Remarkable life of a WWII refugee, culture maven and WHT journalist
PUBLISHED: 16:03 02 February 2019
supplied by Michael Zander
A refugee from Germany, former Welwyn Hatfield Times reporter, and “larger-than-life” cultural figure has passed away at the age of 96 after an extraordinary life spanning Berlin, Welwyn Garden City and London.
Peter Erich Fritz Georg Zander was born in Berlin on July 9, 1922 and fled to Welwyn Garden City in 1933 at the age of 11, nine months after Hitler became Chancellor.
Although Peter’s parents, Erich and Anita, had left the Jewish community, Nazi policy did not differentiate and classed the family as Jews.
In the spring of 1933, Peter innocently bought a swastika badge from a door-to-door salesman because he admired the colours, which is when he learned from his mother why he could not wear the badge.
By autumn, the family had fled.
“We’d emigrated without furniture, and lived in other people’s houses,” recalled Peter in memoirs sent to the Welwyn Hatfield Times by his distant cousin, Michael Zander.
Peter and his family stayed at numerous Welwyn Garden City addresses, including Valley Road, Valley Green, nos 10 and 76 Brockswood Lane, Attimore Road, Palmerston Close, Barleycroft Road, Dellcott Close, Woodhall Lane, Homestead Court, and a hostel his mother helped manage on Applecroft Road.
The hostel, set up around five years after the family relocated, housed German men escaping the concentration camps.
“Only one advertisement in the Welwyn Times [as the paper was then known] sufficed to produce lots of bedding, blankets, furniture and furnishings given or lent by the town’s citizens,” recalled his mother in 1989.
Peter went to Fretherne Preparatory School and what is now Sherrardswood School.
He became a naturalised British citizen at the age of 17 in September 1939, and immediately attempted to enlist to serve his country, first with the Royal Engineers and then with the RAF.
He was dogged in his attempts to join, and despite multiple requests and a letter to his MP, he was refused both because he was a naturalised citizen.
However, by 1944 he reversed his position, and attempted to register as a conscientious objector with the same verve he had applied to joining the armed forces.
“It has taken five years of war to show that another method must be attempted to save the world from destruction,” he wrote.
However, because a tribunal did not accept his reasoning, in 1945 he served six months in a Liverpool prison for refusing a medical examination.
Between 1944 and 1948 he was involved in extensive relief work and social work in both Germany and England, earning him the Save the Children Fund Order of Merit.
It was after this, at the age of 26, that a remarkable theatrical career began.
He hitch-hiked to Scotland and back, earning himself roles in everything from stage management to acting.
Over the next 58 years, based mostly in Soho, he founded numerous artistic projects, including Romilly Productions, the Central London Opera, Portsmouth Festival, and Richmond-Upon-Thames Arts Festival, while working as an extra and model.
In 1969 he won a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship which took him to opera houses in Hamburg, Salsberg, Prague, and his beloved Berlin.
In 1995, he also brokered important conversations in the conception of Art Gstaad, an opera house planned for the Swiss Alps.
In between these activities, he had a two-year spell at the Welwyn Times from 1950, under the editorship of Charles Dalton.
“Dalton knew I could spout, and must have guessed that I could also write,” said Peter.
He wrote “... law reports, men’s fashion articles, a story of a dachshund in Old Welwyn with its rear undercarriage on wheels, recipes accidentally omitting the essential ingredient, and such.
“I must explain that pretty well everybody knew me in WGC,” he wrote.
Later in life, at the age of 87, he was also a keen blogger at www.peterzan.blogspot.com.
He was an avid follower of architecture, listing Welwyn Garden City’s vision as an influence, and once snuck into the newly-built Royal Festival Hall before it had opened to get a look around.
It was while living in Soho in 2012, however, that Peter had a terrible stroke that left him paralysed on one side and suffering aphasia - the inability to understand or express language.
“For someone so articulate and outgoing, both verbally and in writing, this must have been agonising,” said Michael.
He moved to a care home close to long-time friend Dinah Collin.
Peter Zander passed away peacefully on January 18, 2019, and leaves no close family.
“Peter was a larger-than-life personality, ebullient, talkative, loud, opinionated, contrary, gregarious, full of laughter,” recalls Michael. “He was a force to reckon with. Two days before he died, aged 96, there was nothing flimsy about the way Peter held my hand. His hand and arm were strong and firm.”