Feb 2007 Journal

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In memory of Herbert Sulzbach

One finds some surprising items in past issues of our journal, but a report from July 1960 takes some beating. Under the heading 'Association of P.O.W.s', it announced that at a gathering in Düsseldorf 25 ex-prisoners of war, former inmates of Featherstone Park Camp in Northumberland, had met their former Interpreter Officer, Captain Herbert Sulzbach, and had decided to form an association whose aim was to improve relations between the German and British peoples. Sulzbach, a German-Jewish refugee who had lived in London since 1937 and later worked in the cultural department of the West German embassy, was elected honorary president of the association, the 'Arbeitskreis (Working Group) Featherstone Park'.

For over 25 years, the Working Group met in Düsseldorf every October. In AJR Information's report of its first meeting, the cultural commentator PEM (Paul Erich Markus) recalled that when he had first met Sulzbach in a military hospital in 1942, the latter had been a private in the British army, whereas when he was invited to Sulzbach's home a few years later, he had become a captain, and among his guests were several high-ranking German officers. For Featherstone Park was the only camp in Britain for captured officers, Wehrmacht and SS, and Sulzbach had held the key post of Interpreter Officer there, from December 1945 until the camp closed in 1948.

Herbert Sulzbach was born into a distinguished Frankfurt banking family in 1894. He volunteered for the army in 1914, served right through the war and was awarded the Iron Cross. His patriotism shone through his memoirs, Zwei lebende Mauern. 50 Monate Westfront (published in English as With the German Guns, 1914-18), but so did his humanity and hatred of war. Forced to emigrate by Hitler, he was interned on the Isle of Man in 1940, served in the Pioneer Corps and, once German prisoners began to arrive in Britain in large numbers after the Normandy landings, threw himself into the programme of re-education. Leading by example, he aimed to show the German officers in his charge that mutual respect and tolerance, democracy and humanity were superior to the discredited values of the defeated Third Reich.

Many of the several thousand officers who passed through Sulzbach's hands recorded moving tributes to his achievements in re-educating them towards democracy. In 1982 they laid a plaque at the camp's site, making special mention of 'Captain Herbert Sulzbach O.B.E. who dedicated himself to making this camp a seedbed of British-German reconciliation'. Of course, some incorrigibles remained immune to re-education. But many prisoners responded positively, especially to the Jewish refugees among the Interpreter Officers, from whom they initially expected hatred and a desire for revenge. These men provided a remarkable example of humanity in action, and their devotion to the ideals of tolerance and respect for human dignity regardless of nationality or race added lustre to the British re-education programme.

A German prisoner left an account of the behaviour of one Jewish refugee officer, Charles Stambrook of Camp 180 near Cambridge, when an SS officer shouted 'Jew Lout' (presumably 'Judenbengel') at him as the prisoners were being counted: 'Let us reflect for a moment what an SS captain would have done, if a prisoner of war had shouted "SS lout!" at him. This is what the British officer did. He turned round coolly, and said calmly to the man who had shouted, "The Jew part is correct, the lout part isn't." And carried on.'

The put-down would read even better in German - 'Der Jude stimmt, der Bengel nicht' - as the dignity of the Interpreter Officer's reaction to the racial slur exposed the Nazi and his crude, dehumanised ideology to public contempt.

Sulzbach himself claimed in a BBC talk in 1948 'that the German POWs going home to Germany now will be the best envoys for peace and understanding between our two countries'. Events broadly seem to have proved him right: many of his ex-prisoners subsequently occupied senior positions in the West German diplomatic service, in industry and other branches of public life. The list of patrons of the Arbeitskreis Featherstone Park included Victor Gollancz, Norman Bentwich and Yehudi Menuhin, as well as Basil Liddell Hart, Ivone Kirkpatrick, Harold Nicolson and Benjamin Britten. One former prisoner, Landgerichtsrat Kurt Schwedersky, played a key role as judge in several trials of former concentration-camp guards, including the Treblinka trial in Düsseldorf, second in importance only to the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt.

This is neither to overlook the well-known failures in Germany's post-war attempts to come to terms with its citizens' responsibility in the Holocaust; nor is it to exaggerate the impact of British values and standards of behaviour on German POWs during their captivity here. Some readers, too, may consider unacceptable any attempt by Jewish refugees to reach out the hand of friendship to Nazi officers. But men like Sulzbach had the courage to confront evil without hatred, rejecting with due severity those who remained wedded to Nazism while being willing to embrace the good in those who wished to change. Herbert Sulzbach died in 1985; he is buried with his wife in Hampstead Cemetery.
Anthony Grenville

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