Living with the enemy

Framlingham man Paul Briscoe had a unique war. As Andrew Clarke discovered - he was a British child not only living in Germany but was adopted by a German family to keep him safe.

Andrew Clarke

Framlingham man Paul Briscoe had a unique war. As Andrew Clarke discovered - he was a British child not only living in Germany but was adopted by a German family to keep him safe.

Paul Briscoe remembers the war years as if they were yesterday. For a young child - all blond hair and blue eyes - it seemed one long summer; racing around with friends collecting bits of shrapnel, scrumping apples from the neighbouring orchard and enjoying the fact that the sound of the air raid siren meant time off school.

For a boy too young to be drafted in the army the war years were exciting and relatively carefree. During the early stages of the war rationing wasn't an issue, living in the countryside, food from local farms meant that he never went hungry.

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The only aspect of Paul's life that distinguished him from all the other war-time children living in his adopted home town of Framlingham, was that he was living in Nazi Germany.

Paul lived in Germany for ten years - from 1935 to 45 - from the ages of six to 16. Speaking from his Suffolk home, he says that he has long made his peace with his mother, Norah Briscoe, who was a freelance journalist completely enamoured with Hitler's Germany and their fascist view of the world.

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“For me I was too young to really know what was going on and besides I very rarely saw her.” Mother, as he calls her, had made arrangements for him to stay with friends in small town of Miltenberg on the outskirts of Frankfurt. He attended the local school and was brought up by a family who ran the local furniture store in the market place.

The family were ordinary Germans, not Nazis or extremists in any way, and indeed on the outbreak of war officially adopted Paul to keep him safe.

“For much of my young life, my greatest desire was to fit in - to be the same as everyone else. When I first arrived in Germany I couldn't speak German but I soon learned thanks to friends at school and to my kindly first school teacher. My mother didn't want to drag me around with her, so she left me with this lovely family and when I grew out of my clothes or they wore out, they dressed me as a German child. For the first time I felt that I belonged. I was no longer an embarrassment or a hindrance to my mother's work, I was welcomed and wanted.”

The real sign that Paul had been accepted not only by his adoptive family but by the German people was when a German film unit came to Miltenberg in the spring of 1938 to shoot exterior sequences for a romantic comedy called Spiel im Sommerwind. It was a bright and breezy film designed to show off Germany at its best to the rest of the world.

The plot was an excuse to string together a series of comic moments set in picturesque places across Germany. “Miltenberg was chosen because it represented the ideal semi-medieval style town. It looked very beautiful.

“The plot involved this good looking young German man running away from an arranged marriage, who meets up with a beautiful young girl on the road, they become travelling partners, have a series of comic mishaps along the way, they fall in love and eventually he discovers that she was the person he was supposed to fall in love in the first place.

“They only shot a little bit in Miltenberg but they wanted two children to be extras - one boy and one girl. As the lovers' car drives into the market place a young boy is chasing a girl and finally catches her by the town fountain and gives her a kiss. I chosen by the film crew to be the young boy because with my blond hair and blue eyes I looked the most German. I don't know if anyone told them I was English, certainly no-one from the town objected.

“For my brief film career I was paid five marks and a bar of chocolate. By now I was fluent in German, I was even starting to forget my English, I felt that I was starting to fit in.”

But, Paul admits that there is also another side of his personality which he accepts didn't feel right at the time but he personally became embroiled in the growing tide of Nazi-fuelled Jew-baiting vandalism which culminated in Kristallnacht over November 9-10 1938 - the night when Germans were encouraged to destroy property belonging to Jews.

Paul remembered waking up to the sound of breaking glass as a mob gathered round a shop belonging to Mira, an older woman who had quietly traded in the Miltenberg market place for many years.

“You have to remember that the town of Miltenberg wasn't particularly a Nazi town, certainly the people I lived with weren't Nazis, none of them belonged to the party, but everyone had been conditioned to suspect Jews. I watched from my upstairs bedroom window as they smashed the glass in her windows and when she appeared in her nightdress she looked very frightened.

“My young brain couldn't understand what was happening. They were shouting “Jews out” but Mira wasn't a Jewess, she was Mira, everyone knew her. She was a Jew but she wasn't like the others because she was normal. She was just like us. The mob took her off. The following day, school was cancelled and we school children were marched by the local party officials, along with the Hitler Youth and the rest of the town to the local synagogue and I watched in amazement as members of the Hitler Youth and people from the town started beating on the doors.

“Whether they broke it down or whether it was opened I can't remember but I do remember everyone rushing in. We school children were then encouraged to follow them. I remember being amazed when I got inside that people were smashing things or tearing up prayer books and religious texts. It felt wrong but at the same time very exciting. I knew it was wrong but before I knew it I found myself throwing things about and tearing up books.

“When the Rabbi appeared I remember looking into his eyes and feeling thoroughly ashamed but I also saw the fear there. He did not know what was happening. We drove him out into the street where he was set upon by the mob. It was not an episode that I am at all proud of but it is an example of the mass hysteria that can happen.

“I remember looking around me at the people screaming at the Rabbi and the people smashing up the synagogue and they were the same people, otherwise normal people, who lived and worked in the town and raised their hats to one another and made polite conversation outside church on Sunday morning.”

He said that his part in the film and his taking part in Kristallnacht certainly made him seem part of the town. He had been living there for four years when war was declared and the townsfolk started calling him The Tame Englishman. This warm feeling towards him certainly helped when shortly after war was declared the Gestapo came calling to inquire about Paul and his possibility of being used as a spy or a security threat.

Although the secret police went away seemingly satisfied, the family decided to officially adopt Paul. “I was very pro-German. It had been a long time since I had seen my mother. To be honest I had forgotten what my mother looked like. I regarded Seppl, Hildegarde and Oma as my family.”

He said that as a young boy, he had no idea that he was being brainwashed by his weekly trips to the cinema, seeing films which portrayed the British as brutal colonialists. One film set in South Africa during the Boer War had a young Winston Churchill portrayed as a concentration camp commander who shoots dead any of the colonists who does not do his bidding.

He said that the proudest day was when he was invited to join the Hitler Youth in advance of his tenth birthday as part of Hitler's own birthday celebrations. During those early stages of the war they were completely under the sway of the very patriotic Nazi propaganda. Life was good, being German was good. It seems difficult to believe now but we really did believe in Hitler, it was only later that we started to realise that he was not the man he claimed he was. By the end he certainly wasn't the father of the nation.”

While Paul was playing in the fields of Germany with his friends, his mother had become involved with British fascists and spent most of the war languishing in a British prison having been ensnared in a MI5 “sting” operation.

Paul, himself, was 16 at the end of the war and was a member of the volunteer fire service and was conscripted into the naval section of the Hitler Youth.

He was repatriated back to Britain, was conscripted into the British army at 18, and went back to Germany as part of the army of occupation. He remained in close contact with his adoptive German family and made an uneasy peace with his mother during her later years.

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