Appreciation: Sibylle Alexander

Sibylle Alexander.
Sibylle Alexander.

Sibylle Alexander knew what real suffering meant. Her life in Germany under Hitler’s brutal Nazi regime had seen to that.

It was that experience that let her see through to what was really important in life and that, put simply, was love – the love and compassion for other human beings and for the world around us.

A resident of Galashiels for many years, Johanna Sibylle Kaufmann was born on January 24, 1925, and was the fourth child of five born into a marriage that brought together two old north German families – although one brother died before Sibylle was born.

Her mother, Rita Tesdorf, was the daughter of a sea captain from the Baltic, from the famous Tesdorf family in Lubeck, while her father, Johannes Kaufman, was the only son of an eminent history professor.

There was another significant connection as one of Sibylle’s relatives had married one of the famous storytelling Brothers Grim, who were an inspiration to her and her own storytelling.

Sibylle’s father became a labour judge in Hamburg, arbitrating in industrial disputes, and the family lived in a large house on the outskirts of the city, with servants, a big garden and lots of freedom.

Sibylle was eight when the Nazis came to power. Her father’s liberal political beliefs cost him his job, with the result that life became very hard for the Kaufmanns.

But Sibylle was still able to enjoy a happy childhood because of the protection and encouragement of her parents. Apparently they did not allow Sibylle to do any housework, cooking or chores, all of which her mother did, because they wanted Sibylle to study and have the opportunities her mother never had.

It was her experiences of war that strengthened Sibylle’s deep commitment to liberalism, peace, freedom and understanding between people. These were not slogans to her, because she had seen first hand what the opposite looked like.

The war brought hardship and grief. Sibylle was forced to work in a munitions factory and her beloved older brother Georg, and sister Margaret, were killed.

Aged 20 when the war ended, Sibylle made her way to Sweden where she joined a one-year programme, run by the Lutheran Church, to train as a youth leader and learn how to live in a democratic community.

She returned to Germany to study theology, philosophy and literature in Tübigen, and it was there, in 1949, that she met Robin Alexander, from Newcastle.

He was also studying philosophy as one of the very few non-military British people in Germany at that time. In Tübigen, the couple saw happy and joyful children coming home from school, and they wanted to know what the secret was.

So one day Sibylle followed them and discovered Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy, which would become the guiding light for the rest of her life.

The Alexanders studied Steiner’s philosophy on education and, after moving to Edinburgh, began teaching at the Steiner school in the Scottish capital.

The couple’s two sons, Marius and Titus had been born while they were in Germany and son number three, Geoffrey, was an unexpected surprise a few months after they arrived in Edinburgh.

For several years, the family lived in a small farm cottage at Fairmilehead. Sibylle and Robin did their teacher training at Moray House and taught briefly at the Steiner school.

By this time the couple were in their 30s, had little money and relied on child benefit, their own vegetable patch, bee hives and Robin’s ability to shoot wood pigeons and rabbits to survive.

The family soon grew to five children with the arrival of Rosemary and Ruth. While Robin wrote and contributed to the Edinburgh poetry scene, Sibylle threw herself in the role of housewife and mother, as well as managing to find time to teach German and write her own stories.

With help from her father-in-law, the Alexander family was able to move to Morningside, where Sibylle campaigned tirelessly for nature kindergardens for young children and to raise the school starting age to six.

In her later years, Sibylle developed an extraordinary career, which consisted of writing articles, book reviews and letters to newspapers, giving talks on Celtic mythology and other subjects, mainly in Germany, and selling bits and pieces of tartan fabric.

Wherever Sibylle was, she became deeply and passionately involved in what was going on. She was not one of life’s observers, content simply to stand on the sidelines and do nothing as the world went by.

In Edinburgh, she was involved in the Allotments Association, in the school and activities such as the Psychic Society where she lectured. In the Borders, she was involved in the writers club, Amnesty International, the Liberal Party and many other things.

Some people will have found Sibylle difficult. But that was because she acted out of passion for a cause and had no time for diplomacy or gentle persuasion when there was an important issue at stake. It was a lesson she had harshly learned during the Nazi years.

She was caught on television on one occasion berating Conservative Party politican Michael Portillo in Bank Street, Galashiels, about his Government’s increase in the pension. “Tell me what I can buy with these few more pennies,” she famously asked him, unfazed by his lofty position or the presence of government minders.

Her husband, Dr Alexander, died in 2005, and although a stroke would eventually slow her down, Sibylle’s mind remained active and her love for family and the world around her was undiminished.

She spent the last two years of her life as a resident at Gala Nursing Home, but managed to get out each Sunday to attend the regular service at St Peter’s Episcopal Church.

Sibylle’s Christian faith had been a bulwark throughout her life and it was while coming out St Peter’s on August 14 that she died, at the age of 86.

At St Peter’s on August 19 Sibylle’s family and many friends, including local MP and Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore, packed the pews and aisles for her funeral service.

A mother of five, grandmother of 13 and great-grandmother to Mimi, Sibylle Alexander’s life touched and changed for the better many others.

For those privileged to know her, the most fitting tribute we can pay to this remarkable lady is to love one another, seek understanding and forgiveness between people, act on our convictions instead of complaining about what is wrong, care for the natural world and, above all, bring up our children to be loving, complete human beings. MCE