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In search of my grandfather: a leading violinist goes looking for a hero

Daniel Hope, the international soloist, wrote a profound piece for Slipped Disc three months ago about his grandmother’s home in Berlin, seized by the Nazis and used by two appalling war criminals, Ribbentrop and Speer. Today, he writes about another quest – no less moving – for the grandfather whose sacrifice saved the life of Daniel’s father as a newborn child, and ultimately of Daniel himself.


Nomen est Omen

By Daniel Hope, 12 November 2012


The elderly lady  who approached the table where I was signing Cds after the concert had that beady look in her eye. ‘Ah, Misstah Hawp’, she said in English, with a thick, German accent, ‘I hope you are vell, yes?’ As her hysterical laughter machine-gunned its way through the lobby, I found myself contemplating what would happen if I had a penny for every time someone has attempted to make a joke out of my surname (or really thinks I’ve not heard it before). The true origin of my name, however, has a rather more unusual story attached.


When I wrote my first book a few years ago, a German memoir entitled ‘Familienstücke’ (or ‘Family Pieces’), I traced the history of my family back to the 16th century. Whilst conducting my research, one thing became clear to me. Within our family, conflict has often been the order of the day.


On my mother’s side, there were German Jews who fled Berlin in the 1930s. Both great-grandfathers were highly decorated for their service in the German Army during World War I, but Hitler’s madness at Nuremberg overruled any feelings of almost blind patriotism they struggled to retain. The family villa in Berlin was personally confiscated by Von Ribbentropp and turned into one of the centres for Nazi code-breaking, a sort of German Bletchley Park. Those who survived got as far away as they could: either to the United States or South Africa.


On my father’s side there were Irish Catholics. My father’s grandfather had run away from Ireland as a teenager in the late 19th century. Like many young Irishmen of his day, he was a contradiction:  an Irish nationalist, yet loyal to the British Empire abroad. He sailed third class to South Africa but was proud of the fact that Robert Baden-Powell was aboard the same vessel, no doubt travelling higher up.


In 1899 the Boers occupied the British garrisons at Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking.  During the siege of Mafeking, a Cadet Corps of 11-16 year old boys stood guard, carried messages, assisted in hospitals, and freed up soldiers and grown men, enabling them to fight. Baden-Powell defended Mafeking with a thousand men and boys against a Boer army of nine thousand. One of those boys was my great-grandfather, Daniel McKenna, who gave me my first name.


My father, the novelist Christopher Hope, was born in South Africa in 1944. His father, Dennis Tully, had volunteered to join the Allied war effort as a fighter pilot. He was transfered to Cairo, where Rommel’s army was fast approaching the city. It was my great aunt who pleaded with Dennis not to remain a fighter pilot, but instead to switch to bombers. She had heard that life expectancy amongst bombers was marginally higher. Dennis complied and underwent the necessary training in Cairo.

When my father was born, he was severely ill. He had lost a lot of blood and needed a transfusion. Dennis was given compassionate leave, as he had the same rare blood type. He flew home to Johannesburg where he spent three days in the hospital at my father’s bedside. The transfusions were successful, but as Dennis left South Africa again he confided in my great aunt: ‘God has saved my son’s life. He will take mine.’ Dennis flew north on a Sunday. The following Saturday he was dead. His plane crashed, he and his crew were killed instantly. The exact cause was never determined, but  it is well known that some types of bomber were highly erratic and stalled in mid-air for no reason.


And so Dennis Tully became a legendary figure of the family. First of all for my father, growing up as a child and wondering what his father must have been like. On the piano in our house in London, when I was growing up, there stood the only photo of Dennis Tully we had. A fine-looking young man in a crisp lieutenant’s uniform, gazing out at me with a reassuring smile as I did my daily violin practice – my South African grandfather who loved to sing, and whom his friends affectionately called ‘Bing’.


