bringing letters to be forwarded to Istanbul for the relatives of his Jews. He gave a detailed report of the situation in Poland and of the possibilities of rescue and escape from the ghettos.

In a letter she wrote to the Jewish Agency in Istanbul, dated 10 May 1943, Gizi Fleischmann reported from Bratislava:

Over a million Jews have been resettled from Poland. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives due to starvation, disease, cold and many more have fallen victim to violence. The reports state that the corpses are used for chemical raw materials.

She did not know that by that time 2.5 million of Poland’s Jews were already dead. On 16 May, members of the Hungarian Rescue Committee gathered around their radios and toasted the Warsaw ghetto’s last heroic stand. On 11 June, Reichsführer ss Himmler ordered the liquidation of all Polish ghettos. By 5 September she wrote to the American Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Geneva that we know today that Sobibór, Treblinka, Belzec and Auschwitz are annihilation camps. Later that month, Fleischmann traveled to Budapest, where she visited the offices of both Komoly and Kasztner. Both had already seen copies of her correspondence, as had Samuel Stern, but his group met her case for funding with colossal indifference. They made it clear that they thought her allegations about the fate of the Polish and Slovak Jews were preposterous. She also informed Kasztner that Dieter Wisliceny, the ss man in charge of the deportations from Slovakia, had told her of a dinner he had attended on Swabian Hill with a senior functionary from the Hungarian prime minister’s office. They had discussed the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. After her visit, Kasztner wrote to Nathan Schwalb of the Hechalutz, the international Zionist youth movement:

The gas chambers in Poland have already consumed the bodies of more than half a million Jews. There are horrible, unbelievable photographs of starving children, of dead, emaciated bodies on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto.

Kasztner raised the money for Gizi Fleischmann to offer a bribe to Wisliceny in exchange for the lives of the remaining Slovak Jews. Whether it contributed to the two-year hiatus in murdering the Slovak Jews is still disputed, but there is no doubt that Fleischmann and Rabbi Weissmandel believed it had.

The late autumn of 1943 was spectacular with its bright colours: the old chestnut trees along the Danube turning crimson and rich sienna browns, the oranges of the dogwood trees rising up Gellert Hill. Musicians still played in the outdoor cafés and young women paraded in their winter furs. Late in the evenings there was frost in the air. Throughout that autumn and winter, many inside the Hungarian government sought ways of quitting the war and starting negotiations with the Allies. On 24 January, 1944, the chief of the Hungarian general staff met with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and suggested that Hungarian forces might withdraw from the Eastern Front. The Germans had been aware of Hungary’s vacillations about the war, its fear of Allied attacks, and its appeal to the British not to bomb  Hungary while it was reassessing its position. Several more Hungarian emissaries had approached both British and American agencies, including the OSS in Turkey, and offered separate peace agreements. Of course, Hitler had got to know about all these overtures, and had called Kállay a swine for his double-dealing.

Admiral Horthy followed suit within a month in a formal letter to Hitler, suggesting the withdrawal of the Hungarian troops to aid in the defence of the Carpathians. The soldiers would perform better if they were defending their homeland, he said. He also stressed his anxiety about Budapest, asking that German troops not be stationed too close to the capital, since they would attract heavy air-raids. Hitler thought Horthy’s plan was as ridiculous as the old man himself, and summoned him to Schloss Klessheim again for a meeting on 17 March 1944, a Friday. Hitler insisted that Jewish influence in Hungary had to cease, and that the German Army would occupy the country to ensure this happened. If Horthy did not agree to the occupation, or if he ordered resistance, Germany would launch a full-scale invasion, enlisting the support of the surrounding axis allies, leading to a dismemberment of Hungary back to its Trianon Treaty borders. This was Horthy’s worst nightmare, so he agreed to the occupation and the replacement of Kállay with a prime minister more to Hitler’s liking. The Admiral could remain as Regent, nominally in charge, but with a German Reich plenipotentiary in charge. Horthy also agreed to supply a hundred thousand Jewish workers to work in the armaments industry under Albert Speer.

