Joe Stirling obituary

Tom Carver

Joe Stirling, who has died aged 95, was 14 when he escaped – twice – from Nazi Germany to a warm welcome in Great Britain and a safe haven in Norwich. There he worked as a Labour party agent, set up a travel company and served as a city councillor and sheriff.

In retirement he gave talks about his life at schools and libraries; I was one of many moved by his words. His story was told fully by Phyllida Scrivens, whom he met at a talk at the University of East Anglia in 2011, in her book Escaping Hitler: A Jewish Boy’s Quest For Freedom and His Future (2016) .

He was born Günter Stern, into a Jewish family in the Rhineland village of Nickenich, the son of Alfred, a cattle dealer, and his wife, Ida. He was a bright and happy boy, doing well and playing violin, until nazism took hold. Barred from school, he had a dog set on him by a member of Hitler Youth and saw his father arrested on Kristallnacht.

His parents organised a place on the Kindertransport trains but with war looming Günter could not wait for the paperwork. He waded across a river and walked through Luxembourg and Belgium into Holland. A kindly Dutch policeman, concerned the boy would be turned away without a visa, smuggled him back into Germany.

Within a fortnight, in July 1939, Günter boarded a train to safety. Their farewell at Cologne station was the last time he saw his parents. He received letters from them via the Red Cross, until his mother wrote in February 1942 to say they were being “resettled” in Poland.

In Britain, Günter was given a home in Birmingham by the Free family, and resumed his education near their North Wales holiday home. He then attended Yardley grammar, a Birmingham school evacuated to Lydney, Gloucestershire, where he lived with another family, the Allsopps.

He was offered a place to study chemistry at Birmingham University, but turned it down to volunteer for the British army. He was advised to change his name, and chose Sterling after the currency, but the officer wrote Stirling; his comrades called him Joe. He served in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, then the Educational Corps, and met Jean Skitmore, a Norfolk woman serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. They married in 1946.

Settling in Norfolk, in Attleborough and then Norwich, he worked in accounts for a brush factory. In 1950 he became the full-time Labour party secretary-agent for the Central Norfolk constituency and then in Norwich; he was a councillor from 1958 to 1961. A colleague asked him to organise a Rhineland holiday for Labour Club members and after much research, and a poignant family holiday to his old haunts, he led a 30-strong party to Germany in 1955. Two years later he began operating trips abroad and Stirling Holidays was born.

After retiring at 73, he indulged a love of classical music at concerts and was a volunteer visitor at the elderly lifers unit in Norwich prison, where he played scrabble with Ronnie Biggs. He was also a leading light in the Lions Club for more than 50 years, giving support to good causes and forging links of friendship around the world.

Jean died in 2002. Joe is survived by his children, Jane, Ian, Martin and Johanna, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.