Lives Remembered: Elly Ligertwood

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The Independent Online

Elly Ligertwood (née von Hunkar) grew up near Ptuj, in today's Slovenia, latterly part of Yugoslavia. She had a happy childhood in a large, bustling house, with cousins and au pairs frequently visiting from England. In 1941, after the Nazi occupation, she was sent to cousins in Hungary to avoid joining the Bund Deutscher Madchen (the League of German Girls). Her parents managed to remain at home throughout the war. As the Russians approached in 1945, Elly got herself back home alone on trains strafed by allied bombers, nourished for days by a single bag of plums.

In May 1945, the family, local landowners, were violently turned out of their home by non-local partisans and put in a nearby camp, Sterntal. Conditions deteriorated as over 1,000 inmates filled space built for 300 factory workers. Her memoir records sleeping on floors, breakfasts of flour and water and a slice of bread, and lunches of thin soup and a slice of bread (there were no suppers). Then the food ran out.

One stormy night, partisans got all the women up and, firing into the air, made them run round and round the parade ground in their underwear. On hot days, the women had to stand for hours in the blazing sun, with the pregnant and sick fainting (Elly's mother was then dying of cancer). In late summer, the family was put in cattle-trucks to Austria. It was only in 2007 that she learned that theirs was the second of two trains taking prisoners from Sterntal to Austria; remaining inmates were taken to the woods and murdered.

Her father was provided with a temporary home, while Elly worked as an interpreter for the British army in Austria, sorting refugees. Many who were sent back to Slovenia jumped from trains rather than face death at the hands of the partisans.

In 1948, Elly arrived in Somerset to stay with the family who had au paired for her family. There, she met and married Peter Ligertwood, a remarkable man who had been a Japanese POW on the Burma Railway.

From the 1970s, Elly returned to Slovenia (then Yugoslavia) to see her home and those who had looked after her family. Artefacts and furniture from her home appeared alongside Herberstein possessions in the Herberstein Castle museum in Ptuj, all falsely marked as gifts to the State.

It was after Peter's death in 1992 that she visited regularly and campaigned to make local people aware of what had gone on in 1945, relentlessly seeking out officials and journalists. Today, there is a memorial at Sterntal to those who suffered and died there. Elly also battled to have her family's property restored or restitution made – less for any value, but in the belief that states should acknowledge when possessions have been wrongly taken. Her fight reaches the European Court of Justice later this year.

The Yugoslavian wars that broke out in 1992 saw her helping Bosnian refugees sheltered by the Red Cross in Ptuj. She raised funds and made two journeys, laden with blankets, clothes and soaps, comforting those whose experiences she understood.

Elly's life in England was distinguished by service to the WRVS, the Red Cross, Elizabeth Finn Care and as an interpreter for many Hungarian refugees in 1956.

Elly died in Taunton, Somerset on 26 October. She leaves a son and daughter and their families, all of whom admired and loved her dearly.

Chantal Ligertwood