Happy 100th Birthday Helen Freeland

Thursday, 23rd April 2015

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Helen Freeland celebrated her 100th birthday on New Year’s Eve complete with a card from the Queen, a visit from the rabbi and surrounded by her family of 2 daughters, 4 granddaughters and 8 great granddaughters.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Helen recently, a woman of great charm and dignity, when we talked about her long and fascinating life.

Helen has lived in the Moseley area for about 78 years but she was born Helene Sander in 1914 in Suhl in Germany where her parents had a leather goods business.    At school she learnt English but her favourite subject was gymnastics. After school she studied Domestic Science.

Helen’s mother wanted her to become a foreign correspondent and encouraged her to go to England. Helen came to London aged 18 in 1932 on a student visa to improve her English as an Au Pair. The first family misused her as a maid, working her very hard all day before her English lessons at night. She got another job with a family who were moving to Leeds and was much happier.

In 1934 Helene had an encounter with destiny. She met Henry Freeland on a tram in Leeds on their way to the same dance.  It was love at first sight and Helen was “over the moon.”

Helen Freeland Photo0045 crop

In 1933 Hitler was elected Chancellor and immediately imposed the National Boycott of Jewish Businesses and banned non Aryans from the Civil Service and the professions.

Henry Freeland escaped from Germany after hearing Hitler address the Hitler Youth in Coburg in Bavaria where his family had owned a flourishing department store. In 1933 he was briefly arrested and fled. He arrived in London with just £60 and moved to Leeds to learn how to fix sewing machines.

He was 26 when he met Helen a year later. Within 2 weeks she wrote home saying she was engaged to a wonderful man who was a superb pianist and musician and a fantastic swimmer.

The happy couple continued their courtship but in 1936 Helen received a telegraph and returned to Germany to see her dying mother. Her father died 6 months later.

In1937 Helen and Henry were married in London and his parents travelled to the wedding. Soon afterwards a business opportunity brought them to Birmingham. Henry became a travelling salesman selling bicycle parts and they moved to a house in Barn Lane, B13.

Germany was engulfing its neighbours and more and more Jewish refugees sought sanctuary; hundreds came to Birmingham where both Jews and non Jews tried to help. In 1939 Helen and Henry were fortunate to get her sister and his parents out of Germany and they all squeezed into Barn Lane.

In May 1939 The Birmingham Jewish Refugee Club was formed and Committee member Henry Freeland was appointed Entertainments Officer. He arranged sing songs, English lessons, competitions, keep-fit classes and played the piano and accordion.

On 4th July 1940 with Britain fearing invasion, Henry and his father were interned as enemy aliens. Henry made Helen promise to lead the sing song he had arranged.  Helen said “I kept my promise but we were all crying.”

After the Battle of Britain, Henry joined the Pioneer Corps.  He was based in Chester and Helen got lodgings and a job at the local Kardomah.  She followed him to Weymouth where she worked as a chambermaid.

In 1943 their daughter Judy was born and the following year Henry’s father died. Henry was finally demobbed and in 1946 Ann was born.  In 1947 they moved to a larger house in Showell Green Lane.

Helen now had the opportunity to get involved with community life. In 1953 she set up the Birmingham Jewish Friendship Club – a social link for people over 60 and ran it for 35 years.

She was an active member of the League of Jewish women delivering meals on wheels and visiting the sick, and she visited the elderly until she was 90!

In 1966 Henry’s mother died and they moved to an apartment in Wake Green Road where Helen cooked memorable meals for her family and many friends. She was a wonderful Grandma and their grandchildren loved to go and stay with them. Now she’s a wonderful great Grandma as well.

Helen is very fond of Moseley, practiced Yoga for 45 years until she was 89 and enjoyed frequent walks especially in Moseley Bog.

Helen lost her beloved Henry in 1986 and lives quietly in the same 6th floor apartment with its sweeping views over Birmingham surrounded by family photographs and paintings, and the memories of a momentous century.

With acknowledgements to “Survivors: Jewish refugees in Birmingham” by Zoe Josephs