Hedi Stadlen

Communist of the 1930s who never gave up on her political and social ideals

Hedwig Magdalena Simon, campaigner and teacher: born Vienna 6 January 1916; married 1939 Pieter Keunemann (marriage dissolved 1952), 1953 Peter Stadlen (died 1996; two sons); died London 21 January 2004.

Hedi Stadlen was one of the last survivors of the inter-war generation of Central European Communists who joined the Party out of idealism, gave up their allegiance as the nature of Communism in power was brought home to them, but never gave up on the ideals that had led them to join the movement in the first place.

Eric Hobsbawm, the historian (and one of the relatively few members of that generation of Communists to remain in the Party throughout the Cold War), referred to Hedi Stadlen in his recent autobiography, Interesting Times (2002), as "the ravishing Hedi Simon from Vienna (and Newnham) with whom I vainly fell in love".

They met at Cambridge before the Second World War: she had gone up to Newnham College in 1936, and joined the Communist Party while she was there. His feelings would not have surprised anyone who knew her in later years: to her last day, she retained a luminous grace, perceptiveness and integrity, allied to a sense of fun and generosity of spirit, that marked her out as one of the elect.

Many of the Communists of the 1930s came from those same bourgeois origins which the Party affected to despise. Hedi Simon was no exception. The Simons were part of Vienna's cultural aristocracy, at a time when the city was an epicentre of intellectual and artistic innovation. Hedi's father, Hans Simon, was a successful banker and nephew of Johann Strauss: the composer baby-sat him when he was a child.

Both parents were Jewish, although not observant. Towards the end of the First World War, when there was starvation in Vienna, Hedi's father sent mother and daughter to the countryside; in some villages, farmers and shopkeepers expressed their intense anti-Semitism by refusing to sell food unless the buyer could produce a Christian baptismal certificate. Hans Simon arranged for both mother and daughter to be baptised. Later on, when Hedi was 14, she was able to dispense with a religious identity altogether, choosing to become "konfessionslos" ("without religion"), in accordance with the provisions of the Austrian constitution. It was, for her, a relief: she was already a convinced atheist.

Hedi did not go to school until she was 10. She had had a bout of severe bronchitis when she was young, and her parents felt that exposure to infection at school might pose a danger to her. When they finally relented, she was sent to a progressive school in Vienna, named after its founder and headmistress, Eugenia Schwarzwald, a Polish-Jewish immigrant and fervent feminist. It was here that Hedi was introduced to political and cultural radicalism: most of the teachers were socialists. Schwarzwald also gave Sunday "at-home" parties, to which pupils might be invited, and it was at these parties that Hedi met celebrated figures such as the painter Oskar Kokoschka and the architect Adolph Loos.

Another guest was Count Helmuth von Moltke, later one of the leaders of the resistance to Hitler, who was hanged after the failure of the July 1944 plot. For part of 1927, von Moltke lived at the school. Hedi, aged 11, fell in love with the tall and glamorous German aristocrat. One evening he came to see the school play. She was so overcome that she forgot her lines. He gave her a bunch of violets, she recollected, to console her.

In 1934, Hedi Simon entered Vienna University to read science. There she personally encountered, for the first time, virulent anti-Semitism. One day in the lab, she asked a fellow student, sitting to her left, to pass an instrument. His answer: "Not to you, Frau Kollegin."

Hans Simon saw clearly, and before most people, what was coming. With the help of British contacts that he had made while working at the Bank of International Settlement in Basle, Switzerland, he managed to arrange a place for Hedi at Cambridge. From the first, she loved the atmosphere of tolerance and freedom at the university. She plunged into a new subject, Philosophy (or, as it is called at Cambridge, "Moral Sciences"), working hard, partly to please her father, whom she admired greatly.

Beautiful, brilliant and radical, she became one of the stars of the university. She attended Wittgenstein's seminars and gained the only First in Moral Sciences of her year - an achievement considered so notable that the Cambridge Evening News covered the story, emphasising that it had been managed by a "foreign woman".