Over the winter months of 1943-44, many of the labour camps had become death sentences for the underfed and poorly clothed Jews. In some Hungarian army labour units the brutality meted out to Jews was comparable to Nazi tactics in occupied Poland. In one division, sergeants doused Jews with water and cheered as their victims turned into ice sculptures. In another camp, officers ordered men in the work detail to climb trees and shout I am a dirty Jew as they leapt from branch to branch, the officers taking pot-shots at them. Of the fifty thousand men in the labour companies, only about seven thousand survived.

Secondary Source:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.

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The Latter Day Elizabethan Britons, 1952-2002; Chapter Two   Leave a comment

Chapter Two: A Social Revolution?

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The main achievement of the first quarter century of Elizabeth II’s reign was to be found in the significant expansion of education across England and Wales, caused mainly by the post-war baby boom and the continuing rise in birth-rates throughout the fifties and sixties. This was largely the achievement of the Local Education Authorities, given their statutory responsibilities by the 1944 Butler Act. In Coventry, the Labour-controlled Authority used the selective system to establish most of its initial comprehensive schools and, of the schools that opened in the 1950s, only Binley Park began with a predominantly secondary modern intake. The first head of the Woodlands School told his audience of Rotarians in 1954, that the Comprehensive School is not revolutionary; all the things have been tried time and time again; we have only brought them together. In 1954, the Chairman of the Education Committee was reported as saying that Coventry had decided to build schools where a variety of courses could be provided rather than building a number of different schools. However, Coventry continued to provide secondary education in a variety of different schools alongside its comprehensives: secondary modern schools, two selective grammar schools for girls and a boarding school for boys. In addition, it continued to provide places for boys to attend the two Direct Grant Grammar (later independent) schools in the city.

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At this point, it looked as if Labour would win the local elections in 1955 and be able to carry through this plan itself. However, the local elections of May 1955 were preceded by a month of high Cold War controversy. Objections had appeared in the local press as well as among Conservatives against Labour’s opposition to the civil defence plans of the Conservative Government. Councillor Hodgkinson had consistently argued the futility of implementing precautionary measures against a nuclear attack. His wartime experience of Coventry’s Blitz had convinced him that international fraternity was of far more value than local defence expenditure. However, prior to 1955 the issue had been somewhat marginal. The situation changed dramatically in 1955 when a party of delegates from Stalingrad were invited to Coventry by the City Council to repay a visit of the previous year to Russia by its members. The lavish hospitality provided for the guests, no doubt an attempt to match that received in Russia, was widely reported. An article in the Coventry Standard reported how,

Mellowed by an eight course dinner at which vodka and five different kinds of wine were served, the two hundred people who attended the banquet in St Mary’s Hall… to mark the end of the Stalingrad delegation, (listened as the leaders) spoke affectionately of each other’s countries.

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The new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who had commanded the Soviet troops in Stalingrad during the war.

The visit, albeit during the thaw in the Cold War following Stalin’s death and the speech of Khrushchev (above) to the CPSU Congress, proved to be the moment the Conservatives had been waiting for. The Standard told it readers that the issue before them on polling day was simple, … the Kremlin versus Coventry. It’s Conservatism versus Communism. The Conservatives entered the local election with the slogan, Clear out the Reds. It was also pointed out that the local Labour Party’s view of Civil Defence and the H-bomb was the opposite of the national Party’s policy. The Standard reported that its own survey of the population revealed that Coventrians were equally divided on the Stalingrad issue, but the Conservatives were able to use it to claim that the local Labour Party was dominated by a few extremists who did not represent the views of ordinary Labour voters. Certainly, despite the special relationship with Stalingrad that had been developed through the popular wartime campaign for the opening of a second front, the Party leaders had seriously misjudged the mood of the local population. The city was highly prosperous and enjoying the fruits of Eden’s mixed economy. The Conservatives were enjoying rising fortunes nationally. Moreover, many local workers, particularly those in the aircraft industry, were dependent on the continuation of defence contracts for their livelihood. Five seats, both in the city centre and around the outskirts, including Lower Stoke and Walsgrave were lost by Labour. Most of these wards were relatively affluent areas dominated by skilled or semi-skilled factory workers. Although Sidney Stringer claimed that the campaign had been the most vile in all my years in politics and blamed the result on the local press, they really had only themselves to blame in taking their voters for granted and not guarding against a well-known enemy in the Tory press.

