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Going Gently into the Good Night

South Oxford has always had a sad air of limp curtains and cooked cabbage about it; stalwart respectability and dullness, a look of pre-war utility and just “getting on with it”. Down the Abingdon Road, parallel to the river on the left, where the university scullers practise,  lie watermeadows that flood in the winter; on the right  is  cramped housing, built along narrow streets that lead to New Hinksey park. It has a good show of muncipal circular flower beds, a small lake for sailing toy boats, tennis courts and  the only outdoor pool in Oxford.

I mainly liked living there  for my next door neighbours, Hilde and Kurt Schult, who befriended me and made me  welcome in their home. They had bought their thirties semi for a couple of thousand pounds and it  represented everything  safe and gemutlich, with its comfy armchairs, potted plants and Hilde’s collection of fancy plates and silver coffee spoons.  Kurt looked after his immaculate garden and pottered around his home-made shed whittling wood and tinkering with broken kettles and faulty household items . He grew roses, carnations and fuschias  for summer bedding and spent hours  in the allotment which he’d tended for 45 years. There was so great an extravaganza of produce that Hilde would beg him, in vain,  not to grow such quantities. Her freezer was full all year round with beans, peas, sprouts, soft fruit and I don’t think they ever needed to buy potatoes or onions or shop jam.  In October Kurt would make redcurrant wine and mix his Christmas cakes, which were rich and dark with fruit and booze. He made exquisite sugar primroses for decoration and I always  put in an order for at least two cakes to take to my mother in Delhi.P1000208

After Kurt retired as Head Chef at Linacre College, the two of them began to enjoy going dancing on Saturday nights  at the German Club in Horspath,  taking jolly  coach trips to Christmas markets, travelling to see their families in Germany, meeting friends at the Wednesday market and going to hear their son Michael sing in  musicals in Reading. Always genial, always ready to help anyone in need, the two of them exuded well-being and generosity.

Kurt’s philosophy was simple: hard work,  discipline and duty. He had grown up on a smallholding in North-Eastern Germany, where his father kept livestock and worked as a forester. From his father Kurt learned the ways of cultivating the soil, becoming  skilled at playing the mouth harmonica. But in 1939, when he was 17,  he was called up to be a sailor on a minesweeper. Taken  POW by the Allied forces,  he spent a year imprisoned in Waterloo, Belgium, and then in a POW camp near Oxford for a further three years. When the war ended, his old home was part of Communist East Germany , and he decided to stay on in England. He had some training as a cook on the minesweeper, so he found work at the Kardomah Cafe in Queen Street Oxford.

Meanwhile, Hilde had been going through her her own ordeal in Essen, where she had trained as a bookkeeper. She and her sister were practically starving when their father returned from the Russian front. He took them to his brother’s farm, where they camped in the garden shed, until one terrible day when a group of Polish renegades stormed through the village brandishing their rifles. Hilde’s father shielded his girls with his body and paid for it with his life. After that there was nothing left for them to return to, as Essen had been flattened by bombing raids. On the radio Hilde heard an invitation for German girls to travel to England where there would be jobs, food and shelter. She arrived at Victoria, not knowing any English, and found herself facing a long table of worthy ladies in hats and gloves who handed her a ticket to Oxford.


Three months later she met a handsome young ex-sailor who offered to show her around Oxford and soon after that she and Kurt were married in a Lutheran ceremony.  They brought up three boys and worked in domestic service, the Morris factory, Palms Delicatessen until eventually Kurt found the job he loved at Linacre College. Hilde told me how they saved every penny and how she would cycle to the Covered Market on Saturday with small bunches of pinks, which sold for sixpence a bunch.

I happened to be reading A Woman in Berlin, an anonymous diary of the terrible months during the Russian occupation of Berlin, when I heard the news that Kurt had died in hospital, having suffered a long illness. He was a man of great warmth, courage and selflessness. He never lost his strong accent and found it perplexing that  even though he would have shared  his last crust with anyone that needed it,  he never felt quite integrated or completely accepted in his adopted country.

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