Today Belgium has the fourth largest Jewish community in Europe – 42,000.
It’s strange, isn’t it, what little we know about people? The hidden pasts about which you know nothing.
I’ve been acquainted with Roger James for many years. Over the decades our paths have crossed innumerable times professionally – when he was a Portsmouth councillor and, more often, in his capacity as a leading light in the Portsmouth Society.
But it is only with the publication of his two latest books that part of the story of his remarkable life is revealed.
The slim volumes are entirely different but totally related. The common thread running through both is the Second World War. And if it had not been for one man – his hero Viscount Montgomery (Monty) of Alamein, the one-time chairman of Portsmouth Football Club – neither would have been written.
Roger, who for many years was also a Southsea GP, served as a junior officer in the Royal Artillery in the 50th (Northumbrian) Division.
He was with them in the 8th Army’s advance from El Alamein almost as far as Tunis and then back again to Egypt to re-equip for the invasion of Sicily in July 1943.
They supported the 8th Army’s landing on the toe of Italy in September 1943, the first allied invasion of the European continent.
Then he came home to prepare for D-Day and took part in the Normandy landings and continued with the British 2nd Army’s advance through northern France and Belgium to Holland.
‘In all these actions I was under the command of General Montgomery who remains to me a great hero,’ said Roger. Monty, and the decisions he made to formulate Operation Overlord (the D-Day plan), is the subject of the first of his newly-published works.
As we sit in his splendid sitting room in Captain’s Row, Old Portsmouth, overlooking the nautical comings and goings in the Camber and beyond over the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour, it is probably the most unlikely episode in his military career which he returns to time and again and which inspired the second book.
Tears till fill his eyes when he recalls the reaction from the Belgian people when he took part in the liberation of Brussels.
And seven years after the end of the war it was that experience in the Belgian capital which helped forge a lasting friendship with a German Jew who became an artist of international repute. Not that they knew it at the time.
She was Ursula Hertz. She had spent part of the war hiding from the Nazis in Brussels and she went on to marry one of the world’s leading conductors of classical music Jonathan Sternberg. The story of their relationship is the subject of the second book
Roger said: ‘In Brussels we were ordered to put our guns in action – in a large park. This meant spreading them out, pointing them in the right direction and piling ammunition beside them.
‘We were the centre of a milling crowd of excited civilians. Luckily we were not ordered to fire because we couldn’t have done so without endangering the crowd. We could hardly get away to have a pee.
‘For me this was the high point of the war. We arrived in Brussels two or three days after the first British troops and the whole population still seemed to be on the streets.
‘It was the most fantastic welcome one could have imagined. Without once stopping we found we were carrying in our 15cwt Bedford truck 12 Belgians who had clambered aboard to hug us and kiss us and present us with little gifts.
‘We were not surprised they were pleased to see us but of course we had no idea that among them were people like Ursula and her family who, until we arrived, had been afraid even to go to the street at all.’
Roger, who was 90 last month, met Ursula in 1952 when she shared a house in London with him and several other friends.
But it was not until 1995 that they realised they were both in Brussels when it was liberated.
Roger added: ‘At the time of our friendship in London Ursula and I had not talked about the war. It was almost taboo to talk about what you had done in it.
‘When we did, all those years later, the story turned out to be, if anything, more dramatic than Anne Frank’s which had so much publicity.’
His book, published last week to coincide with World Holocaust Day, tracks the Hertz family’s flight from the Germans.
Roger said: ‘Ursula’s father was a Jewish businessman in Cologne. He had fought in the First World War in the German army and been wounded. Her mother was Jewish too but didn’t look it.
‘A few years before the second war her father decided to get out and, acting wrongly on the precedent of the first war, thought his family would be safe in Holland.
‘They moved to Holland not long before the Germans moved there too. They had to go into hiding, being looked after by good friends. Then somebody came along – Ursula didn’t know the details of the deal – who offered to get them to Switzerland. They would then have made their own way to England where her uncle had a wine business.
‘But they only got as far as Brussels when their guide said the route was now unsafe and they couldn’t go any further.’
It was at this point that the family split up and went into hiding in separate places until the British arrived in 1944
Ursula died in 2000 in the United States, but in one of the many letters between them, Roger pointed out that perhaps the failed journey to Switzerland had been for the best.
‘I told her that perhaps she was lucky she never got there. It has recently been revealed that escaping Jews often got short shrift from the Swiss border guards who were apt to hand them back to the Gestapo.’
n Ursula Sternberg and Montgomery at Normandy by Roger James are both published by Tricorn Books at £4.99.
During his long friendship with Ursula Sternberg, Roger James persuaded her to record for posterity those childhood wartime years on the run from the Nazis.
He has included her writings in his book.
She grew up in Cologne and remembered her grandmother’s music room which contained two concert grand pianos, rows of leather-bound books and many paintings.
‘None survived,’ she said. ‘The Nazis stole the lot.’
She then talks about how she first realised that she was ‘different’.
‘My first awareness of the Nazis came on a walk with my mother. She suddenly stopped in front of a big poster.
‘It had a caricature of a Jew on it. She tore it off the wall, which was a very courageous and mad, impulsive act. Thank God no one saw doing this.
‘Then came the carnival, a big yearly event in Cologne which we would watch from my father’s factory.
‘My mother pulled me away hastily from the balcony to protect me from seeing what I did however see – a wagon with large hideous figures meant to be Jews.
‘We children did not know really what it meant. We were not brought up in any religious way.
‘I came home from my elementary school one day asking what ‘Yid’ meant. Some kids had called me that and thrown stones at me. My parents tried to explain as best they could and I was taken out of school.’