At first glance it looked like nothing special with its soft paper covers. The design and typeface on the front cover are eye-catching with its enlarged fingerprint and arresting title. It says 'Beloved Alien, Walter Fliess 1901-1985, remembered by Geoff Spencer.' It was passed on to me many years ago by an old friend now long gone. At the time I flicked through it, thought it interesting, put it on the bookshelf, and forgot about it. I had a demanding job with long hours, travel and pressures. Reading not related to work was a bit of a luxury. Even when I retired, I never looked it out. So it stayed on the shelf for years: ignored, inconspicuous, overlooked.
I only found it again quite by accident, looking for something to read on holiday. I took it down and remembered my friend and her enthusiasm and gentle insistence that I read it. Looking at it more closely, I could see that it was a bit special and unique. The end paper says: 'Written and designed by Geoff Spencer.' It goes on: 'Printed by Rob and Sue Neely at Skittles Workshop at Gillingham in Dorset during the worst summer in living memory. Two hundred and fifty copies have been printed, of which this is copy no. 136.' It would have been a crime to put it back on the shelf. It demanded to be read. I owed it to my friend. So in the case it went, to be read in the Algarve.
So who was this Walter Fliess and why did Geoff Spencer feel compelled to write and publish this sincere, heartfelt tribute to his friend? Walter Fliess was born in 1901 in a small German village of Grossmuhlingen in the Dukedom of Anhalt in Saxony. He was the third child, all boys, of hard-working middle-class Jewish parents, Hedwig and Joseph Fliess.
The catastrophe of the first world war had an enormous impact on the young Walter. It determined the course of his life. At 16 he was apprenticed to an engineering firm. As the war dragged on and the Allied blockade bit hard, Germany was gripped by starvation and hunger. Walter, the memoir tells us, recalled his midday day meal consisted of two thin slices of 'bread' made from turnip and spread with a kind of jam also made from turnip. It had, he said, 'the appearance of black molasses and tasted like axel grease.' He noticed that a co-worker from a wealthy family had proper bread and sausage. This seemed unjust to Walter. And when he saw, scrawled on a wall, 'with equal pay and equal grub, there'd be no war,' Walter agreed. He became a socialist and remained one for the rest of his life.
To advance his ideas he joined, along with his future wife Jenny, a group called Militant Socialist International (Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund) – ISK for short. ISK was one of the many disparate groups that arose out of the demoralisation and defeat of the German imperial army. Its leader was a somewhat shadowy figure, an academic called Leonard Nelson. The group was based on the premise of attracting the brightest and best, and training them for undercover political work in the then mass party of the left, the Social Democratic party. It was disciplined, secretive, elitist, and totally opposed to both communism and fascism. Its ethos was moderate and social democratic, but its organisational structure and practice were hierarchical and authoritarian.
The watchword of the group was 'ethical realism' which members applied to life and politics. Membership of ISK was not an easy option and involved commitment and dedication. Vegetarianism was mandatory and aspiring members were required to visit an abattoir.
To help the cause, Walter and Jenny started feeding hungry and impoverished ISK comrades in their small flat. They were very good at it and it led to them opening a restaurant in Cologne, vegetarian of course, called Vega. This funded the group and provided cover for resistance to the rising tide of anti-Semitism and fascism.
When Hitler came to power, Walter and Jenny were in immediate mortal danger. They were Jewish, Social Democrats and anti-fascist. It was only a matter of time before they came for them – and they did. The Gestapo raided Vega, but a tip-off helped them escape by the skin of their teeth. Jenny immediately left for London and safety. Walter fought on, going underground, living on his wits. Somehow he survived, but as the regime tightened its grip his situation became untenable. With the help of contacts in the trade union movement, he undertook a hazardous escape, crossing the border into Holland, and from there to join Jenny in London.
It would have been understandable if they decided to live quietly and sit the war out, but not a bit of it. Borrowing £600, they opened a vegetarian restaurant, also called Vega, just off Leicester Square in London's West End. It was a risky proposition and their benefactor never expected to see his money again.
But Walter and Jenny were tough, hard-working and determined. They knew from Cologne that if you sold something fresh, healthy and tasty, and at a reasonable price, you were in with a chance. And chance also came to their aid in another way. Shortly after they opened, Michael Redgrave (later Sir) and his wife Rachel Kempton, on their way to the theatre, dropped in for something to eat. They liked it and spread the word to the theatre and show-business fraternity. Soon a stream of actors, musicians and show-business people were flocking in.
The food was inexpensive and good, but Walter and Jenny, being anti-fascist Jewish refugees, probably helped as well. The business thrived and soon regular customers included cabinet minister Stafford Cripps, George Bernard Shaw, Paul Robeson and Nerhu, future prime minister of India. Vega was successful, and profits from it helped the anti-fascist struggle here and in Germany.