However, the Coventry Labour Party soon appeared to have learnt the lessons of their 1955 losses. Civic adventurism in bricks and mortar, either in the rebuilding of the centre, or the schools around the outskirts, were entirely acceptable, but taking a firm stance on foreign and defence matters was not what local government, even a municipal socialist one, was for. In future, although civic links were established, through the Blitz commemorations, with town and cities around the world, these were low-key in nature and, in the case of eastern Europe, were largely abandoned after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The message from Labour supporters in the local elections of May 1955 was underlined in the Parliamentary elections that took place the following month. Not only were Labour majorities reduced in Coventry but the eve of poll ritual march from the major factories to Pool Meadow in the city centre, to hear the addresses of the Labour MP’s, Crossman and Edelman, were poorly attended.

There was a cruel irony for Labour in the events of 1955 in that the main energy of the local Party since 1945 had been directed into the rebuilding of the central area of the City. By 1955 the precinct was just beginning to take shape and Coventry’s affluent workers had a shopping centre commensurate with their spending power. Yet the connections between the availability of consumer goods in bright new shops and the ideals of municipal socialism were difficult to make, even amongst the better informed members of the population. What mattered more was the availability of money to spend and Coventry’s capitalist owned industry was providing this in abundance. Perhaps more attention to housing, health, education and housing would have provided a more solid long-term political allegiance for Labour, particularly in the delivery of a top-class comprehensive secondary school system.

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Above: Grammar School Boy, Harold Wilson, Labour leader and PM

However, the debate about grammar schools was not simply one which existed between the two main political parties, but also within the Labour Party, which had sought to expand grammar school education before the war as a means of social mobility, and a route out of poverty for many working-class children. Ellen Wilkinson, left-wing Education minister in the Attlee Government, had continued with this policy within a tripartite framework which would include multi-lateral schools. Even in the 1960s, it was not unusual for comprehensive schools to be compared with grammar schools by leading members of the Labour Party, including Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson, who referred to comprehensive schools as grammar schools for all, a strategy that was only partly designed to overcome the fears of the general public, especially parents, who resented the abolition of grammar schools. As products of grammar schools themselves, Labour’s local and national politicians well-understood the emotional attachment and sense of aspiration that many respectable working-class parents still had for these schools. However, hard choices about local priorities needed to be made, and these involved building schools which could serve children of all backgrounds and abilities, however they might choose to structure the curriculum.

A similar strategy was used by Alderman Callow, who chaired the Education Committee between 1958 and 1961, and who compared Coventry’s comprehensive schools with grammar schools when writing in the Coventry Evening Telegraph. He argued that comprehensive schools were both grammar schools and secondary modern schools. All eight of the City’s comprehensives provided the same courses in grammar schools but in addition offered all the courses available in secondary modern schools, having the additional advantage of the possibility of changing from one type of course to another within the same school as aptitudes developed. For Callow, therefore, the Coventry comprehensive was little more than one school that combined all the courses that were available in different schools under one roof. Six years later, Alderman Sidney Stringer, then Chairman of the Education Committee, stated that the Authority was bringing into existence many more schools that were equal to grammar schools, providing courses through which pupils could maximise their intellectual abilities.

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The city still operated a selection examination at eleven plus, provided places at the Direct Grant schools for boys and maintained two grammar schools for girls, and allocated selective places within the comprehensives. The headmaster of Caludon Castle School commented in his speech day address in 1960 that a truly comprehensive shool hasn’t even been brought into existence… though Coventry has created comprehensive buildings it was still without a single comprehensive school because the schools’ incomplete intake prevented their becoming what their names, size and cost proclaimed them to be. In 1964 the head of Whitley Abbey School concluded that Coventry now needed to choose between returning to a grammar and secondary modern school system or go fully comprehensive. He thought that if the Authority continued to abolish secondary modern schools while retaining grammar schools it would result in a situation whereby the comprehensive schools would be little more than secondary moderns within a selective secondary system.   Therefore, in the early 1960s at least, grammar schools and selection were still at the heart of Coventry’s so-called comprehensive revolution.

