In February 2015 I travelled to Dresden, Germany as part of a party from Coventry to join in with the commemorations marking 70 years since that city was bombed. The two cities were both (along with many others) devastated by bombing in the course of World War II. After Coventry was bombed in 1940, leaving the cathedral completely destroyed, the people of the cathedral community made a decision to seek peace and reconciliation, and to build bridges between warring peoples. This vital work still continues today. A symbol of this reconciliation is the friendship that exists between Dresden and Coventry, the two stricken cities. Our visit was a statement of solidarity as we stood side by side with our brothers and sisters to declare that love must overcome hate. It was a privilege to represent the church and city of Coventry over the weekend, but there was a deeply personal reason why the brief visit was particularly poignant for me, and it was all to do with my grandparents … this is a snapshot of their story …
Friedericke Luise Büttner-Wöbst (Rike) was born in 1926 as the youngest of 5 children in the village of Langebrück, on the outskirts of Dresden. Her father was a TB doctor and they owned one of the only cars in the village. In the thirties they met and befriended Fred Clayton, a young Englishman from Liverpool – a Classics scholar from King’s College, Cambridge where he had become good friends with Alan Turing amongst others. Fred was in Dresden tutoring in English, and it was through this tutoring that he met the Büttner-Wobst family. Fred left Germany when it became clear that Germany was becoming more of a hostile place under the rule of Adolf Hitler. A novel, ‘The Cloven Pine’ was published under the pseudonym of Frank Clare and served as a warning about the growing danger of Nazism.
The Büttner-Wobst family were happy and stable. Rike was confirmed in Dresden’s Kreuzkirche. Then war broke out and everything changed. Tragedy struck the family when the eldest son, Götz, was shot and killed by a sniper in the invasion of Poland in September 1939. He was only 17, and his parents in particular were broken-hearted. They died within a year of their son’s death. Rike and her siblings were orphaned, and life was far from secure.
Then in February 1945 the city of Dresden was destroyed. Thankfully, Rike was working on a farm outside the city when the bombs struck, but she knew people who had been killed by the bombing. Then the Russians arrived, anxious for vengeance. They gravitated towards the Büttner-Wobst house and their car. Rike was held at gunpoint and managed to talk herself out of being raped.
Meanwhile, Fred had begun the war breaking the German codes. His skills as a linguist and love for the way that language worked made him the perfect code breaker. He was summoned to Bletchley Park and although his fluency in German meant he was well-suited to the work there, his superior officers were suspicious of his potential German sympathies, and he himself felt he’d had a too ‘easy’ war, so volunteered to go out to India to break Japanese codes.
Fred had not forgotten his German friends. After the war finished, he wrote to find out how they’d got on. Rike replied that the future looked grim as the likelihood was of Russia being in control of East Germany. However, during this time, something unexpected happened – as they exchanged correspondence, Rike and Fred fell in love. He sorted out the paperwork and enabled Friederike to flee Dresden. They married in Liverpool in 1948 and soon moved to Exeter, where Fred began work as a Professor of Classics. Rike (Anglicised to “Rikki”) began life in a foreign land – the land which had only recently been at war with her homeland.
Rike and Fred were my grandparents. I had the privilege of visiting Dresden in 2000 with her and seeing my family’s old home. Until I came to Coventry as a Vicar, I had no idea about the connections between this city and the one of my grandmother’s birth, and particularly between Coventry Cathedral and the Kreuzkirche, where my grandmother was confirmed.
It was incredibly significant to visit Dresden at the time of the 70th anniversary commemorations of the bombing, because, through my grandparents, reconciliation is in my blood. I was honoured and humbled by hospitality shown to me, and the interest that was shown in my family story – I found myself being interviewed by BBC CWR, live on Radio 5 Live while in Dresden, and appearing on Deutsche Welle, the national English speaking German television channel. There was also an article in the Church Times.
Through this I discovered that it seemed like I was being given the responsibility to bring their story back to life. I was then given the opportunity by the Coventry diocese to take a sabbatical in which I wrote “Dreams of Dresden”. I hope that through Fred and RIke’s story being told, it’ll make a statement that love wins over hate – it’s a message our world so desperately needs to hear.
This has been adapted from an article first published on my “Marching on” blog in February 2015.