1967 Sue Ryder Foundation magazine extract from The Times Newspaper

There are two ways of getting to the village of Cavendish in Suffolk. You may journey there across a landscape that still retains the dream-like quality of eighteenth-century painting of the English School; where every bend of the road reveals a Constable in situ, and the very sky itself seems to lack only the master’s signature. Or — admittedly a longer way round — you may go via that Hell called variously Belsen and Auschwitz, Dachau and Neuengamme, Mauthausen, Vaihingen, Buchenwald and Ravensbruck.

By whichever route you travel, your journey ends next to the village pond, at the Old Rectory, a sixteenth-century house that is the Headquarters of the Sue Ryder Foundation and the home of Sue Ryder, O.B.E. her husband, Group-Captain Leonard Cheshire, V.C., Jeromy, seven years old, Elizabeth, five — and some forty former inmates of Nazi concentration camps; men and women broken in body, indomitable in spirit, whose survival is perhaps the one victory that can wipe out the shame all human beings must in some degree share that any of humankind could so betray the human condition.

It is, to say the least, an unusual family unit. But that is what it is: do not be misled by the official looking board at the entrance gate which maintains, with all the institutional undertones of its kind, that this is a Sue Ryder Home. On the contrary, it is Sue Ryder’s home, lower case type and quite a different kettle of fish. And if it differs a bit from the general run of homes, well, so does Sue Ryder from the general run of people.

She is a small woman, with fine, child’s hair, and a mouth that, in repose, turns down at the corners like the mouth of an unhappy child, and, smiling, makes the most of joy. The eyes, too, though hooded and underlined by the melancholy of experience, look out upon the world with a child’s direct gaze. It is a physique which provides a clue to the whole personality — the vulnerability, the involvement, the uncomplicated yet immensely practical approach to a problem in hand ; the single mindedness to be unembarrassed by doing good ; the courage to be unashamed of compassion and of love.

Never were such qualities more needed than in 1945 when, after wartime service with Special Operations Executive, she stayed on in Europe as a member of a relief mission salvaging what it could of the human wreckage left behind by the ebb tide of war and the overthrow of a monstrous tyranny. In 1952, when the international relief organisations in turn packed up and went home, again Sue Ryder stayed on. ‘

There was no snap decision, no sudden moment of illumination,’ she says, in the comfortable, low-ceilinged room of  the Old Rectory that is part sitting-room, part office ; gazing out through leaded window-panes, as she talks of a Europe in ruins, at the incongruous peace of a Suffolk garden. ‘It was clear what the situation was, and even clearer what the needs were going to be. I just happened to be free to do the job.’

It was as simple as that, it was as difficult as that. It was as magnificently impudent as that — a herculean rescue operation ‘mounted by a lone young woman without funds or influence, with nothing but a consuming faith that something would be done, because it had to be done if the living were not to break faith, not only with the survivors of the concentration camps, but with the twenty million who had died there.

In the early fifties a modest beginning was made. Permission was obtained for concentration camp survivors and former resistance fighters to enter England for short holiday periods for treatment and recuperation. In 1956 a home was opened in Poland. Today there are forty-two such — three in England, twenty in Poland, sixteen in Yugoslavia, one in Greece, one in Israel and one in Germany— where more than 1,200 survivors of the holocaust and their children have found a refuge, medical care, therapy aimed at their economic rehabilitation so far as their dis- abilities permit, and, above all, that reaffirmation of personal identity whose importance to a man or woman with a concentration camp number tattooed indelibly on the forearm we can only humbly surmise. Somehow, the money has come in — ‘mainly from people who can’t afford it’; a large part of it the outcome of constant journeyings up and down the country to address organisations of all kinds and acquaint them with, remind them of, the need ; travels interrupted only by her trips abroad — 50,000 miles a year driving the large van in which, summer and Winter, through all the extremes of continental climate, she ferries vital supplies to the different homes, where she informs herself at first hand of the requirements for the months ahead.

Her marriage, in 1959, to Group-Captain Cheshire, himself dedicated to the care of the chronic sick, has meant no withdrawal from her own commitment; and as for Jeromy and Elizabeth, warm in the affection of forty ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ whose handicaps they accept as unque8tioningly as their love, theirs is an environment any mother might be thankful to provide for her children.

Twenty-two years after, but with 250,000 survivors still urgently needing help, the Trust has launched its first fund-raising appeal, for £250,000, most of which will go to build twenty-five new homes, in countries which have strained their own resources to the limit. ‘When you consider that England, for all its National Health Service, still has eight hundred to a thousand young chronic sick alone waiting for admission to a home, how can you expect a country like, say Poland, where nearly three thousand hospitals were destroyed, to be able to cope?’

As most of the 250,000 are nationals of Eastern European countries with which Bonn has no diplomatic relations, Germany has refused them monetary compensation. But in Cavendish, where a housewife who was thrown from a fast-moving train by Nazi guards and lost both arms mends her children’s clothes with needle and thread held between her teeth, there is no hatred, no desire for revenge. Instead — and it is the measure of Sue Ryder’s achievement — there is a sense of normality astonishing and chastening. There is hope and there is laughter. Twenty million dead could have no fitter memorial.

From an article by Sylvia Haymon by kind permission of ‘The Times’

Sue Ryder & Mrs Zofia Wyszynska
Sue Ryder and Mrs Zofia Wyszynska, a survivor of Mauthausen and Ravensbruck concentration camps, where she lost most of her family. She was one of thousands of intellectuals arrested for her part in the Resistance.


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