It began with a letter from Greville Janner, several months before, asking if some of my students could take part as a choir. What more obscure event could be imagined - the dedication ceremony for a new road! And what an absurdity, what an anachronism - a teenage Jewish choir, all boys, singing Hebrew melodies by the side of the main road, in Burnham-upon-Sea, wherever that was! And who on Earth was Frank Foley, that the Jewish community should be invited to take part?
Still, we went, the boys en minibus, my wife and I rushing back from a Bar Mitzvah weekend in London with our daughters. Heat-wave. Dignitaries a-plenty. A Sea Cadet Guard of Honour. Our local Rabbi from Bristol leading the prayers alongside the Archdeacon of Wells and the Bishop of Clifton. Last Post and Reveille. Dipping of the British Legion flag. Marching bands. The full English, military, pomp and circumstance. But who was Frank Foley? Michael Smith, the man from the Daily Telegraph who had researched him, and just published a book about him, was there to tell us the whole tale.
He was, it transpired, the head of the British Passport office in Berlin during the 1930s, but that was just a cover for his real role - as Head of MI6. When Hitler began persecuting Jews, Foley turned them into British citizens and passported them to safety in Palestine or the British colonies. How many? No one knows, but a figure in the tens of thousands probably. Wy wife had spent decades trying to figure out how, just three weeks before Krystallnacht, and after being turned down repeatedly for visas, her father (dead when she was nine, so she couldn't ask him) and her grandmother (died in Australia shortly after war's end, so she couldn't ask her), had mysteriously turned out to be distant relatives of the Australian Governor-General, Sir John Monash, which entitled them to a visa out of Germany, and another into Australia, and a British passport, and safety. As we stood at the roadside in Burnham-on-Sea, singing the Kaddish and the El Maleh Rachamim, while he got his statue in his home-town and his name on its new Parkway, Debbie finally got her answer.
And four years later, an email too, from one of her long-time friends who happened to be working at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had also heard the tale of Frank Foley, and decided it was time to honour him, in more than just a statue and a Parkway. The email was in fact a copy of a press release, due to go out that day. It read:
Frank Foley (1884-1958) worked in Berlin from 1920 until 1939 as Passport Control Officer and as a member of the Secret Intelligence Service. However, it was Foley’s heroic efforts in saving thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution which led to the unveiling of a plaque in his honour at the British Embassy in Berlin on 24 November 2004, the 120th anniversary of his birth. Foley risked his own life to save Jews threatened with death in the Third Reich. He did not have diplomatic immunity and was liable to arrest but he still went into concentration camps to get Jews out, hid them in his home and helped them get forged passports.
The old Passport Control Office in Tiergarten Strasse no longer exists but Frank Foley is now honoured nearby. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said: ‘Frank Foley risked his life to save the lives of thousands of German Jews. He was a true British hero. It is right that we should honour him at the British Embassy in Berlin, not far from where he once worked.’”
The illustration on the left completes the honouring: Prince William and Ian Austin MP in 2018, unveiling another statue of him, this time in Stourbridge. You can read a fuller account of Foley's life and heroism, where he most belongs, at the website of Yad VaShem, the home and especially the Graden of the Righteous Among the Gentiles, by clicking here.
The English siege of Orléans was broken today in 1429, by a French army led by Jehanne Darc (see May 30)
Robert Browning, English poet (see also May 5), born today in 1812
and a triplet which my love of coincidence particularly enjoys:
a) Ludwig Van Beethoven made his last appearance on the concert stage, today in 1824
b) Beethoven's self-proclaimed heir and successor, Johannes Brahms, was born today in 1833
c) Brahms' greatest rival for that distinction, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was born today in 1840.
A story for the sentimentally-hearted and the sports-fanatical, Francis DeSales Ouimet, golf enthusiast, born today in 1893 (that's him above-right, and the story of the ten-year-old caddie is even better - Eddie Lowery the very grown-up young man's name). Read it here
And today in 1915, the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off the Irish coast, 1,198 died, none of them famous, and so it never got the media coverage of the Titanic.
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