In the archives of Rhodes House, the home of the Rhodes Trust in Oxford, I came across a nondescript handwritten note.
It was in the student file of Justus Carl von Ruperti, a German World War II fatality (and Rhodes Scholar) who has an arrestingly unexpected memorial in Brasenose College chapel. I blogged about him a couple of months ago, but hadn’t at that stage seen his record at Rhodes House.
When I did, I found what I’d found in his Brasenose record, details of his admission, the wonderfully brief comments that counted as termly reports in the 1930s, and nothing very illuminating until the note that someone, sometime had thought to slip into his file.
It is written by “R.” to “M.P.”, and carries no indication of a year, but it describes a visit by Juscar von Ruperti’s mother Irma to Rhodes House:
The mother of J. C. von Ruperti called 9 September. She was sorry that you were on holiday, as she would have liked to meet someone here who’d known him. She went round R. Hse, saw War Memorial, and departed with a grey booklet, which was the best I could offer after you.
At the bottom is scribbled an answer from “M.P.”: “I can’t remember him as well as some of the nice German Rhodes R[hodes] S[cholar]s.”
I can never resist inadequately dated, initialled notes, and with the brilliant help of Melissa Downing, the archivist at Rhodes House, I now know that “M.P.” was Marjory Payne. Whenever it was that Irma von Ruperti visited, she wanted to meet someone who’d been there in 1933-35, when Juscar was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Marjory had been Assistant Secretary at Rhodes House from 1928 to 1936, and then the Warden’s Secretary from 1936 to 1957.
Actually, that also helps to date the note. If there was no one at Rhodes House who’d known Juscar when Irma visited, we must be after the retirement of Sir Carleton Allen, Warden 1931-52. Marjory Payne retired in 1957, and September 9 in 1956 was a Sunday. We must be between 1952 and 1955, or maybe in 1957, and since the memorial in Brasenose chapel was installed in 1954, my hunch is that Irma was in Oxford to see it, possibly even to attend its inauguration, if there ever was an inauguration. There is precious little reference to Von Ruperti’s plaque in the Brasenose record.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the last two years researching and writing about Brasenose war dead. The most poignant thing, I suppose predictably, is also the least visible thing, the impact of war on the surviving family: what will always stay with me about Bob Brandt, for example, are the In Memoriam notices his mother placed in The Times every year without fail until shortly before her death.
Here again in the Rhodes House archives I was contemplating a grieving mother, and I find impossibly moving this record of Irma von Ruperti’s unrealised hope of speaking to someone who remembered her son. She had lost both her sons in the war, and had been a widow since 1945; she herself lived until 1980. She wasn’t just the mother of a war casualty, of course, but the mother of a man who had died fighting on the other side. I do wonder what it was like for such a person to visit Britain in the 1950s.
“R.” (whom I also hope to identify in time)** tells Marjory that s/he sent Irma off with a “grey booklet”. This was Cecil Rhodes and Rhodes House, a guidebook that explained the development of the Rhodes Trust as well as describing Rhodes House. In that booklet, if Irma read it, she would have learned that ‘the German Scholarships were created because “the German Emperor [Kaiser Wilhelm II] had made instruction in English compulsory in German schools”, and in the hope “that an understanding between the three strongest Powers [Britain, Germany and the United States] will render war impossible and educational relations make the strongest tie’,”‘ both quotations from a codicil to Cecil Rhodes’ sixth and final will in 1901, by which he established Rhodes Scholarships for Germany.
If Irma did see the Brasenose memorial on this visit, she will have seen her son’s name both in Brasenose and at Rhodes House: the war memorial there, containing the names of all Rhodes Scholars regardless of nationality killed in the First and Second World Wars, is inscribed below the dome of the Rotunda at the entrance from South Parks Road. (There’s a virtual tour of Rhodes House here, with the Rotunda at the top.)
**Thanks again to Melissa Downing, who has now discovered that Rosalind Wellstood worked as Assistant Secretary at Rhodes House from 1951 to 1953, and is probably the author of the note. It follows that Irma von Ruperti made her visit to Rhodes House on Wednesday 9th September, 1953. Just three weeks previously she will have marked the tenth anniversary of her son’s death in Russia.