Early in June I became pretty obsessed with trying to find out more about the people named on two benches on the Common. I'd never really looked at benches before, but it soon became a compulsion.
It all started when local resident Jenny Sheridan emailed the Friends of Wandsworth Common about some inscriptions she'd seen:
Do you know anything about Bella and Benny Spanier and their daughter Ruth? They are mentioned on two benches on the Common. One says Bella and Benny were killed in Auschwitz, the other that they contributed to the life of the area. Ruth apparently came to England on Kindertransport.
Who could resist a challenge like that?
Stephen Midlane took photographs, transcribed the texts, and established exact locations:
It took a little while, but I think I've established some useful information. The couple lived in Berlin, where Bella was an actor and Benni a theatre director.
I have found a number of helpful references, including Wikipedia Ben Spanier, Gedenken9nove38: Ben Spanier, and Wikipedia: Stolperstein ("Stumbling Blocks").
Where these are in German, I have used Google Translate: (See English texts here).
And what of Benni and Bella's daughter Ruth?
Having come to England on the Kindertransport in 1939, Ruth Spanier continued to live in London — I've found likely addresses for her in Sussex Mansions, Old Brompton Road, SW7, and in Battersea. I believe she married Robert Wing in 1975.
I'm still not sure why Wandsworth Common was selected as the site of the benches — either it had a special significance for Ruth (though she didn't live locally, unless perhaps she moved in later years to Nightingale House, on Nightingale Lane), or for Anna and Ben. (I have emailed Enable, who supervise all the benches on the Common, in the hope of making contact with Anna and Ben.)
Given that Benni and Bella were deeply involved in the theatre, I've speculated that there could possibly be a connection with the wonderful Cook sisters, Ida and Louise, who lived for 60 years on Morella Road. Before WWII they travelled to Germany to . . . Their inspiring story was outlined in The Wandsworth Common Story (pp.183—4). I don't know yet but it's possible.
There may be more information about the Spaniers in Ida Cook's own account, We Followed Our Stars (1956 — there are several subsequent editions with different titles), or the recent book by Isabel Vincent on the sisters (Overture of Hope: Two Sister's Daring Plan That Saved Opera's Jewish Stars from the Third Reich, 2022), but I haven't read either yet.) There a number of excellent articles online — just search for "Ida and Louise Cook".
Perhaps you know something more about Benni, Bella and Ruth Spanier? Or Anna and Ben? If so, do let me know and I'll pass the news on.
[A bit of a wild surmise this, but could the "Ben" in the inscription be the "Ben Higlett" who left (virtual) flowers for Benni and Bella on a memorial website? Twitter and LinkedIn tell me that a Ben Higlett lives in Wandsworth and attended Dulwich College, so it's not impossible. If you know (or are yourself) Ben, do please get in touch.]
STOP PRESS !
Just as I was about to send out July's Chronicles I chanced upon another source: Jews in Nazi Berlin: From Kristallnacht to Liberation, edited by Beate Meyer, Hermann Simon, and Chana Schutz, from which the following is taken:
In Great Britain and other countries, the pogrom of November 9, 1938, unleashed a wave of indignation at Nazi brutality as well as a wave of sympathy for those persecuted.
The British government, bowing to public pressure, announced in late November 1939 that it would take in 10,000 Jewish children from Germany. British aid organizations arranged the rescue operations in cooperation with the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland (Reich Association for Jews in Germany).
The first Kindertransport reached Great Britain on December 2, 1939. Jewish organizations arranged for the accommodation, board, and education of the children and teenagers aged up to seventeen.
Most of the approximately 11,000 children and teenagers who arrived in Great Britain between December 1938 and November 1939 during this campaign never saw their parents again. The Kindertransport was the last farewell. Only a few of the desperate parents who had entrusted their children to strangers in a foreign country survived the Nazi killing machine.
Ruth Wing, née Spanier, was the daughter of the actor Ben Spanier and his wife Bella. Her parents had asked her if she would like to go to England for a vacation to learn English and told her that they would join her soon.
At the end of August 1939, at the age of eleven, she left for England on the final Kindertransport from Berlin. Ruth and her parents maintained contact through Red Cross letters — brief messages limited to twenty-five words in length.
One note she received (shown here), dated January 24, 1942, simply stated: "Herzele!* Happy with September letter. We are healthy, together again soon. Greetings Uncle Jacob and Grandma. We're constantly thinking of you. Million kisses, Daddy and Mummy."
Contact ceased in May 1943 when her parents were deported to Theresienstadt.
Ben and Bella Spanier were subsequently deported to Auschwitz and murdered there. Along with the numerous documents and photos that Ruth Spanier has gathered over the years, she still has two silver spoons that she had been allowed to take with her as mementos.26
Ruth was taken in by the family of a London rabbi, although he did not bother much with her once she was evacuated with her school from London to Windsor.
As a German and with no means of her own, she had to drop out of school at age fourteen and was sent to an institution similar to a kibbutz in Scotland.** This institution prepared young German and Austrian Jews for emigration to Palestine. Ruth Spanier had no wish to go to Palestine.
