My Grampa

My grampa was a lawyer. He was an entrepreneur. He was a husband, a friend, a father, a son and a brother. He was Lotzy, Lothar, Mr Wachtel and then Mr Wardell. He was, by all accounts, a joker. He told the most amazingly imaginative stories, creating a world that still lives on today in me. He was my beloved grandfather, who adored me. He was also a refugee. And, as with all labels, that did not define him.

Born in Bamberg, Germany in 1902 to a Jewish family, he built a life for himself. Sadly, I do not know much about his early life, but from the little I do, I know it was a full one. He was a Jewish man, growing up in the context of increasing anti-semitism, studying to be a lawyer. I am sure he would have had fascinating stories, but sadly I never had the opportunity to ask him as he died when I was 8.

What I do know, mainly from my mum, is that in the early 1930s he was in a relationship with a communist. Fearing for her life, she escaped; my grampa driving her to the border. When he returned to his flat he found a note from a friend, warning him that ‘they’ were after him now. I often wonder if that act saved him; he escaped Germany before the anti-Semitic laws really took hold, before Kristallnacht and before people started being forced into concentration camps. The rest of his immediate family followed suit in 1938, scattering across the globe to Brazil and Australia.

He first went to France, before boarding a boat to the UK. On the boat, and again the details are vague, he met someone who sold him a patent for a metal cutting tool which he then developed, opening a successful factory in Sheffield and creating dozens of jobs. He met my granny and subsequently my mum was born. In his retirement they both moved to Bristol to be closer to my mum. He loved exploring and spent many years skiing and climbing mountains.

Growing up as the granddaughter of a man forced to leave behind his family and friends has shaped my life and my career choices. My grampa was an asset to the society he adopted, and I never even considered that there would be people who would disagree because of where he was from, or how he had come to be in the country. Seeing that prejudice as I got older, a prejudiced rhetoric that is exacerbated by the UK media, made me all the more determined to stand in solidarity with people seeking sanctuary. 

I have since had the honour of working with many people seeking sanctuary, both in the UK and on the Greek island of Chios. Every single person I have met is a human being with their own story to tell and their own hopes and fears. Whilst they have a shared experience of forced displacement, that does not define them.

It is easy to forget, with the media and political narrative, that each person seeking sanctuary is an individual person made up of all the nuanced personality traits that we all hold. The rhetoric has succeeded in “othering” people who are forcibly displaced, in doing so placing them as a homogenous group. This is dangerous and dehumanising. When I was working in Greece, I met the most amazing array of people. Yes they were united by a shared experience of being trapped in an asylum hotspot, but that did not mean that they were the same. The young girl who dreamt of being a doctor, the student who would patiently teach me table fussball. The parents caring for their children in one tent, watching the youngest run up and down the camp with a look of glee. If I could change one thing about the narrative, and if I’m honest there is a lot I would change, it would be the determination to homogenise everyone seeking sanctuary, thus dehumanising them.

In a few short years my grampa touched my life in a way that will last a lifetime. It is for him that I will continue to campaign for a more welcoming society, one that recognises the values of  sanctuary.

Anna Wardell

~Anna is currently the interim manager of Bristol City of Sanctuary. She has an MA in Refugee Studies and has worked on the Greek island of Chios on an education project for young people living in the camps. Her grandfather fled Nazi Germany in the early 1930s, seeking sanctuary in the UK where he built a life and a family.~