Gathering research for my book, I had visited my father at his home in the Languedoc, and we spoke in depth about Dennis Tully.  I asked him whether he knew if there was a grave. He didn’t know – neither the day on which his father died nor where such a grave might be, as it was something his mother never shared with him.   That night we sat down at the computer. Within a few minutes I found myself on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. As Dennis had been a member of the South African Air Force, I thought this might be a good place to start. I entered his name and the year of his death, which I assumed to be 1944, the year of my father’s birth. We could hardly believe our eyes as the search engine came up with  the following lines:


“Dennis Hubert Tully, Lieutenant, son of William and Mary Tully; husband of Kathleen Tully, of Johannesburg, Transvaal, South Africa. Remembered with honour.”


One click later and we were looking at a digital image of my grandfather’s grave. It is located in a British military cemetery in the town of Ramla, formerly Palestine, and now Israel. Up to this moment, the family had always said when refering to Dennis was that he must be ‘somewhere in Africa’.  But that of all places he was laid to rest in Israel was a development I found both unusual and very moving. There was one more surprise. The tombstone recorded that Dennis had died on August 12, 1944. He was 25. I glanced at my watch – it was August 12, 2004. Sixty years to the day. My father and I sat there for a long time in silence, trying to comprehend it all.


From that moment I wanted to find a way to visit Dennis with my father. This summer the opportunity finally presented itself. As we arrived at Ben Gurion airport, my father was asked the purpose of his visit. He told the passport officer he was here to see his father, in Ramalah. “I think you mean Ramla”, the stone-faced immigration officer corrected him. “You better get the name right!” she barked.  When we arrived at the cemetery, situated in a sprawling, industrial town, we found a haven of perfectly-kept green grass and some five thousand gravestones. It was blisteringly hot as we moved silently through the ranks of so many young men.


As my father pointed out to me, Ramleh, now Ramla,  War Cemetery is an extraordinary mix of the fallen: Egyptians, Germans, Jews, Moslems, Indians, Turks,  Palestine policemen, New Zealanders, Australians,  Poles and South Africans all lie together. It dates from the First World War;  most of the graves date from the Second World War; but here too are soldiers killed almost as soon as it was over, when Israeli fighters attacked British  targets in their struggle to set up the state of Israel. By a bizarre coincidence, it is also the place where Adolf Eichmannn was hanged in 1962.

We found Dennis quickly. He lies on the aisle, buried next to his squadron. We spent a long time there in the oppressive heat. Above all I wanted to give my father the chance to come to terms with his first meeting with his own father. He did what perhaps any writer would do: sitting on the grass under a tree he pulled out a pen and notebook and began writing.


Later on that evening, as we recalled the emotional events of the day, my father remarked how important a name can end up being.  Family names are given, not chosen. Sometimes the family name you carry – as was the case with my grandparents from Germany – may mark you for life; or even cost you your life.


I realized that a name is no joking matter. My grandmother remarried after the war, a South African called Hope. Had Dennis survived, my father’s surname, and mine, would be Tully. Small change but a world of difference. I wonder what the autograph hunters at my concerts would have made of that?

Full of hope: Christopher and Daniel Hope in the Holy Land.

all pictures and text (c) Daniel Hope/Slipped Disc. No reporoduction without permission.

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  1. Very moving and touching!

  2. What a moving story, thank you for sharing.

  3. Stephen Carpenter says:

    An incredible story and an incredible family. You are correct in saying manes are given. And please forgive me when I say that you have provided hope for us all.

  4. Lesley Forsyth says:

    I can relate to this story so well. My foster father and his family fled Berlin in the 1930′s and eventually arrived in South Africa. My Oma was a violinist and physiotherapist! My foster father married the daughter of Irish immigrants and my most significant childhood friend and later first boyfriend was George Tully Stewart. My biological father in the South African Air Force was shot down somewhere in North Africa. My daughter is Amanda Forsyth, the internationally acclaimed cellist.

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