In Britain as a whole, the paradox was also apparent. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. In the 1950s, almost everything changed in British society, but only a little. No segment of society, no corner of the kingdom, no aspect of life remained untouched. So, part of the story of the fifties is the story of emergent patterns of change and a sense of discontinuity with the prewar past. However, there was also considerable continuity over the decade itself compared with the decades which were to follow. There was, as yet, no social revolution, unless we mean that the wheel of change came full cycle and returned to exactly where it had been at the beginning of the decade without taking society very far forward.

In October 1963 Harold Wilson, then Labour leader of the opposition, predicted that Britain would be forged in the white heat of the technological revolution. Certainly, living standards continued to rise, aided by the discovery in the North Sea of natural gas in 1965 and oil in 1969, and consumer goods became even more common. But there were also disquieting signs that Britain was approaching an as yet undefined crisis, cultural as well as financial. British economic growth rates did not match those of competitor states, and it was partly for this reason that Britain applied to join the European Economic Community, in 1961 and 1967, entry both times being vetoed by France. In addition, television programmes like Cathy Come Home made the public aware that poverty remained in the midst of Britain’s affluence. The Teddy Boys of the fifties were gradually replaced in the early sixties by Mods and Rockers, their social alienation being fuelled by the new vogue for high-rise flats in which they felt like caged animals. Britain was also becoming a more secular and iconoclastic, as well as a more materialistic society. Sexual intercourse began in 1963, wrote the Coventry-born poet Philip Larkin, perhaps with not a little exaggeration! The 1960s were certainly dramatic years in Britain: demographic trends, especially the increase in the proportion of teenagers in the population, coincided with economic affluence and ideological experimentation to reconfigure social mores to a revolutionary extent.

In 1964 a Labour government had again taken office, under Wilson, after thirteen years of Conservative rule. It promised economic and social modernisation. In an attempt to tackle the residual problem of poverty, public expenditure on social services was expanded considerably, resulting in some small degree of redistribution of income. It issued Circular 10/65 which requested that LEAs provide details of their plans for secondary education with a view to ending selection at the age of eleven in favour of introducing comprehensive schools. Coventry already had a working party in existence which was considering the pattern of secondary education across the city. It was the work of this group which resulted in a shift of emphasis within the LEA and brought about a change in mood on the Education Committee by September 1966. The proposal which emerged was to move towards a fully comprehensive system involving the abolition of the girls’ grammar schools and the disappearance of the remaining secondary moderns.

However, Labour’s ups and downs in the local elections had closely followed national trends since 1955 and in 1966 the Party’s rule in the City was again threatened, this time by the new austerity measures of the Labour Government under Harold Wilson in 1966. Economically, the real problems of the decade arose from the devaluation of the currency in November 1967, and the increase in industrial action. Employment in manufacturing nationally declined, until it accounted for less than a third of the workforce by 1973. Car production slumped and some Coventry firms declared redundancies, as their long boom appeared to be faltering. The incomes policy declared by the Wilson Government was hard to swallow for local engineering workers who had long enjoyed the benefits of free collective bargaining and wage differentials. Thus Coventry began to suffer for the first time since the early thirties with the twin problems of rising unemployment and stagnant wages. By way of contrast, employment in the service sector rose, so that by 1973, over half of all workers in the UK were employed in providing services.

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Local idealism in Coventry had been toned down since 1955 and by the mid-sixties the Coventry Labour Party had become a party of civic administration. It had run out of new ideas and was failing to attract new, younger members. After a presentation to mark his twentieth year as an MP in December 1965, Richard Crossman wrote in his diary:

I have tended to get depressed about Coventry. … I am… aware of a decline in the Party and a decline in its quality on the council. Mostly it was old people who were there for the presentation; only a handful were young.

