I Arrived with 'The Star of David on my Luggage'

Liz Shaw meets Eva Gross MBE, promoter of NI since she fled Nazi Germany for here

When I met Eva Gross for coffee in the Linenhall Library she’d come from another appointment and had plans for the rest of the day. The energy she shows is reflected in her achievements.

She was born in Kolberg, Eastern Pomerania on the Baltic Sea in 1920, the eldest child of a Jewish father and Lutheran mother. As educational opportunities were limited in Germany at that time with the rise of Nazism her parents arranged for her to travel to Northern Ireland to complete her studies.

Today, Eva lives East Belfast and after a career in teaching is deeply involved in various charities; Parkinson’s Disease Society, the Chest, Heart and Stroke Association and she is also a Day Care Centre facilitator for the elderly in South Belfast.

In recognition of this work she was awarded the MBE by the Queen in October 1998. She has acted as a tour courier for the Belfast Telegraph for many years. Together with her younger brother Professor of Medicine Wolff Gross, she has written and published a book, A Kinder Story/The Star of David on My Luggage.

Eva, I know that you take groups from Ulster to Germany and also guide German tourists who visit Northern Ireland, what do you feel is the most important aspect of NI to put across?

The friendliness of people and their concern for visitors, especially at the beginning when tourists were coming in the late 70’s. They were nervous and didn’t know what to expect. It was important that I put across that people here were pleased to see them coming and were interested in strangers.

Visitors could see for themselves that Ulster people go out of their way to help, and German visitors are impressed with good manners as for years they only heard about the awful things.

I know you are always asked to help if a ship with German tourist comes in.  What is your favourite place, the thing that you like to show/explain about to visitors?

Belfast City Hall impresses me and everyone. It’s what people would see in Germany and so they can relate to it. There are guided tours and leaflets in German which helps. People can dress up in the costumes available and sit in the official chairs to have photographs taken, it’s very visitor friendly and its free.

The resident guide is always most tactful when she explains about it being bombed during the war. It’s a point of interest that the carpets were woven in the Republic of Ireland and people like that aspect. They like the information about the weddings that take place.

Visitors also like the drive across town to Belfast Castle where there is a beautiful view down into the Lagan Valley. During the drive they have the chance to see different types of housing and the areas where there used to be difficulties.

They see ordinary people going to work and children in school uniforms which doesn’t happen in Germany. They all love it. It’s a pity there are no historic buildings left in Belfast, but they like the architecture of what is here.

It’s difficult to show groups much if they are here for a Sunday when everything is closed. Most of the shops are franchises with the same branches internationally so window shopping can’t offer a fresh alternative. Armagh has more ‘feeling’ for visitors to absorb.

When visitors recognise your accent do they ask about you, if you live here?

Yes. Sometimes when I ‘m explaining something and I’m asked how I know certain things, people will be curious about me, or the bus driver will encourage me to say more. I know my accent was already ‘set’ when I came here.

I am keen to hear more about the biography you co-wrote with your brother, as I found your stories so different. Was there any sense of ‘getting your story out' when you wrote the story about your life since coming to NI from Germany aged 16.

No. Not my story. But I thought as I was quite well known here that it would help to get my brother’s story out.

This is your only sibling, your brother Wolff who remained in Germany.

Yes. As part of my 80th birthday present he gave me a draft of the story, some of which I’d never heard before. He’d had many medical articles published but although he’d tried to get his personal story published in Germany he had no success.

So you wrote your book to endorse his?  
I felt his was a story that should be told, even his children didn’t know it all. The things that had happened during the war while I was here in Belfast.

What reaction did you have from people?

My family in Germany and my friends here were all delighted.

Have you plans for another book in the future?

No. I’ve been very lucky to have had a foot in so many things and I’ve had such an interesting life here in Northern Ireland.