A memory of Walter Wolfgang

In the Liberal Jewish Cemetery in Willesden there are plaques on the wall commemorating the dead. Most are from over fifty years ago and tell simple stories of love and loss in a family; given added poignancy by the knowledge that the mourners who installed the plaque with such loving care will now have joined the mourned in the long tight rows of dignified grey graves outside.

We are as a shadow.

Two, next to each other, tell a wider story in an equally quiet way. One man, born in Breslau in 1903; died in London in the 1960s. An escape from Germany both personal and historic. Another, a young man of 22, eldest son of his loving parents, died of his wounds in Spain in 1938. “Everything he had, he gave for his ideals.”

We are as a grass.

Walter was 95. Sent for safety to his uncle in England in 1937 at the age of 14 as the Nazis tightened their grip, he was arrested by the Gestapo while trying to return to visit his parents in the summer of 1938 and re-deported as a “Jewish alien”. His parents escaped Germany just in time in 1939 – which did not stop Walter and his father being interned at the outbreak of war by the British authorities as “enemy aliens”.

A founder member of CND, Labour Party candidate in the 1959 General Election, he saw his socialism as an expression of his deeply held Jewish faith and values; requiring empathy and solidarity with all oppressed and persecuted peoples; and was as likely to argue with his rabbi as he was his Party Secretary. He never believed that the solution to persecution was to become a persecutor of others. He had more dignity than that.

He marched to Trafalgar Square in 1956 to oppose  the Suez invasion – and from it to Aldermaston in 1958, supported the Committee of 100 sit downs against nuclear weapons in 1960 – and on up to today – he never let up. At the 2005 Labour Party conference – at the age of 80 – he heckled Jack Straw’s claim that the UK was only intervening in Iraq to build peace and democracy. His one word comment “Nonsense!” an irrepressible outburst of indignation at such transparent flim flam, earned him forcible ejection by a pair of security heavies and detained and questioned under section 44 of the Anti-Terrorism Act. The backlash that this generated not only led to Walter receiving an apology from Tony Blair, but also to his election to the Labour National Executive the following year. It also partially derailed a practice, then being sneaked in and becoming habitual, of using Anti -Terror legislation to detain anyone protesting against a centre ground mainstream consensus. According to The Scotsman, 600 other people had been detained under this act at the same conference – some protesting at the Iraq war, some OAPs complaining about pensions.

He was a long time friend of Jeremy Corbyn dating from their time together in CND in the 1980’s. Jeremy would have attended the funeral had he not been in Normandy for the D Day commemoration; and sent a heartfelt message and tribute. Pictures of Jeremy on that day quietly listening to D- Day veterans of Walter’s generation show the kind of humanity and opposition to patriotic bombast that they shared. Its hard to imagine Donald Trump or Boris Johnson sitting so quietly and thoughtfully, nor listening so intently. Walter always stood for the view that respect  comes from love and brings us together – a human quality which we all owe to each other – the opposite of self subordination to those with power or wealth governed by ritual.

He was gentle, irascible, stubborn, principled, dedicated. A good man, whose like we need more of.

I did not know him well, and the longest time I spent with him was when he offered me a lift up to a Labour CND AGM in Sheffield some time in the late 1980’s. When people who knew him asked me how I was getting there and I said “Oh, Walter is giving me a lift”, they would smile and raise their eyebrows. One of them should have warned me.

It was clear almost from the first second I strapped myself into the passenger seat that Walter was a spectacularly bad driver. It got worse from there.

Driving off with barely a backward glance, to a symphony of horns and barrage of startled looks from other drivers, we kangarooed  a bit up to Stoke Newington, where Walter drove into a petrol station by way of the exit.

He parked by the petrol pumps in front of an outraged orthodox Jewish guy – who had come in the right way with every expectation of being able to park at a petrol pump and fill up- but instead had us suddenly appearing right in front of him and blocking his way. He got out in his big black hat, hands on hips, and glared at Walter, who glanced vaguely at him and gave a dismissive wave of the hand; before realising that the petrol tank was on the other side of his car from the pump. Exasperated but undeterred, Walter heaved the pipe across the top of the car and just about got the nozzle into the tank and filled it that way. The other driver looked straight at me and I shrugged with what I hoped was a winning grimace.

Driving round the cars in front and exiting through the entrance, we headed for the Motorway, which you would think might be smoother going.

And so it came to pass, except for Walter’s alarming difficulty in maintaining either a steady speed or any lane disciple whatsoever. We would continually be drifting from the slow to the middle lane and sometimes maintain a steady position straddling both, with other vehicles forced to suddenly brake or swerve around us – some of them honking in terror as they did. Sometimes we would bump over a cat’s eye and Walter would reflexively flinch and take his foot off the accelerator, causing us to slow down unpredictably – forcing more swerves and honks from all around us.

When we got to Sheffield, we encountered a roundabout. Being uncertain of where we were, or which road to go off on, Walter stopped – on the roundabout – while he gathered his thoughts. More honks and swerves.

As we finally walked in to the meeting in Sheffield University, people looked round and smiled at my shocked, ashen complexion and somewhat staring eyes. “Ah, another survivor” said one.

I have been grateful ever since that I’m still here, that Walter, despite this journey and many others like it before and since, lived on to 95 and was as disputatious and questing as ever. Captured by one of his last conversations that has been making me smile since Carol Turner told it at the funeral.

5 in the morning on one of the last days.

Walter: Nothing is certain. I might not make it to the morning.

Carol: Oh, you’ll make it to the morning Walter.

Walter: But how can you be SURE?

 

We are as grass.

 

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