After the war she returned to London, where she has lived ever since.
[From Jews in Nazi Berlin: From Kristallnacht to Liberation, edited by Beate Meyer, Hermann Simon, and Chana Schutz (2009), pp.42-3.]
* Herzele— probably a colloquial version of "Herzelein", "Little Heart".
** It is not impossible this was Whittinghame Farm School — links to a remarkable article.]
[Windsor & Royal Borough Museum: Evacuee Suitcase, about 1940
Ruth "was evacuated with her school from London to Windsor" (where she was billeted at 2 Gosswell Cottages). Hmm, girls from Clapham County School were evacuated to Windsor — surely she wasn't a pupil there?! That would certainly help to explain a connection with Wandsworth Common. But isn't that too much to hope for?
(In any case, Clapham County was a grammar school, and Ruth is unlikely to have been sufficiently fluent in English. On the other hand, it is not impossible that schools gave places to Kindertransport children.)
I asked Cathy Rowntree (archivist for Clapham County as well as Honeywell School) if she had any records for the war years.
"I am sorry to say that I have no pupil lists for any Clapham County year. I can glean lists of exam results, sports team members etc. and names of contributors from the annual magazines, but after 1941 the magazines were suspended due to paper shortages, so wouldn't reveal anything about Ruth Spanier. The next one I have is from 1947.
I have lots of information about the evacuation, from the official school history of 1959 (the 50 year jubilee) and more interestingly from personal reminiscences in contributions to the newsletter, including photos.
In 1999 a group got together with boys from the Windsor County Boys School, whose building they shared, for a 60-year reunion. There is also an illuminated certificate of thanks to the people of Windsor who made the girls welcome."
This has been Part One of July's Chronicles — I plan to send out Part Two within a week.
If you would like to receive occasional notifications of new Chronicles, let me know.
I've made a rough-and-ready index of all stories in the Chronicles so far.
Or click on the links to the individual months below.
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A new video from The Friends of Wandsworth Common
Life on & around Wandsworth Common, 1930s-1980s"
COMMON MEMORIES — Life on & around Wandsworth Common, 1930s-1980s
6/2023 — Over the past year, members of the Friends of Wandsworth Common Heritage group, led by Ros Page, have interviewed lifelong residents of the Common to explore their life and experiences and how the Common used to be.
The interviews were all filmed by John Crossland and the more than 20 hours of footage beautifully and sensitively edited down into this 'charming and engaging' film by Rosa Navas, a local film maker and Friend.
The film is interspersed with old images and film clips, bringing alive the narrative of the interviewees. The result is a fascinating insight into how life on Wandsworth Common has changed over five decades.
With special thanks to the production team led by Ros Page, including Stephen Midlane, Henrietta Gentilli, Louise Murphy, John Turner, cameraman John Crossland and editor Rosa Navas.
The film was launched on 6 June 2023 in the Fiennes Theatre, Emanuel School, and special thanks are due to Lisa Irwin and the school for their very generous support.
The video is now available to view via the Friends of Wandsworth Common website or on YouTube .
As one of the twenty people interviewed, I'm obliged to state I have a special interest in this film. And here we all are:
The interviews (each up to an hour long) were filmed and transcribed in full (though only short extracts appear in the film, of course). They have been archived in the Wandsworth Heritage Service at Battersea Library, Lavender Hill.
I hope people will explore the interviews, and perhaps use them to inform and inspire further historical work. Perhaps above all, I hope people will record their own memories of the Common — on paper or computer, on film, or on audio tape. Imagine if we could read the recollections of the countless people who have spent time on the Common in the last few thousand years.
"Some matters arising from May 2023's Chronicles
Video of a talk to/for the Friends of Wandsworth Common, Tuesday 29 November 2022. There's still more to be said, so, who knows, there may even be a Part III.
Video of a talk to/for the Friends of Wandsworth Common, Tuesday 29 November 2022.
The Black Sea: Birth, Life, Death (video of talk to the Friends of Wandsworth Common, 18 October 2022).
Maps and the Making of Wandsworth Common (video of talk to the Friends of Wandsworth Common, April 2022).
Magical History Tour: From "The Beeches" to the "Belgian" Congo (video of talk to the Friends of Wandsworth Common, 18 January 2022).
Victorian Photographer Geoffrey Bevington and the Search for Ivy House — video of Zoom talk to the Wandsworth Historical Society, 26 November 2021.
Down with the Fences Part II (May 2021) [link and info to be added].
Down with the Fences Part I (March 2021) [link and info to be added].
Wandsworth Common / WaterWorld (March 2021) [link and info to be added].
What a Carve Up (January 2021) [link and info to be added].
The Hidden History of Loxley Road (date 2020) [link and info to be added].
Incidentally, a couple of years ago I made a short video (my first) from Edwardian postcards and photographs of the lake, set to music by Claude Debussy, which you can view here. Utterly self-indulgent.
And here's one on the Three-Island Pond:
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