Hedi Simon was a leading member of the Communist Party in Cambridge, spending many of her weekends in London, cyclostyling anti-imperialist pamphlets for the India League, along with Indira Gandhi, down from Oxford - whom Hedi recalled as "sweet and gentle" - and Krishna Menon, later Defence Minister of India. There was also Pieter Keunemann, another Cambridge student and member of the Party, who was later to become her first husband. Keunemann, of partly Dutch origins, came from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and was one of the first non-whites to be elected President of the Cambridge Union.

The pair fell in love, and in the summer of 1939 Hedi brought Pieter to meet her parents in Ascona, Switzerland, where they had moved after leaving Austria in 1936. It was during this trip that Hedi and her father, returning from a mountain climb, saw Swiss soldiers gathering at the railway station, which Simon interpreted rightly as a sign that war had been declared. Hedi Simon and Keunemann immediately brought forward plans for their wedding and were married by the British Consul, as they feared that otherwise Hedi - who did not have a British passport - might not be allowed to return to England. They managed to get seats on the last flight out of Switzerland to London.

Shortly afterwards, before the turn of the year, the couple travelled to Ceylon. There Hedi divided her time between teaching philosophy at Colombo University and working for the overthrow of imperial rule of the country. Together with her husband - who became one of the leaders of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and a government minister - she was a prominent figure in the campaign for independence. Fifty years later, a profile of her in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Island described her as "a legend of the then dynamic left movement".

Among her acts of political and social commitment, she led a group of women's trade unionists during a tram strike, lying down on the tracks to prevent the trams from moving; she marched to the local police station to rescue a strike leader who had been taken into custody; and she became popularly known as "Bajiri Nona", for her zeal - when rice became scarce - in promoting other foods, particularly the cereal bajiri, which she would carry around on a trolley, offering it to women to taste.

In 1946, she returned to Britain to meet her mother, who had spent the war in the United States, where her father had died in 1942 (as a member of the Communist Party, she was barred from entering the US). It was on this trip that she met the man who was to become her second husband, Peter Stadlen. They had known each other in Vienna before the war. He was a well-known concert pianist, who had been in Britain on a concert tour when Hitler had invaded Austria, and had later been interned in Australia as an "enemy alien", returning to Britain in 1941. The couple fell in love, and she decided, after much deliberation, to divorce Pieter.

Over the next 50 years, Hedi Stadlen devoted the energy she had brought to politics to supporting Peter in his career, first as a concert pianist, and then as a music critic and musicologist. Stadlen was a music critic for The Daily Telegraph for 26 years, the last 10 years as Chief Music Critic.

In those days all reviews had to be written immediately after the concert for the following day. For over 20 years, four or five evenings a week, Peter and Hedi Stadlen followed the same routine, with her typing to his dictation in the back of a car, by the light of a lamppost. He would then dictate the reviews from a nearby telephone box. They became experts on the topography and working order of the telephone boxes on the South Bank.

The Stadlens were a familiar, and popular, sight on the London and international music scene - at Bayreuth, Salzburg, Aldeburgh. Peter never attended a concert without Hedi. She began with little musical knowledge, and always claimed to be almost tone-deaf, but through formidable intelligence and application, she became highly expert in all aspects of music, helping to organise and contribute to his research.

In 1967 they spent a year in Oxford, where he was a Visiting Fellow at All Souls: she was allowed to share his rooms, but not his meals in Hall. During that year, while researching an article on Beethoven and the metronome in East Germany, they discovered that the famous Beethoven "Conversation Books", recording the composer's sayings when he became deaf, contained forgeries. The details and proof of this landmark discovery had to be spirited out of the East Berlin library under the suspicious eyes of the director at the height of the Cold War. Nightly, they smuggled through Checkpoint Charlie photocopies of hundreds of pages of the notebooks, most of which were irrelevant decoys.

When Peter Stadlen died in 1996, Hedi said her real life was over, and the rest was just a coda. Yet she was not ready to give up. Economical with the truth about her age, she enrolled with Volunteer Reading Help at the New End School in Hampstead. There she taught a large number of individual children with reading difficulties. When she decided to retire in 2002, at the age of 86, the headmistress begged her to stay. In the last two years of her life, she was, from time to time, stopped on Hampstead High Street by muscular young men whose lives she had helped to turn around when they were small.

During this period she also collaborated with Annette Morreau on her 2002 biography of the cellist Emanuel Feuermann, by translating Feuermann's German correspondence.

Daniel Wolf

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