Forced to flee the Nazis, 'Dr Kate' built an incredible career and family life in Wales
From Wittenberg to Wales: Dr Marion Löffler tells the remarkable story of Egyptologist and author Kate Bosse-Griffiths (1910-1998)
When I first came to Wales from East Berlin in 1990, Kate Bosse-Griffiths had lived here for more than 50 years, her reputation almost mythical.I only met her once, at the National Eisteddfod in Bala in 1997, a tiny old lady, her hair in a silvery bun, but with a surprisingly strong voice, lively eyes, perfect German and speaking a heavily-accented Welsh. She told me to sit, while she'd remain standing so I would not look down on her during our conversation.
I was then, as I am now, in awe of her, the mother of my then Tal-y-bont neighbour Robat Griffiths, a woman who had fled Germany in 1936 to escape Nazi persecution, made her home in Wales in 1939, published her first Welsh-language novel only two years later in 1941, and curated the Wellcome collection of Egyptian artefacts at Swansea University almost to the day she died.
Persecuted by the Nazis
My own emigration from East Berlin to Wales in the wake of German reunification was much less dramatic.
The Stasi, who had interviewed me in 1989 to probe into my political activities and threatened to sack me was no more, and I travelled rather than fled from persecution and war.
Nevertheless, I feel a bond with Kate, as a German woman who came to Wales and made this country her home.
Kate Bosse-Griffiths was born in Wittenberg, the German town where Martin Luther had initiated the birth of Protestantism, in 1910.
Her parents, doctor Paul Bosse and Käthe Bosse (née Levin), were staunch members of the Protestant middle class, which ensured a classical education and privileged childhood that included piano, violin and drawing lessons and prepared Kate for the academic career she was to follow.
Having studied Archaeology and Egyptology in Berlin, Bonn and Munich, she gained a doctorate for her thesis on the human figure in late Egyptian sculpture in 1936 and was appointed to a post in Berlin, poised for a career curating the world-renowned collections in its museums.
However, her mother was of Jewish descent and the family therefore persecuted by the Nazis. In 1936, both Kate and her father were dismissed from their posts.
Kate's mother and two brothers were later incarcerated in concentration camps, where Käthe Bosse died in 1944.
Kate escaped by fleeing to Great Britain, where she worked as assistant to the famous zoologist and classical scholar D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, before moving to the Petrie Museum, London, and to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, where she became a Senior Fellow of Somerville College.
A love affair with Wales begins...
It was here that she met the Welshman John Gwynedd Griffiths, who shared her interests in the Classics and in Egyptology and whom she married 1939. Their first home in Wales was at Pentre in the Rhondda Valley, where Gwyn had been appointed a teacher at Porth County School.
By then, Kate was at the centre of the Cadwgan circle of Welsh writers and poets, whose members took pride in a modernist agenda as well as its uncompromising pacifist stance. Memoirs by its members allow us a glimpse of Kate's personality, that she quite enjoyed reading the end of a book first to see how things would turn out, that she had "an exceptional talent for breaking porcelain" and that she liked to have a pen and notebook with her wherever she was, jotting down ideas and sentences.
This is how, only two years after she arrived in Wales, she was able to win a literary competition and see her first novel, Anesmwyth Hoen (Uneasy Passion), published in 1941.
The first principle the Cadwgan circle set itself was "the author's freedom to discuss any aspect of life and to do so in a more realistic way than was customary in Wales", and that is what Kate did.
Her novels and short stories address aspects of Welsh women's lives and ideas which were taboo – from abortion and adultery to women's relationship with Christianity and other, more ancient beliefs.
Uneasy Passion sees the heroine Megan leave her Welsh village to study in London.
'Adultery and feminism were not subjects of popular Welsh fiction in 1941!'
We follow her development through her interaction with a range of women: Lisa who stays behind, the exotic Estonian Irina and the communist Elsie. They discuss having "a more conscious sexual life" and "education for women as in matriarchal times", but Megan also conducts an affair with a married man, before getting hitched to the young doctor who loves her, her life potential not quite fulfilled.
The novel was so new in its frankness that one of the critics recommended that because the book would "appeal to a wide audience", the author should "moderate and economise upon those areas which could cause misunderstanding and pain". Adultery and feminism were not subjects of popular Welsh fiction in 1941!
Her short story collection Fy Chwaer Efa (My Sister Eva), published in 1944, takes Welsh literature in a different direction by exploring the female religious experiences and mysticism as a natural state which Christianity and Western civilisation are attempting to crush.
As Tatjana, the unhappy wife of an Oxford don learns from her friend visiting from India: "What is the core of Greek Western civilisation? It is a soldiers' civilisation, the masters' and lords' culture. To conquer is your constant desire. You look at Nature as an enemy... You build walls around your cities, and walls around your souls. You erect dividing walls between nation and nation, between science and science, between man and Nature. You are hesitant to let anything come in from the outside if it is not fighting its way in."
As a refugee from Nazi Germany and survivor of the Second World War, Kate had, of course, experienced the extremes of that "western civilisation"!
Adultery and abortion
Her second novel, Mae'r Galon wrth y Llyw (The Heart is at the Helm), published in 1952 and republished in 2016, returned to the themes of true love and fulfilment, adultery, and the sacrifices made by women.
Three people, Sian, Arthur and Doris, are locked in a love triangle that is only resolved with Doris' death as a result of an attempted abortion. In the eyes of her sister Gwenda, this elevates her to the status of a saint sacrificed on the altar of love, though society condemns her as an adulteress.
