Jun 2002 Journal

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Ludwig Spiro, nonagenarian (profile)

Ludwig Spiro, born in Trier in 1912, celebrates his 90th birthday as vigorous as ever. His father, a senior engineer with Prussian Railways, settled there with his family in 1911. Ludwig remembers the house being requisitioned as a mess for French officers during the occupation of the city after World War I.

When Ludwig's father was promoted to Railway President at its Berlin headquarters in 1928, he enrolled his son at Berlin's Grunewald Gymnasium, a school of high renown with a liberal tradition and an enlightened headmaster. Germany was in economic crisis with unemployment reaching six to seven million and the currency devaluing daily. Ludwig set up a school Winterhilfe scheme to deliver food parcels to people who were literally starving.

In 1932 he enrolled at Munich University to study mechanical and electrical engineering, but found only four or five Jews in the whole university. "They were dreadful years; you were completely isolated," he recalls, and other students hardly dared to speak to him. Many SA and SS uniforms were seen on the streets and political clashes were common. When Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933 Ludwig's father lost his job and things became progressively worse. In 1935 "life got serious", yet he still worked hard to gain entry to his degree finals.

He obtained six months' practical work experience at the industrial giant MAN in Augsburg through its chairman, his father's old friend Otto Mayer. The only Jew working among 12,000 employees, he still has his Werkarbeiten showing his fine engineering drawings. After work, Ludwig cycled to the Jewish tennis club where he met Anna, his wife-to-be.

While Anna and he were meeting his old headmaster's daughter at Munich station to celebrate his 24th birthday, they were picked up by two SS men. En route to Gestapo headquarters, Ludwig bluffed that his father was still an important railway official and railway policemen turned a blind eye as the three escaped through an unlocked door. Despite being advised to go to Austria, he determined to complete his finals - then go to England. A letter ordering him to report to the Gestapo "could have meant the end," but at his interrogation he feigned immaturity and was thrown out!

In 1936 Ludwig visited London, returning to Munich with a sympathetic Jewish solicitor's letter commending his return to England. He believes that "it was the most important document I ever had." After visiting Hamburg and Berlin, he fended off the Gestapo by arranging for his parents to send his passport to a hotel in Stuttgart. He met Anna in Cologne and they travelled via Stuttgart to London, obtaining entry into England on the basis of the solicitor's letter. It was December 1936 and "everything in London was lit up." He later discovered that they had arrived on the day the Crystal Palace burned down!

Anna and Ludwig were married at Hampstead Town Hall in 1938. Ludwig was employed by heating engineers CB Jackson in Victoria Street, London and, when his parents came to live with them in Kingsbury in April 1939, he became - with help from Anna's sewing - the main breadwinner.

In 1940 Ludwig, his father and Anna were all interned. From Wembley police station to Wellington Barracks, then under canvass at Kempton Park Race Course where he led a sanitary team to avoid the spread of disease, subsequently taken to some "dreadful place" in Lancashire with primitive facilities, and ending up on the Isle of Man in June, where he organised a postal service for the 2,200 internees. Elected camp organiser, he met Eleanor Rathbone and other notables.

Lord Beaverbrooke at the Ministry of Supply wanted engineers and preferred to put the internees back into productive employment. Ludwig organised the list of engineers and left the camp in January 1941, joining Harland Engineering to work in their London research department - the start of a brilliant career as a world authority on steam turbines.

A member of the AJR Executive from the 1950s, as Hon Treasurer he introduced business efficiency methods, set up membership records, reorganised the office and produced financial reports. Above all, he was responsible for the establishment of the AJR Day Centre, finding a site in West Hampstead and building sheltered accommodation. He also served the CBF/OSHA Housing Association for18 years, two as Chairman. Ludwig was elected President of the AJR on reaching his 75th birthday.

Officially retiring from Harland Engineering as Vice Chairman at the age of 64, he continued to represent the firm in major contract negotiations in the USA, Canada, India, Japan, Australia and Latin America. Although Anna, with whom he shared a close partnership, passed away four years ago, Ludwig is staunchly independent, justifiably proud of his sons and their families; Stephen is Professor of Medicine at University and Middlesex Hospital and Anthony followed his father into engineering and serves on today's AJR Management Committee. A gardening enthusiast and lifelong supporter of Arsenal Football Club, Ludwig remains ever grateful: "When you are a refugee friends are important."
Ronald Channing

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