The letter to Gladys Jones arrived without fanfare – and probably without much hope of a reply.
It had been sent by a family she’d met just once on a Danube riverboat in Vienna five years earlier.
A little boy’s shoe had threatened to muddy her skirt as he’d knelt up to get a better view, but she’d laughed it off and accepted his father’s invitation for coffee and a slice of Sachertorte (a rich Austrian chocolate cake) by way of apology.
On Gladys’s return to England, she’d sent a note thanking him for his hospitality. Then, one imagines, this middle aged wife of a Chester dentist considered the encounter no more than a souvenir of her 1934 holiday.
Now, Frank Kessler and his wife Annie had tracked her down to say they and their son Harry, eight, were in mortal danger.
Gladys and William Jones from Chester took in a family of Jews from Czechoslovakia during World War Two after a chance encounter in Vienna led to them being asked for help. Pictured: Gladys and William Jones
It was 1939 and they were Jews in a country which belonged to Hitler. They could flee – but only with an affidavit from someone beyond the Nazi empire willing to take legal and financial responsibility for them.
With Britain on the eve of war, Gladys and her husband William could have been forgiven for ignoring such a plea from people they barely knew and to whom they owed nothing.
Yet their reply was breathtaking in its generosity. ‘Come to England,’ it said. ‘We will do whatever you need.’
The Kesslers took what they could carry by hand and bought one way tickets on the trains still clattering out of Czechoslovakia and into a free Europe.
Gladys Jones’s letter to Frank Kessler and his wife Annie
It would have been a nerve-shredding journey with every station stop, every examination of the papers identifying them as Jews, putting them at risk of imprisonment or perhaps even summary execution.
In the leafy village of Churton, seven miles from Chester, the Joneses were making good on their promise.
William organised a car to meet the ferry in Harwich while Gladys prepared the spare rooms in her big brick villa. She shopped for food for three extra mouths and found a place at the local primary school for Harry.
In Vienna, she had chatted to the Kesslers in her fractured German. Then, it had been endearing.
Now, it would be a lifeline until she could teach them English.
Frank and Annie, refugees cleaved from comfortable, middle class lives, repaid their benefactors by housekeeping and gardening but the Joneses real reward was without price: the knowledge that amid the unfolding horror of the Holocaust, they had saved three Jewish lives.
Gladys kept the Kesslers under her roof for a year, a radical act of kindness little known outside the two families for the last eight decades.
Now however, Harry’s daughter Liz Kessler, the five-million selling children’s author, has used their shared history as the basis for her new novel, When the World Was Ours.
The book tells the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of three Viennese children Jewish Leo and Elsa, and their best friend Max, tracking their lives from 1936 to 1945.
Pictured: Annie, Harry and Frank Kessler
It opens with Leo crashing into an English couple Aileen and Eric Stewart as they share a cabin on Vienna’s fabled ferris wheel, the Riesenrad.
In the novel Eric Stewart is a dentist attending a dental conference in the Austrian capital, accompanied by his wife, just like the Joneses in 1934.
Leo’s gregarious father invites the English visitors back to his family apartment to meet his wife and have a slice of Sachertorte, as Frank Kessler did. When Aileen’s thank you note arrives he tucks it away in a cutlery drawer in the kitchen.
Harry Kessler, who is now 90 and lives in Southport, Merseyside, remembers the real note which would change the course of his life – though his father kept that in his study.
Harry’s daughter Liz Kessler (pictured), the five-million selling children’s author, has used their shared history as the basis for her new novel, When the World Was Ours
Written on headed paper from William Jones’s dental surgery in Whitefriars, Chester, it read: ‘My Dear Mr Kessler, We have nothing forgotten. I cannot well German write but I think often out of you and that so lovely son.’
It is signed Gladys H Jones and bears the practice’s telephone number, Chester 602.
Harry recalls: ‘I’d had whooping cough and as part of my convalescence my father took me for a Saturday afternoon steamer trip on the river to get some fresh air. I was only four in 1934 and I was kneeling up to get a better view.
My father said: ‘Careful Heinzele, you’ll dirty the lady’s dress!’ and she said ‘No, it’s alright,’ and went on to compliment my golden curls.’ (Gladys was herself the mother of two young sons, William and Leslie.)
‘They started to chat and talked and talked until Gladys and William realised all the other conference delegates had disembarked several stops earlier.
My father invited them to our apartment, gave them coffee and cake and then saw them safely back to their hotel.
Since the next day was a Sunday, he asked them if he could show them the real Vienna so they’d feel like more than just tourists. They accepted and weeks later Gladys’s thank you letter arrived. Father put it in his desk and that was that.’
We don’t know if it was sentimentality or a sense of foreboding which made Frank Kessler pack the note when the family fled Vienna after the Austrian Anschluss in 1938.
Since he’d been born in Czechoslovakia, he was entitled to settle there and the family found a new home and new work (Frank managed the menswear department of a smart store) in Brno, near Prague.
Harry Kessler, who is now 90 and lives in Southport, Merseyside, remembers the real note which would change the course of his life – though his father kept that in his study. Pictured: Liz Kessler with her grandmother Annie Kessler
‘It was imperative we got away from Vienna,’ says Harry. ‘We did not believe Hitler would take Czechoslovakia. Of course, we were wrong.’
As that country too came under Nazi occupation, it was clear they’d have to seek sanctuary in England or America or face transportation to Hitler’s concentration camps.
‘We simply didn’t know anyone abroad who would stand as our guarantor,’ Harry continues. ‘We had never been anywhere aside from Austria, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia on holiday.’
Their only connection to the outside world was Gladys’s five-year-old thank you note.