This generation gap was to present long-term problems for the local party as the lack of new blood in the sixties and seventies made the party staid and unadventurous. The local Conservatives, by contrast, were able to fight the 1967 local election as the party of opposition to central government as well as local government. They had developed policies on four key local issues. Top of this list was the protection of grammar schools, popular with working-class parents with high aspirations for their children. Secondly, and   predictably, they proposed to prune the rates. The third policy promised council tenants the right to buy their own homes, and the fourth was an especially attractive one on public transport. They proposed a major reduction in fares, which they claimed would produce an increase in passenger numbers and an improved service. They were ably led in the election by Gilbert Richards, and their offensive on national issues, coupled with a new brand of local Tory populism proved decisive.

Labour lost control of the council after thirty years of continuous rule. The average overall turnout across the city was 49 per cent, but in some key marginal wards, such as Wyken, over 60 per cent of the electorate voted. The Tories stayed in power for another three years. Apart from a small degree of financial retrenchment, however, there were few new policy initiatives. Labour’s secondary education proposals were put on hold when the Conservatives gained control of the council. Nevertheless, during their period in power, although the Tories kept their promise to retain the girls grammar schools and continued to purchase places at the direct grant grammar school for boys, the phasing out of the secondary moderns also continued, a further comprehensive was opened, and building programmes went ahead for further comprehensives. After the 1967 local elections, Labour was never again able to recapture the commanding majority it enjoyed in the immediate postwar period. Yet, on the whole, Coventry remained a distinctly Labour city, holding three of the four local Parliamentary seats.

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Young people were most affected by the changes of the 1960s in Britain as a whole. Education gained new prominence in national government circles and student numbers soared. Higher education in Britain saw particularly rapid expansion over the whole quarter century. In 1938 there had been just twenty thousand students, but by 1962 this figure had increased by nearly a hundred thousand. However, the real increase in numbers came after this, as new plate-glass universities were formed and former colleges of advanced technology were given university status.

By 1972 there were forty-five universities, compared with just seventeen in 1945. By 1966, seven new universities had opened, including the University of East Anglia and the University of Warwick at Canley in Coventry. More importantly, students throughout the country were becoming increasingly radicalised as a growing hostility towards what they perceived as the political and social complacency of the older generation. They protested loudly against poor student accommodation, the unfairness of examination systems, restrictions on academic freedom, civil rights in Northern Ireland, dictatorial decision-making by academic hierarchies, support for the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Vietnam War. The latter of these issues placed immense strain on the special relationship between the US and British governments. Although protests were generally less violent than those in the US, due partly to more moderate policing in Britain, there were major protest all over the country in 1968 and some, like the one which took place in Grosvenor Square in London, involved police charges against hundreds of thousands of protesters.

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Anti-establishment and anti-capitalist values spread much wider than the student population. The cultural revolution had a profound effect on sexual behaviour and on women’s rights. Sex before marriage became less taboo and there was a more general feeling of sexual freedom. The Women’s Liberation movement gained considerable ground, leading to the 1970 Equal Pay Act. The family also underwent important changes, many of which had begun in the 1950s with smaller family sizes, aided by changes in the laws on abortion, more widely available and effective contraception, including the pill from 1962, and increased domestic technology. In 1956 only seven per cent of household had had refrigerators; by 1971, this had increased to seventy per cent. By this time, sixty-four per cent of households also had a washing machine. In addition, the rapid and real growth in earnings of young manual workers, sustained over the past decade, had, by the early sixties, created a generation who had money to spend on leisure and luxury. The average British teenager was spending eight pounds a week on clothes, cosmetics, records and cigarettes. In London, their attitude was summed up by the fashion designer Mary Quant, whose shop, Bazaar, in King’s Road, provided clothes that allowed people to run, to jump, to leap, to retain their precious freedom.

