Aunt Doreen’s secret life defying Nazis

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Doreen Warriner’s work as a farmer at Meon Hill, top left, was definitely not the whole story of her life. Left, pictured in the 1960s

CERTAIN names have been taken to our hearts for their efforts to save people from the Nazi regime – Oskar Schindler, thanks to the Spielberg film and Nicholas Winton, thanks to a memorable moment on television’s That’s Life.

But alongside those we know from that harrowing period of history, there are others with a story to tell that has not reached a wider audience, either through a reluctance to share memories or because the documents that record their heroics have been lost or locked away, reports Richard Howarth.

Author Henry Warriner

For Henry Warriner, a painstaking piece of detective work has allowed him to bring to light the remarkable story of his aunt Doreen Warriner, who worked with Nicholas Winton in saving Jewish children and also helped save thousands of those whose anti-Nazi views equally put them at risk.

Having spent much time with his aunt as a teenager, Henry knew little of all this. But the story gradually emerged following her death on 17th December 1972 and the address given by a friend at her memorial service.

The key step was when Henry was contacted by Angelika Hirsch from Vienna in 2005. She found his name in the telephone directory and rang to see if he was part of Doreen’s family.

He writes in the book: “She was planning an exhibition highlighting the work of six people she considered to be the most important in helping to save potential victims of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslavakia, Doreen being one of them.

“Angelika already had more information than me and was sure that further records might survive.”

Already aware of Doreen’s own account of her time in Prague, the 2005 exhibition triggered a revelation from his mother that she had some of Doreen’s diaries and then after his mother’s death in 2007 they discovered further diaries and letters.

This was where his journey of discovery began in earnest as, around his own career – which embraced time as a chemical engineer and then Warwickshire farmer – he started to pull together the variety of information about her time before, during and after the Second World War.

Part of the Warriner family who had settled at Bloxham near Banbury and whose name lives on in a secondary school in the village, Doreen was brought up on the Weston estate near Shipston and studied at Oxford.

She was widely regarded as one of the brightest of her generation, and in a time when women were still most definitely a minority in higher education, her first in Philosophy, Politics and Economics was sufficiently rare that her achievement was recorded in the Herald in 1926.

She continued to build her academic career through the 1930s and combined it with running a farm at Meon Hill her father had left to her.

However exceptional her academic exploits were, bringing the strands of her life together in a developing interest in the organisation of agriculture in Eastern Europe, there was no obvious indication of what was afoot.

But change came when she gave up a Rockefeller Scholarship for travel to the West Indies in 1938 and went to Prague.

That’s where she became part of a small group of people who engineered the safe passage of those whose politics made them certain targets of the advancing German forces and also worked with Nicholas Winton helping Jewish children get to safety.

She was awarded an OBE in 1941 for this work but her efforts remained largely unknown until that memorial service in early 1973 and the address by her friend Nancy Lambton – though not forgotten by those she helped. Indeed, only a few months before her death, Doreen was invited by the Sudeten community in Canada to be part of their celebrations of their life, having escaped thanks to Doreen and those she worked with.

The role of the many people who worked with her at that time was a big part of her nephew’s approach in telling a story that carried on being remarkable after her time in Prague. Henry had the chance to get to know another on that list of six from Vienna – Nicholas Winton – and about some of those who worked with them and met some of the people they helped escape and their descendants.

Henry told the Herald this week: “It’s very easy to feel sorry for refugees but you need a lot of people to sort out the travel, visas, money, places to stay.”

So this remarkable piece of work, based on as many original sources as possible – with more perhaps still hidden in government vaults – tells his aunt’s story with extracts from diaries, letters and more, while highlighting how other unsung heroes played a part in getting so many away from danger.

Doreen Warriner’s War by Henry Warriner is out now, £10.99, published by The Book Guild Publishing.