Former Shrewsbury mayor tells how hero grandfather saved hundreds of children in World War Two

A former mayor who is fearing for her Ukrainian friends has shared the tale of how her grandfather saved 350 Jewish children from almost certain death in Nazi Germany.

Alan Overton, right, with Jewish boys saved from Nazi Germany, and Mrs Sperber, matron of the house who was also saved by Alan
Alan Overton, right, with Jewish boys saved from Nazi Germany, and Mrs Sperber, matron of the house who was also saved by Alan

Now Jane Mackenzie, Shrewsbury's ex-mayor, believes her grandfather Alan Overton's efforts stand out as an example which more people need to follow as support is thrown behind the nation.

Jane has housed Ukrainian people when they've visited the county on cultural and language learning trips, and has remained friends with some, including Viktoriya Dolinska, who she is trying to offer refuge to.

Her grandfather opened his heart and home, and now she hopes Salopians will do the same.

She said: "Their plight touched his heart and moved him to take action to save their lives. During the 1930s, he became very aware of the rise of anti-semitism in Germany and gave public lectures to raise awareness amongst the British public, about the dangers of Nazism.

"As a result of the oppression of Jewish people in Germany, in 1938, a committee was set up in London, at Bloomsbury House, called the 'Movement for the Care of Children from Germany'. They organised the first group of children who arrived at Liverpool Street station from Germany, and pictures of these children appeared in national newspapers the next day.

"My grandfather saw these pictures and realised that the little girl in the picture looked just like his young daughters. He was moved to tears, and in that instant, he decided that he must do something to help.

"He was a charismatic man, a natural leader who was a mesmerising public speaker. He immediately got in touch with Bloomsbury house, who made him realise that homes had to be found quickly. He formed a plan to deliver public lectures up and down the country to persuade as many people as possible to give a home to a refugee child.

"He was a married father of four in his late thirties, running a ladies outfitters, and a committed Christian. However, he felt compelled to set these responsibilities aside and focus his time and energy on saving as many children as possible.

"He became well known for his efforts, and letters began to arrive from desperate parents living in occupied Europe, who were trying to send their children to safety.

"I’ve seen these heart-rending letters, desperately pleading with my grandfather to save their little children, often with photos of their sons and daughters, paper clipped to the letters.

"In the months leading up to the outbreak of war in September 1939, he successfully used his skills to persuade over 250 people to pay the £50 bond (equivalent to over £3,000 today) required to finance their eventual re-emigration.

"Almost every week, he would drive down to Liverpool Street Station, to collect his children, often accompanied by my mother or her 10-year-old brother, Bruce.

"Their home became a transit house, with children arriving, often traumatised, shocked and exhausted. My mum, Betty, remembers waking in the dead of night to the sound of the crunch of the car tyres on the gravel driveway, as her father arrived with another car full of frightened children, some as young a two years old.

"Betty’s own mother, would come in and urge her own children to give up their warm beds and move onto the settee, to allow the newly arrived refugee children to have a good night’s sleep in their still warm beds.

"In the following days, these children would be taken to the homes of those who had agreed to look after them."

She added: "It became apparent that young girls were much easier to place than boys, and for this reason, several teenage boys found themselves with no home to go to. My grandfather realised that there was a danger that they might become interned in camps, so he decided to set up and run a hostel, where they could live and thrive.

"This was called Little Thorn, and there were usually 12-15 teenage boys living there. Grandpa had a great sense of fun, and often played practical jokes, he enjoyed being with the boys and organised film shows, table tennis competitions, swimming trips, hiking, and much more.

"My grandfather became their father figure and, when I interviewed one of the boys over fifty years later, he was overcome with emotion and moved to tears, telling me that my grandfather became a friend and father to them all, and that they had loved him."

Jane added: "I think his story couldn’t be more relevant today. I’m very proud of his compassion and kindness."

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