The inspiring story of Cambridge town hero Frida Stewart and how she evaded two fascist dictators – while never forgetting those who helped her
The book Rosie’s War, written by the daughter and son-in law of Rosemary Say, an escaped prisoner of the nazis in occupied France and later a British diplomat in Spain, arrived very recently. By sheer chance I discovered that Rosemary was the woman who Cambridge anti-fascist fighter Frida Stewart (later Frida Knight) escaped with as they evaded the Gestapo and prison camp guards in occupied France in 1941-42.
Cambridge hero Frida Stewart before her internment in occupied France – in Rosie’s War
What quite often happens with me and historical research is that it is a photograph of someone or something that connects with me somewhere in my heart that then spurs me onto find out more. For example looking at these photographs from the Museum of Cambridge’s collection featuring many lost buildings of the past got me wondering why they were knocked down and whether anyone tried to save them. Given the amount of redevelopment going on – and the approval of the demolition of East Anglia’s former WWII Regional Headquarters yesterday by Cambridge City Councillors (see last blogpost) means that this is a bit of a sore point.
Connecting with their personalities
I think it was either Dr Janina Ramirez or Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock who I discussed online about connecting with the personas of the people that historians research. Some such as Eglantyne Jebb and Frida Stewart I have found easier to connect to when reading of their writings, actions and speeches compared to others, such as Florence Ada Keynes, who is much much harder to ‘read’ in terms of feelings and emotions.
What’s great about ‘Rosie’s War’ is that I’ve got the first real sense of the persona that was Frida Stewart. Absolutely hard. as. nails. Definitely one of the bravest and most courageous daughters of our city. A tribute to Noel and Julia Holland’s interviewing of Rosie, and of Rosie’s answers too. Rosie also comes across as one of the nicest and most fun people to be around. I guess it is in times of extreme difficulty & duress that we find out what what and who we really are. I have to confess that in the past, under such times of difficulty and duress I’ve not been pleased to find out who and what I have been as a person – using that as a driver to change things about myself.
Wishing they were around today
I often wonder what Cambridge would be like if Frida, Eglantyne, and Florence were around and active in Cambridge in their primes, along with say the likes of Eva Hartree, Leah Manning and Clara Rackham. I was talking to Gabrielle Hibberd at the G1000 Cambridge event earlier about the women who made modern Cambridge. She asked if we were at a similar point in history where there is space for a group of high calibre women to step forward and transform Cambridge once again – to which I said there was. That was after reflecting on the number of low calibre politicians (and now more prominently, businessmen) that I have seen in both Westminster and locally. Having seen a number of heads of big firms being grilled by select committees in recent years.
Although Frida was around and active a generation or two after the likes of Leah and Clara, and thus not directly part of their network or that of Eglantyne and Florence, the one thing that Frida had as a member of the Communist Party – she was a lifelong communist even after the fall of the Berlin Wall – was that she had a rock solid network. Your network had to be if you had fascists on your tail with a death warrant with your name on it. As I’ve mentioned before, the women that made modern Cambridge were also a rock solid network. Rosie brilliantly describes how Frida was able to tap into her international network of communists that enabled them to escape.
Frida’s confidence in strange surroundings
Rosie describes how in their bug-ridden prison camp (Caserne Vauban, Besançon as illustrated here) her and a younger group of women from all over the world had managed to get a more spacious room in their prison camp in Besançon. They had formed a nice little clique when Frida rocked up with a Nigerian companion called Ronka, also detained by the nazis. I dread to think what life was like for her. Rosie hints that Ronka was released and sent to Nigeria on the grounds that Nigeria at the time wasn’t interning German civilians. Rosie says this was at a time when civilians from third countries in the prison camp (even British colonies) were being released. But not Frida or Rosie. In their room they also had the daughter of a Jewish leathermaker and a Polish immigrant who happened to have been born in Palestine – where her birth was registered by the British authorities. This was Shula Przepiorka – who I discovered died as recently as 2014, aged 90. Thus she would have been in her teens in the prison camp. Despite not being able to speak a word of English, and having never set foot in England, Shula was detained. Despite objections to anyone new settling into their room, Frida was having none of it and batted off all objections and thus Frida and Ronka moved in. Rosie and Frida were both fluent in French – Rosie almost able to pass as a native speaker. Frida was also conversational in Spanish due to her time fighting Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War.
“Yeah but Frida was a communist and communism killed millions more than anyone!”
Angela Jackson put that very point to Frida in an interview late in Frida’s life after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“We should not blame Communism for the evils of Ceau¸sescu or Stalin any more than we blame Christianity for the Inquisition, or for Cromwell’s crimes, or the Crusades . . . Can you imagine turning your back on the Ninth Symphony just because it has been badly performed? Well I can’t! What is great and good and beautiful does not turn out to be paltry and rotten just because the wrong people got hold of it and misinterpreted it! Communism has not yet had an adequate performance, and we’ll have to work for it long and hard before this can happen.” (p197 of British Women & the Spanish Civil War)
I’ll leave you to judge her response.
What a number of people from Cambridge who knew Frida in her lifetime have written in online exchanges is how sharp her mind was, even when she became very frail in old age.
Frida Stewart via Angela Jackson.
“Why wasn’t Frida invited to talk to local school children about her wartime experiences?”
Because I was one of those schoolchildren who she might have met. Frida died in the mid 1990s when I was taking my GCSEs. A local resident who busted out of a nazi prison camp after defying Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War would have been one fascinating visit, that’s for sure.
Rosie made the point that if they had been soldiers, they’d have got medals for escaping from their prison camp.
From the British Newspaper Archive – this was also on the front page of the Evening Standard.
What Frida was able to do just before they left Marseilles was to pick up a secret message from a communist resistance fighter to take to General de Gaulle in London – the message hidden on the inside of the paper of a cigarette! Rosie describes how Frida was absolutely buzzing on having picked it up, but knew that put her at even greater risk had she been caught. Fortunately, and despite being strip-searched at the Spanish border, Frida was able to smuggle through the message which she was able to give to de Gaulle himself. She spent the rest of the war working for the Free French in London. I’d like to think that this act alone would have been worthy of some award, even if Frida might not have accepted it.
Being a lifelong communist, I’m not sure Frida would have accepted an honour from an institution that she wished to overthrow. In fact, we know that she was viewed with suspicion by the British authorities – here’s her MI5 file now deposited in the National Archives, and it contains 128 pages of documents! I paid to view the files – turns out she was compromised by the security services who were tapping her phone and intercepting her mail in the late 1940s. The one piece that caught my eye was this one.
From The National Archives (Crown Copyright) – Frida Knight’s security service file 086
If you thought Puffles was the first cuddly political creature in and around Cambridge, well it turns out Frida’s political puppet show got there long before. The other thing that’s of note is that she married biochemist Bert Knight (who also has a security service file archived here) shortly after returning to the UK – with two children born before the end of the war. An obituary of Bert Knight and his life of science can be found here. It turns out that they both retired to Cambridge in 1970. Originally I assumed she returned to Cambridge on his death rather than his retirement.
Browsing through the rest of the file there doesn’t appear to be anything that would concern national security, and by the early 1950s it appears the security services had ceased their close surveillance of her. We get a sense from her file of her day-to-day political organising with the communists in the UK. Of the local names that are mentioned in her file is that of Rajani Palme Dutt, also a lifelong communist who was born on Mill Road and went to The Perse. One for the Mill Road History Society?