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If London was swinging, Liverpool was providing the beat. No band was more important than the Beatles, though there were others who helped to produce the distinctive sound which emerged from Merseyside. The fab four expressed both a vibrant, diverse youth culture and a keen commercial outlook, the latter largely due to their clever manager, Brian Epstein. They provided British teenagers with an identity that cut across the barriers of class, accent, nationality, region and religion. First known as The Quarrymen, they formed in July 1957 and by October 1962 they had hit the all-important top twenty singles’ chart with Love Me Do. In April 1963 From Me to You became their first number one hit single. Between 1957 and 1970 they performed live in eighty-four different venues in England, fifteen in Scotland, six in Wales and two in Ireland. In Dublin, teenagers sang She Loves You on the double-decker buses which had replaced the trams, children imitated them with tennis-raquets, using tree houses for stages in suburban Middle England, each pretending to be a different member of the group, and young mothers sang I Wanna Hold Your Hand as they crossed busy streets to the brand new precincts in Coventry when out shopping with their children.

Beatlemania swept the British Isles, and pretty soon they became a global phenomenon, playing all over Europe, as well as Australia, Japan and, of course, the USA. Meanwhile, a more working-class sub-culture emerged, particularly in London and the South-East, as rival gangs of Mods and Rockers followed hard rock bands like The Who and The Rolling Stones. In the summer of 1964, they rode their mopeds and motorbikes from the London suburbs down to Brighton, where they met up on the beach and staged fights with each other.

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The BBC held a monopoly over the radio waves and, in a deal with the Musicians’ Union and record manufacturers, ensured that popular music was not given much air time. Anyone wanted to listen to the new artists and groups had to tune into Radio Luxemburg, but reception was often very poor. At Easter 1964, however, the first illegal pirate station, Radio Caroline began broadcasting from a ship just off the Sussex coast. Within months, millions of young people were listening to the station and to others which sprang up, often, to begin with, from transistor radios hidden from prying parents under their bedclothes. Not only did these stations broadcast pop music, but they also warned that any attempt to silence them would constitute a direct attack on youth. Eventually, the BBC gave way and set up Radio One and, in 1967, the Marine Offences Act outlawed the pirate ships.

005The event which marked the high point in popular culture for many in Britain, not just England, was the English national football team’s victory in the 1966. The tournament was held in England for the first time, and the team, built around Bobby Charlton, the key Manchester United midfielder who, along with Nobby Stiles, had survived the Munich air crash earlier in the decade, and Bobby Moore, the captain, from West Ham United, who also had two skilfull forwards in the team in Martin Peters and striker Geoff Hurst. Manager Alf Ramsay had been part of the team which had lost 6-3 to Hungary at Wembley thirteen years earlier, their first ever defeat to continental opposition at home, in the run up to the 1954 World Cup. On 3 August they faced the unlikely winners from that year, West Germany, now a much stronger team than the one that had squeaked past a magical but tiring Magyar team in that final. Although a colour cine film recording of the match was made and released later, people watched it live on TV in black and white. Only the hundred thousand at Wembley that day saw the red shirts of the England team raise the Jules Rimet trophy after the match. People’s memories of the details of the whole match vary somewhat, but most remember (in colour, of course) Geoff Hurst’s two extra-time goals and Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary because they have watched them replayed so many times. After the match, people dressed up in a bizarre, impromptu mixture of sixties fashion and patriotic bunting and came out to celebrate with family, friends and neighbours just as if it were the end of the war again, or at jubilee street party, copying Nobby’s knobbly-kneed skipping they had just seen on the box. After that, it was downhill all the way to Mexico in 1970 where England’s 3-2 defeat by Beckenbauer, Müller and company seemed to sum up the change in the fortunes and mood of the nation compared with those of a resurgent West Germany. At least, this time, we could watch the golden Brazilian team thrashing the Azurri in colour, usually at a middle-class friend’s house.

Despite the dramatic increase in wealth, coupled with the emergence of distinctive subcultures, technological advances and the dramatic shifts in popular culture, there was a general feeling of disillusionment with Labour’s policies nationally. In the 1970 General Election, the Conservative Party, under its new leader Edward Heath, was returned to power. When the Labour group regained the ascendancy in Coventry in 1970, they sought to press ahead with the plans for fully comprehensive secondary education they had made four years earlier. The Conservatives accepted the demand for comprehensive education but continued to argue that the rights of parents to have their children educated in a grammar school should be respected. Despite this dogged resistance, the Labour proposal was approved by the Council and subsequently by the government, ending the purchase of direct grant places, reorganising the girls’ grammar schools as comprehensives, and ending the eleven plus.

