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Michael Coveney: Dr Stross follows Dr Korczak's Example

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In writing about the Unicorn children's theatre on this blog yesterday, I omitted to mention (because I've not seen it) David Greig's play, Dr Korczak's Example, which is about a heroic paediatrician who created an orphanage for Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto and was transferred with them to the death camp at Treblinka where they all perished.

This unrelated story came to mind when, in Stoke-on-Trent at the weekend, I visited a remarkable small exhibition about the massacre at, and the destruction of, the Czech village of Lidice, near Warsaw, in 1942. Hitler's deputy in the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia had been assassinated, and the furious Fuhrer ordered that the village (suspected home of the assassins, though it wasn't) should be destroyed and its inhabitants exterminated, the men on the spot, women and children in the Polish camps. 

In June 1942, Hitler cried, "Let Lidice die." Exactly three months later, a doctor and Labour councillor in Stoke, Barnett Stross (who happens to have been the great uncle of my taller and better half), replied, loud and clear, "Let Lidice live" and proceeded to instigate a fund-raising campaign that saw the village rebuilt and re-populated by the mid-1950s.
Why was Dr Stross so moved? Because he had befriended some Czechs in Stoke, and the miners of Lidice had mining confreres in Stoke who came within the good doctor's pre-NHS brief. He became one of the city's MPs in 1945, serving in the Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson governments before his death in 1965.

While absorbing the information in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, we fell into conversation with a historian and senior lecturer at Staffordshire University, Martin Brown, who was doing likewise and who kindly directed our attention to a plaque honouring Barnett Stross that had been unveiled earlier this month in the nearby Victoria Hall, scene of the doctor's famous rallying cry.

Filling us in big time on the local cultural scene, including latest developments at the New Victoria Theatre, Martin then walked us down the road to Emma Bridgewater's wonderful Victorian working factory, where the celebrated ceramist - this is the Potteries, after all - produces and sells her mugs, plates and trays. On the way, we passed an open wasteland that has been reclaimed as a wild flower sanctuary with a million seeds.

This amazing prospect - poppies, sunflowers, autumn gentian, ox-eye daisies, garden speedwell, flowerfew, red and white clover - all in full colour in the last week of October! - has only been made possible by the shelving of a new build housing scheme instigated by John Prescott in the last Labour government. So a sight for sore eyes has been created where people in need of homes might have been domiciled. 

It was ironic coming across this after the Lidice story, but on a first visit to the city for many years, it struck us as a beautiful attraction, as extraordinary as it was unexpected. There was nothing for it but to have a fish and chips lunch, inspect the exteriors of the Bethesda Methodist Church and the Minster, and return to the Museum to have a look at the Staffordshire Hoard.

The what? The hoard is a stash of Anglo Saxon gold - more than five kilos of it, plus one and a half kilos of silver, and thousands of garnet pieces - discovered by a bloke with a metal detector in a muddy Staffordshire field three summers ago. Early research suggests that the hoard - no human remains were found nearby - was buried towards the end of the seventh century AD. More info will be forthcoming in due course, but meanwhile, bravo the Potteries Museum, and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, who raised nearly a million pounds in public donations to buy the treasure trove jointly.

We missed out on the hoard-related puppet show that was playing to small children in an adjacent gallery, but the whole place was buzzing in a Halloween humour, and what with all the skipping about, the wild flowers, Emma Bridgewater's trays and teapots, and the company of our new found friend from the university, what had started out as a dutiful visit to unfashionable Stoke was transformed into a day of unforgettable surprises.


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