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Ben Elton’s gratitude: How a Welsh headmaster saved his family during WWII

RENOWNED comedian and writer Ben Elton recently shared a poignant tale revealing the debt of gratitude he owes to a remarkable act of kindness during World War Two, specifically, the compassionate gesture of a headmaster at a school in north Wales. Elton’s narrative unveils the pivotal role played by Rydal Penrhos, situated in Colwyn Bay, Conwy, in offering sanctuary to his grandparents, who were German Jews residing in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1938, amidst the looming threat of Hitler’s invasion.

Reflecting on his family’s history, Elton disclosed how his grandparents’ journey to safety was facilitated by a scholarship extended by the foresighted headmaster of Rydal Penrhos. “I kind of owe my life to a private school in north Wales,” Elton expressed in a conversation with Lucy Owen on BBC Radio Wales.

Elton recounted the initial hurdle faced by his grandfather, who was offered a lecturing position in the UK but was permitted to bring only his wife, leaving their children behind. “So clearly they couldn’t go,” Elton remarked, highlighting the poignant dilemma his family confronted.

However, fate intervened through a series of serendipitous events, as Elton narrated with a sense of awe. A chance encounter between a clergyman and a fellow traveller on a Welsh train, who happened to be acquainted with Elton’s grandmother during her time as an au pair in the Netherlands, ultimately paved the way for his father and uncle to secure admission to Rydal Penrhos.

Describing the school as initially “cold” but with a “very, very warm welcome,” Elton underscored the pivotal role of the Methodist headmaster whose compassionate act ensured his family’s survival. “Had the headmaster… not offered those places, they would have had to remain in Prague and would have all ‘undoubtedly’ been murdered,” Elton acknowledged, illustrating the profound impact of this act of generosity.

Expressing profound gratitude towards the UK for providing his family with a haven, Elton also highlighted the significant contributions his father and uncle made to their adopted country, both attaining esteemed positions as professors. “I’m the son of a refugee, and I feel very strongly about the contribution that refugees have made to all the cultures they’ve gone to,” Elton affirmed, acknowledging the enduring legacy of resilience and contribution borne out of their refugee experience.