Monday, 10 October 2016

Clare Hollingworth: The English Rose, who saved Europe's Refugees

Happy Birthday, Clare! Many best wishes & thanks to you. 

So many have heard the name, Oskar Schindler. He was the German credited with saving around 1200 Jews. And there have been others, and today I give you the story of a lady who is 105 years old, living in a care home in Hong Kong. Her name is Clare Hollingworth. Clare is credited with being the first journalist to break the news of the Second World War. But, there is a twist. Before breaking the news, Clare was busy with a humanitarian role.

Clare Hollingworth was born on the 10th October 1911 in Leicester, England. She had been working as a journalist for under a week when her employer, The Daily Telegraph packed her off to Poland to report on the problems in Europe, at the end of August 1939.
Clare Hollingworth
Once there, Clare managed to borrow a car as she intended to drive to Germany. Along the German-Polish border, she witnessed numerous German troops, armoured vehicles, and tanks. In her words, she said, "I was driving along a valley, and I saw scores of tanks, hundreds." Three days later on the 1st September, she contacted the British embassy in Warsaw and reported the invasion of Poland. Officials there were sceptical, however, and Clare reportedly held the telephone at arm's length out of a window in an attempt to pick up the noise of the tanks rolling in.

The Telegraph ran with the headline "1000 tanks massed on Polish border" and "ten divisions reported ready for swift stroke."

But less known is just what Clare did before the war. In 1938, as thousands of refugees poured over borders in Europe seeking asylum, Clare Hollingworth was a 27-year-old beautiful woman who had just booked a holiday to Kitzbuhel, Austria. When she returned home, she had a Nazi-approved visa in her passport.

In September 1938, Chamberlain's "Peace for our Time" mission delivered Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland region to Hitler, something which struck terror into refugees who sought asylum abroad. Many British people were outraged, and various organisations were created to help with the refugee crisis. One such organisation was the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, and in March 1939, they were looking for a willing volunteer to carry out a dangerous mission. They needed someone willing to travel through Germany to the Polish port of Gdynia to meet a significant number of refugees who were fleeing Prague.

Now that Clare had a Nazi-approved visa, she was eligible to volunteer for the role, and so she travelled to Poland without delay. Just before she reached her destination, the Germans marched into Czechoslovakia.

In Gdynia, 451 refugees were waiting - men, women, and children. Most were known as anti-Nazis and included military men, writers, and Jews, some of whom had already fled from Germany and Austria. They had no means of safe passage as they did not have the official documents or funds.

Clare was very efficient, and had a way with words, a way that would see her haggle with officials to get what was required. She collected up her group of refugees and sought accommodation and food while she then set about acquiring appropriate documentation and arranging sea passage to take them to sympathetic countries.

Afterwards, Clare returned to Poland. Refugees arrived daily from Czechoslovakia, risking their lives as they did so. They were shot at from one side by the Germans, and from the Poles who were defending their borders.

The British General Consul in Katowice welcomed Clare's help, and she was put to work immediately, interviewing refugees daily and checking their claims to British support. Soon, she was made the official BCRC representative for Poland and was charged with the care of more than a thousand refugees at any one time until safe passage could be arranged to countries such as South America and Britain.

The list of people the BCRC saved included a two-year-old girl called Madlena Koerbel, who escaped to America with her family. This small child was renamed Madeleine Albright and became the Secretary of State. Clare also helped secure the safety of Hans Heinrich XVII von Hochberg who was a London-born Polish aristocrat.

Another lucky soul was Margo Drotar. Margo was four when she and her mother were arrested in Poland in 1939. They were communists from Hungary, fleeing the advancing German troops. Thrown into jail, they had starved for five days when Margot's mother held her up to the prison bars and told her to cry. A woman passed by and heard her cries. That woman contacted the resistance in Katowice jail, and Margot and her family were smuggled out to safety where they were interviewed by an English lady. Margot and her family sailed away from Poland on the last ship, reaching England 2 days before the outbreak of war on the 1st September.

Margot now lives in Buckinghamshire and has four children, nine grandchildren, and a great-grandson. Having found out about Clare, she sent her an emotional birthday message which said,

"Happy Birthday darling Clare. Live for a hundred years again. I will think of you to the end of my life. Thank you very much for what you gave me, and for all those other people. Thank you."

Between March and July 1939, Clare helped to arrange visas for around 2000-3000 refugees who were then able to come to Britain and other countries.

Clare carried on after the war, reporting the news and covering later conflicts around the world, such as in Palestine, China, and Vietnam. She is also a survivor of the King David Hotel bombing in Jerusalem in 1946 which killed 91 people.

She didn't speak of her role in helping refugees flee the Nazis. It was by chance that a relative discovered her involvement in this daring, dangerous mission. She is typical of a generation who perhaps feel unworthy of being hailed heroic, but they are nonetheless. She was clearly a feisty, determined young woman and one resolved to 'doing her bit' to help vulnerable people flee a tyrannical regime; flee death.