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Edward Heath

In addition, the comprehensive schools would be reorganised as community colleges, each serving a defined neighbourhood. The first of these were opened in the academic year 1972-73, one near the city centre (Sidney Stringer) and the other on an estate on the outskirts of the city (Ernesford Grange). These schools were to have a dual function, operating as community centres which would open for up to fifty weeks of the year, six days a week, and for twelve to sixteen hours each day, with the provision of additional buildings, equipment and recreational facilities. However, this development was not fully completed until 1979, when the ninth of these colleges, Alderman Callow, was finally completed to its planned size. These purpose-built colleges took several years to complete due to the need to build by instalments at that time. However, the comprehensive schools within them were all opened by September 1975. The community element provided facilities covering a range of activities and organisations with playgroups, pensioners, parents and children coming together on one site. The concept of the community college was originally developed from Henry Morris’ idea of the village college, but applied to the urban and suburban context in Coventry. Robert Aitken, the Director of Education responsible for its application in the city, also argued that the community dimension would help to overcome the clash between home and school which existed on many working-class housing estates in the sixties and early seventies, developing pupils’ self-respect and utilising the skills of parents and teachers in tandem.

The principles and practices of the Sidney Stringer School and Community College were the best-documented of all the Coventry schools, both by a succession of headteachers and by its general teaching staff and through evaluation in the wider community. The school population was fifty per cent of Asian background, forty per cent European and ten per cent Caribbean. It opened in August 1972 with an intake of nineteen hundred pupils, a hundred and forty teaching and community staff and seventy non-teaching staff. Among the distinctive features of the school were its mode of government, its House system and its curriculum. Arfon Jones, its second head, claimed that two of the key aims of the school were to raise the consciousness of the people in the area and to develop a mode of democratic control. In these terms, the LEA decided to delegate authority and accountability to local people through the governing body, combining its statutory responsibilities with the strengths of a Community Association. Under this system, the Association elected a Council, some of whose members represented it on the Governing Body, which then involved pupils, parents, staff, local residents and LEA representatives in equal numbers. Besides determining the policy of the school and college, the governors had responsibility for the plant, finance and community development. Although there were some gaps between the scheme and the practical realities of managing the facilities, it did represent a bold attempt to make the school government more broadly and genuinely representative of an albeit loosely defined local community.

 

Contrary to popular mythology about Coventry, comprehensive education was only fully established in the 1970s; first in the voluntary controlled sector, when the Catholic schools became fully comprehensive in 1970 and subsequently in 1975 when no further selective places were available for girls and the Authority no longer purchased places outside the maintained sector for boys. The development of comprehensive education was therefore as slow in Coventry as it was in many other LEAs, including Birmingham. Coventry was still operating secondary school selection well into the 1970s, concerned to offer grammar school courses in many of its schools. By that time, the school-leaving age was raised from fifteen to sixteen in 1973. By 1975 the number of comprehensives in Coventry had increased to twenty-one, five of them Church controlled, with an additional LEA boarding school. In total, the number of enrolled pupils stood at 28,538, compared with 20,385 in 1960.

From the early 1950s to the mid 1970s was a long period of economic expansion and demographic growth which helped to fuel educational development in England in general and Coventry in particular. Over these decades the city’s Director’s of Education, the LEA and the schools themselves pioneered different forms of comprehensive schooling and education, so much so that, in the educational imagination, Coventry became synonymous with educational innovation. Yet the evidence suggests that while Coventry was among the first authorities to build schools with the purpose of comprehensive secondary education in view, this was, for the most part, the result of practical imperatives following the war. In common with many other authorities, it then struggled with the process of developing the principles of comprehensive education. Whether, by 1977, a truly comprehensive system of education had been achieved was open to question, at a time when primary school rolls had begun to fall and practical priorities had to be confronted once more. With the benefit of hindsight, through subsequent decades of economic and industrial decline, it still is open to question.

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