29 October 2020
Honouring SOE hero Violette Szabó GC

I was appalled to see a famous photograph of Violette Szabo captioned as Erna Wallisch in the Daily Telegraph, both in print and online, on Saturday 17th October.

Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo was an agent of the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War and a posthumous recipient of the George Cross, the highest civilian award for bravery. She was in fact the first woman to be awarded this honour.

The life of Erna Wallisch could not have been more different. Wallisch was a Nazi, indeed a guard at two concentration camps, Ravensbrück and Majdanek. Ravensbrück was a women's camp notorious for its medical experiments on live inmates, Majdanek as one of the largest of the death camps.

In their characters, conduct, and personal examples, these two women were polar opposites.  So it is not hard to imagine how distraught this error made my constituent, Rosemary Rigby, who founded the Violette Szabo Museum after discovering that her cottage was once Violette's holiday home.

The museum, which opened 20 years ago, is located in Wormelow, where Szabo spent many happy childhood holidays with her family, and the redoubtable Rosemary has dedicated two decades to celebrating and educating others about the life of Violette Szabo through the museum and the vast number of memorabilia and historical items she has assembled.

What makes this story even worse is that the photograph of Violette was captioned “the she-devil of the woman's camp”.  But in fact it was Violette who was tortured by the SS and imprisoned at Ravensbrück, the very concentration camp where Wallisch was a guard.

Having contacted The Telegraph on Rosemary's behalf, I am pleased to say that they quickly recognised, apologised for and fixed their mistake, and I hope they will be able to make redress for some of the damage caused to Violette's name.

But as we approach Remembrance Day, let us remember not just Violette, her bravery and her bright, brave, and generous spirit, but all those who gave life and limb, and who still put life and limb at risk today, to keep us and our country safe.

Let this mistake stand as a reminder of how vital it is to cherish and respect our shared human history--the worst as well as the best of it--and to bear witness to the lives and actions of our heroes, known and unknown, past and present. May they never be forgotten.