It is for these works, whose subject matter and feminist approach was so new and revolutionary in Welsh-language literature, that Kate first became known in Wales.
By the 1950s, Kate had two sons herself and the family had moved to Swansea, where husband Gwyn had been appointed Professor of Classics at Swansea University College.
This change in circumstances and location, and perhaps the realisation that she would remain an exile, led Kate to engage with the world she had left behind, and which was now behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany.
There was nothing and nobody drawing her back to Wittenberg. The town was occupied by the Russian army, her father and mother were both dead.
Yet, still interested in the fate of Germany, she received periodicals from the four occupied zones, which she analysed in newspaper and journal articles.
In a series of innovative books and radio plays, she explored her childhood diaries to paint a picture of 1920s Germany, and she used the impressions gained on a journey to Russia to report on goings-on there, among them the translation facilities in the Russian parliament which, she thought, would be a good model for a Welsh government when that government came to be established.
A return to her first love
But her first love and her training was in Archaeology and Egyptology, and when the chance arose to return to her field, she took it wholeheartedly.
She had been working as Honorary Curator of Archaeology at Swansea Museum since 1949, but in 1971, the British Museum offered more than 3,000 Egyptian artefacts from their Wellcome Collection to Swansea University College.
The college naturally appointed Kate Bosse-Griffiths as curator, and it was here that Kate spent the rest of her life doing what she loved best – organising the collection of Egyptian artefacts and making it accessible it to the public.
From 1972, articles based on the treasures in the collection began to appear in scholarly volumes and journals, but she also contributed many times to local papers and wrote illustrated catalogues for the public, such as Five Ways of Writing between 2000BC and AD200 on Egyptian material, and Twenty thousand Years of Local History on the local antiquities in Swansea Museum.
"Dr Kate" was beloved by younger visitors, who would gather around her to hear her talk about what she called her "detective work" on the ancient artefacts.
A very touching photograph in the Swansea Museum collection shows her among such a group of young people. She had the pleasure, at the end of her career, of seeing the near completion of the Swansea Egypt Centre at Swansea University, built with moneys from the European Regional Development Fund and the Heritage Lottery among others. Colleagues say that it would not have been even thought of without Kate's energy and enthusiasm.
The two new galleries in the centre opened in September 1998, just five months after her death in April.
Forced to flee a murderous regime at the beginning of a world war, Kate Bosse-Griffiths learnt two new languages, built a career as an author and academic, and lived a fulfilled and happy life, all here in Wales.
'One day Wales will pay a tribute to the German woman who wrote in Welsh for the youth of Wales'
Her only regret, according to one of her colleagues, was "that there is not a single pyramid on the Gower".
Her German and Jewish background as well as her learning enabled her to enrich Welsh literature and life in a unique way. Even in 1941, one of her contemporaries foresaw that "one day Wales will pay a tribute to the German woman who wrote in Welsh for the youth of Wales". And Wales is indeed doing so.
Both her sons are continuing the family tradition of writing and publishing.
Robat Griffiths is a well-known author, who founded the publishing house Y Lolfa now run by Kate's grandchildren.
His brother, Heini, is an the academic who has put the story of Kate's family and escape in print in A Haven from Hitler. The Welsh women's publishing house Honno has just brought out a new edition of Mae'r Galon wrth y Llyw with a preface by him.
Back in Germany Kate's parents, Paul and Käte Bosse, were honoured by having a street named after them in December 2016, an event which several of Kate's Welsh descendants attended.
* Dictionary of Welsh Biography, 'Bosse-Griffiths, Kate (1910 –1998), Egyptologist and Author '
* Swansea Egypt Centre ' Our History '
* Heini Gruffudd, A Haven from Hitler (Talybont, 2013)
* Marion Löffler, 'Kate Bosse-Griffiths (1910-1998)', Bernard Maier and Stefan Zimmer (eds), 150 Jahre 'Mabinogion'-Deutsch-Walisische Kulturbeziehungen (Tubingen, 2001), pp165-83 (Despite the book title, the chapter is in English)
* Kate Bosse-Griffiths, Maer's Galon wrth y Llyw. Gyda Rhagymadrodd gan Heini Gruffudd (Aberystwyth, 2016)
WHO IS MARION LöFFLER?
Born in East Berlin in 1966, I studied German, English, Pedagogics and Welsh at Humboldt-University Berlin, and was a member of the movement which aimed to reform East Germany, but in the end brought down the Berlin Wall in November 1989, which led to the reunification of Germany in 1991.
Having graduated in July 1989, I became a lecturer in English linguistics, researching and writing a doctoral thesis on the development of the linguistic situation and language policies in Wales with special reference to the English language.
I completed my PhD in October 1994 and started working at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth on November 1, 1994.
I have been a research fellow on the projects "A Social History of the Welsh Language", "Iolo Morganwg and the Romantic Tradition in Wales", and "Wales and the French Revolution"; managing editor of the five-volume A Historical Encyclopedia of Celtic History and Culture (2007) and project leader for the "Social Networks and Knowledge Exchange" project.
I have researched, presented and participated in various Welsh-language television and radio productions, and am currently assistant editor of the Dictionary of Welsh Biography, head of graduate studies at our centre, and director of studies for two PhD students.
A single mother, I live in Aberystwyth and have two teenage children, who are fluent in Welsh, English and German. We are Europeans.
For more information and publications, see:
* This article was first published during the Western Mail's Welsh History Month 2017.
-- Sent from my Linux system.