It’s impossible to understand the hope invested in that note or the fearful joy which must have accompanied the Jones’s reply.
Who were Gladys and William Jones?
Helen Anderson is the granddaughter of Gladys and William Jones.
She says they were a colourful and dynamic couple who loved their family, the community, foreign travel and living life to the full.
‘It would have been entirely in keeping with their nature to help anyone in need if they could,’ she confirms.
‘Gladys was a forceful outspoken character whose great passions were golf, fishing, bridge, and in later life an ever-changing succession of sleek Mercedes two-seater sports cars.
‘She loved cigarettes and brandy but nevertheless lived to 101.
‘Gladys used to enjoy hosting the village fete on the front lawn of their house in Churton, near Chester, where the Kesslers stayed.
‘Her two boys Bill and Leslie were away at boarding school, so that would have given them all a bit of space.
‘My grandfather was a deeply moral, honest, kind man who cared about people, and especially loved children.
‘He was gregarious, good humoured and easy-going – and like Gladys very community-minded.
‘He cared a great deal about being a good, upright citizen.
‘He was a great sportsman, an exceptional cricketer, who played for Cheshire in the Minor Counties Championship and captained the side in 1927-28.
‘He was an active member of various institutions such as the Rotary Club, becoming local chairman, and also a long-serving magistrate who chaired the Juvenile Court.
‘Both my grandparents were great travellers and from the 1930s and 1940s onwards they spent at least a month a year abroad.
‘Even as a widow, Gladys still travelled a great deal.’
William Jones was educated at the King’s School, Chester and qualified as a dental surgeon at the Liverpool Dental Hospital in 1912.
He opened a dental practice in Abbey Square, moving to Bank House, Whitefriars, Chester in 1918, which is still a dental surgery today.
His younger son Leslie Jones succeeded him as senior partner; his other son Bill was a respected local solicitor and district judge.
By the time it arrived Jewish men were being snatched off the streets so it was Annie who queued alone to secure their precious exit visas.
Harry remembers little of their journey or his arrival in Churton in May 1939. He does recall the sense of his childhood resuming thanks to the Jones family’s two sons William and Leslie who introduced him to fishing and birdwatching.
He recalls being bullied at the local primary school – not because he was Jewish but because he didn’t speak English.
The ever practical Gladys arranged a scholarship place at her sons’ prep school and when Harry was 14, and fully fluent in his second language, he secured a full scholarship to a private senior school in North Yorkshire.
Frank and Annie became became naturalised English citizens and at 21 Frank abandoned his dual nationality. ‘I did not want to mess about. I chose to be English.’
He did national service, went into business in the UK and the Far East, married in 1961 and had three children, of which novelist Liz is the youngest.
In the austere aftermath of the war years the two families grew apart. Frank had joined the Free Czech Army and returned to Europe Annie had found an office job, earning enough for her to rent rooms and allow the Joneses to reclaim their home.
There had been, Harry is keen to stress, no falling out, just a recognition that his family had arrived seeking independence, not charity.
But then 10 years ago, in another tiny coincidence with profound consequences, Harry was enjoying a day out in Chester when he stumbled across Whitefriars and recognised the Jones’s old dental surgery.
Through the practice he traced Leslie Jones’s widow, and his daughter Helen. Now she is a dear friend of Liz, interweaving a new generation of Kesslers and Joneses.
The renaissance of the families’ extraordinary bond prompted Liz to think about dramatising her father’s story, although it would take another decade and a pilgrimage to Vienna with Harry before she was ready to confront the past.
She says: ‘I am obsessed with those tiny, random events on which our lives turn, those “Sliding Doors” moments.
‘I love the idea that we don’t know if what happens to us is luck or fate. It took me a long time to realise my obsession is due to that moment on the steamer in Vienna which played a pivotal part in my own history.’
The research she undertook in 2019 for When the World Was Ours was, she says, the toughest thing she has ever done.
Accompanied by her wife Laura, with whom she lives on a houseboat on the Macclesfield Canal, Liz travelled to Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland and Holland and visited four concentration camps Dachau, Auschwitz, Birkenau and Mauthausen.
She became the first member of her family to return to the Kessler’s home in Brno, abandoned in 1939.
‘I felt very strong connection not just to my family history but to my heritage too.
‘At Auschwitz we found my great aunt Elsa’s name in the Book of Names [the list of the millions killed in the Holocaust] and I read Kaddish [an ancient form of Jewish prayer for the dead] over it.
‘I felt a sense of mourning but also of survival too. We are still here. They did not win.’
In When the World Was Ours the character of Elsa, named in her great aunt’s honour, is Liz’s imagining of what would have befallen her family if not for the compassion and bravery displayed by the Jones family.
Max is a psychological unpicking of how a person’s human decency could be obliterated by Nazi fervour and Leo, who escapes to the Stewarts in England is, of course, Harry.
There is however, one joyous post script to his story which does not appear in her novel. In 1945 Frank Kessler followed the Allies’ D-Day forces across Europe to Prague.
There he traced his mother Omama to the Czech ghetto of Theresienstadt, the way station to Auschwitz, where she’d been sent four years earlier.
Frank found her aged 77, starving and sick, but still alive and had her nursed back to health. Eventually she was well enough to join her family in England and would die peacefully at the age of 84 in 1952.
Harry Kessler still has the yellow Star of David badge which was stitched onto his grandmother’s camp clothes, identifying her as Jewish.
It was cut off when she was liberated, the symbol of another soul ultimately saved by the woman who saved him: Mrs Gladys H Jones.
“When The World Was Ours” by Liz Kessler
Publishing 21st January 2021
Simon & Schuster Children’s Books