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Book review: An extraordinary tale of a ruined life rebuilt in Wales

A Haven From Hitler 

by Heini Gruffudd 

(Y Lolfa 9.95)

A haven from Hitler not only shows the fragility of society and the resilience of the human spirit, it’s also the story of one woman and her extraordinary family.

Written by Swansea lecturer Heini Gruffudd it is a translation of Yr Erlid, winner of the 2013 Welsh Language Book Of The Year prize. 

It is mostly the story of Gruffudd’s mother Kate Bosse-Griffiths and her life in Wittenberg, Germany from the early 1920s on, with the gradual coming to power of the nazis and the horrors facing a Jewish family as anti-semitism gathers pace. Eventually she arrived in Wales, married and made a valuable and lasting contribution to Welsh life and culture.

Her father Paul Bosse was an exceptional surgeon who had been commended for his actions when a factory exploded near Wittenberg in 1935. 

The book has a photograph of Hitler visiting the injured in hospital with Paul Bosse by his side.

But there would be no favours for a German married to a woman of Jewish descent. His wife Kathe Bosse would die in the notorious hell for women, Ravensbruck, although their two sons Gunther and Fritz survived the concentration camp. Kate, the daughter, would be dismissed from her post in the Department of Egyptology at the Berlin State Museum.

Bosse-Griffiths was the one who escaped, attending St Andrews university in Scotland in 1936. She then went to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where she met J Gwyn Griffiths, son of a Baptist minister in Pentre, Rhondda, who would eventually become Professor of Egyptology at Swansea University. 

They married in 1939 and went to live in the Rhondda.

She immersed herself in the literary life of Wales, learnt Welsh and wrote poetry and fiction in the language, much of it inspired by her own family in Germany. 

More than anyone, she was the inspiration behind the influential literary circle Cylch Cadwgan  which included the poet and theologian WT Pennar Davies and the WWI conscientious objector, one-time MP and pacifist George M Ll Davies. 

But her greatest achievement was her work as the Keeper of Archaeology at Swansea University’s Egyptian Museum which she began when she was 60.

The determination of this vastly resourceful family to survive is awesome. Heini Gruffudd has been fortunate that many members of this literary family had committed to paper a record of their experiences. Even so, bringing order and coherence to so many strands, detail and information — much of it in German — can only be described as a monumental task.

It’s entirely fitting then that the book has been published by Y Lolfa, arguably Wales’s foremost publishing house, which was established by Robat Gruffudd, Heini Gruffudd’s brother and Bosse-Griffiths’s eldest son.

Gwyn Griffiths


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