Their good fortune did not last for long. The invasion of Holland and Belgium in 1940 cranked up fears of a fascist 'fifth column.' Under pressure, Churchill ordered that every refugee and foreign national be arrested and interned. It was a bad policy – not least for the Italian community. On 2 July 1940, the SS Arandora Star, on its way to Newfoundland, was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland, with the loss of 800 souls, including 486 Italians – many from Scotland.
Under the same policy, Walter and Jenny were arrested and interned. Jenny was sent to the Isle of Man. Walter, along with his brother Paul, was put aboard the HMT Dunera bound for Australia. Some 2,540 people, 95% of them Jewish, were crammed in a vessel designed for 1,600. Shockingly, Italian survivors of Arandora Star were also put on board. What happened was a national disgrace. Eye-witness testimony describes the Dunera as a 'hell ship,' a 'floating concentration camp,' and as being worse than a 'Bristol slaver.'
En route, the ship was attacked twice with torpedoes. The first failed to go off, and the second passed under the stern as it rose out of the water in a gale. The scandal was covered up and not fully exposed until 'The Dunera Scandal' was published in 1983. The panic abated and a remorseful Churchill, realising his mistake, ordered all internees to be repatriated. Jenny and Walter were reunited and returned to running Vega.
America and Russia entering the war sealed the fate of the Axis powers. When surrender came, Walter was invited to join the British Bipartite Control Commission, charged with rebuilding Germany out of the ruins of total war. With it went the civilian equivalent rank of lieutenant colonel. In a comparatively short space of time Walter had gone from an anti-fascist vegetarian restaurateur, and suspect fifth columnist, to one of the senior figures charged with economic and political reconstruction of the country he had fled as a hunted refugee.
Walter and Jenny continued to manage, cook and own Vega. It must have been exhausting. They continued to do it for 23 years, eventually selling the business in 1957. But they left a lasting legacy of their Vega experience in a book called 'Modern Vegetarian Cookery.' It became a bestseller for Penguin, and has been reprinted over 15 times.
Leaving the West End and the restaurant business didn't mean retirement for Walter and Jenny. It gave them more time to pursue their passion for politics, and particularly Labour party politics. Jenny became secretary and parliamentary election agent for Hendon South constituency. Walter did every job in the party from local government candidate, to borough party secretary, to a member of the Greater London Labour party executive. Notably, when they left Hendon in 1961, party leader Hugh Gaitskell made the presentation at their farewell do.
Around this time, Jenny began showing signs of the cancer that would kill her. But there was one last flourish. The memoir puts it like this: 'The last flicker was at Brighton in 1969 where Walter attended, representing the Harrow constituency. By then, Jenny's illness had progressed to the point where he had, at first, refused the invitation, more and more of his time being taken up with nursing Jenny. He said he couldn't think of attending alone. But Jenny insisted they go saying "you know Walter, let's go together. I can be just as miserable in Brighton as here." So they went travelling in style – first class on the Brighton Belle.' The memoir goes on: 'At the convention all the leading figures came to see her. Wherever she sat in the big hall Jenny held court, smiling through her pain.'
When Jenny died, Walter was devastated. In a marriage of over 45 years they had been through a lot and were inseparable. His health gave way and a heart attack soon followed. He moved to a house in Bookam, Surrey, to be nearer his daughter and to live more quietly. But never one to idle, he started a small business mending clocks. To the end, he maintained a keen and lively interest in politics, current affairs and the Labour party. And he enjoyed the companionship of family and his many friends – particularly Geoff Spencer. He died in 1985 at the age of 84.
I was incredibly moved reading the story of Walter and Jenny Fliess. Why didn't I read it much earlier, when my friend was alive? There were so many questions I could and should have asked. Did she know Walter and Jenny, and was she involved in their anti-fascist work? I have no way of knowing, but from some hints and conversations, I suspect so.
It is clear from the memoir that Walter and Jenny Fliess were exceptional people. They had strong life-long convictions and a gift for enduring friendship. This comes across time and again. I also found their story curiously uplifting. They lived to see much of what they worked and hoped for come to pass. At a terrible cost, Hitler and fascism were defeated.
Democracy and freedom prevailed. France and Germany said never again, and set out on the road to economic and political union.
But I wonder what Walter and Jenny would make of the world now? What would they think of Trump, the war in Syria, or desperate refugees dying in the Med? How would they react to the nationalism, xenophobia and fascism spreading across Europe like some deadly contagion? Then there is the UK quitting Europe and the anti-Semitism crisis engulfing the Labour party.
As good Social Democrats they would be dismayed by all these. But not, I think, despondent or despairing. Not their style at all.
They faced far more desperate and deadly situations as young radicals. Think of the hate and terror of Nazi Germany. Think of the smell of books burning, the fear, the camps and the slaughter. Think of the knock on the door in the dead of night that meant unspeakable torture and death. Walter and Jenny Fliess confronted and fought these horrors and came through. Are their lives worth remembering? Yes absolutely, especially now.
Photograph at top of page: Vega Restaurant, London