Caroline Ilse Maas was born 20 August 1942 in Berlin. Most of the family had fled Germany: her grandfather, Professor of Classical Philology at Königsberg University, had come to Oxford in 1939 and her two aunts went to Sweden for the war but her mother stayed in Berlin.
Caroline told the story of her mother going to prison for crossing a border without a permit: she had taken a kayak to see her mother, Caroline’s grandmother, in Denmark. Fortunately she had a good lawyer who managed to get her sent to a ‘good’ prison camp whilst Caroline was fostered with a couple for a time, possibly Jews who were also hiding in plain sight. The couple were able to use Gabriele’s ration card to get food while she served her prison sentence.
Caroline and her mother stayed in the devastation of Berlin until 1947 or early 1948 when her mother decided that the family needed consolidating, the two of them were the only ones still in Germany, and so they moved to Oxford to be with her grandparents. They had to travel light and Caroline told of having to choose just one toy to bring with her and having to leave her teddy bear on a wall, a traumatic experience!
They lived in a series of lodgings and Caroline used to tell stories of her mother making ‘cooky mookies’; the family term for a general fry up over a single gas ring, also her mother getting her sensible winter boots from Denmark which she refused to wear because she wanted to be like all the other children.
Then her mother got a job in South Wales: she had trained as a chemist but was not allowed to receive a degree because she was Jewish. Caroline often described this period of her childhood, living in a small community near the Treforest Trading Estate outside Cardiff, as being very happy. They returned to Oxford and Caroline went to Milham Ford Grammar School. Sadly, she was bullied during her time there for being German.
Caroline’s mother was the major influence on her politics. She was, not surprisingly, strongly against all forms of nationalism and was also a very early campaigner against nuclear weapons, taking Caroline along on the second Aldermaston March in 1959 organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Caroline was still campaigning against nuclear weapons within days of her end.
She went on from Milham Ford to read English at Leeds University and whilst here became friends with a number of African students including the then unknown Kenyan writer James Ngugi. After graduating she started studying for a teaching diploma in London but this was cut short by the arrival of her son David in 1965. She went back to Leeds for this event to be near David’s father, a Nigerian accountancy student, Olufemi Owojori, but plans to go with him to Nigeria did not materialise.
In Leeds Caroline and David lived in accommodation for single mothers, a basement flat large enough for her to be able to let out a room to Rosie who became a life-long friend. In 1968 Caroline and David moved back to Oxford and Stratford Street. The house belonged originally to her mother but she moved slightly up the hill into Warwick Street and sold no. 70 to Caroline. Caroline worked as a supply teacher and became a qualified teacher in 1971.
Travelling was always a passion. She had hitch-hiked as far as Greece with a friend from Milham Ford and took David to visit her aunts and cousins in Denmark. She told of having to send David in his push chair past the UK citizens passport desk whilst she had to join the queue at the alien’s desk as she still had a German passport.
Her friendships whilst a student in Leeds had given her an interest in Africa. Being a single parent is hard work and she decided that the way to make life easier was to get a job in Africa. This was when she applied for British citizenship as this was effectively a prerequisite for a job she fancied in Kenya. The Kenyan job fell through but in 1973 she got a three-year contract in Ethiopia, teaching English at the Commercial School in Addis Ababa.
Caroline had a knack of misidentifying people and got in to conversation with the wrong beard standing under the bottlebrush tree in the grounds of St. Matthew’s Church after the Sunday morning service. When we discovered that we each had a child born on the 16th of June (Jenny is exactly five years younger than David), and enjoyed getting out of Addis Ababa together, it seemed inevitable that there would be a long-term relationship.
At this time Caroline decided to get confirmed into the Anglican Church and when the visiting Bishop of Cairo addressed me as Mr. Maas, we decided to get married and she became Mrs. Gilbert on the 29th of November, 1975.
This was the time of the revolution that brought about the deposition and later murder of Emperor Haile Selassie. It was initially peaceful and there was a glorious period of press freedom and people clamouring to buy the Ethiopian Herald as soon as it came out. This did not last very long as there was a rather bloody left-wing coup followed by a lot of killings. One of these was the best man at our wedding, Bill Morton, a lecturer in geology, who was killed trying to smuggle members of an opposition faction past a roadblock outside Addis. Another family we were good friends with were kidnapped and spent several months as ‘guests’ of the Tigray Liberation Front. One of the consequences of the revolution was that the new military government, the Derg, decided to send all students in Addis out to the country which meant that we had to do no teaching for the last year of our time in Ethiopia.
We left Addis Ababa in 1976 and returned to Stratford Street for a few months before moving to Nairobi for five and a half years. Whilst we were there Caroline’s mother developed cancer and came out to Nairobi to spend her last few weeks with us.
Caroline was trying to describe the Nandi Flame Tree in our garden to her and decided to try and paint it for her. This was a pivotal event as she realised that she quite liked painting and when we returned to the UK and went to live in Kew, she started taking painting and drawing classes at the local adult college in Richmond. At about this time she had accumulated many ends of tins of paint in the house in Stratford street and decided to use these up by having a go at doing a mural in the living room based on Uccello’s ‘Hunt in the Forest’. Freshly painted it was a bit overpowering and it got covered with lining paper, painted over and forgotten for a few years. Some time later the lining paper started peeling off and the mural was rediscovered. Getting off the lining paper gave the mural a more acceptable antique look and it formed a centre piece when Caroline opened the house for Artweeks.
At about the same time she discovered printmaking and an inspiring teacher, Ingrid Allen. She later wrote “I started from watercolour, with overlapping washes of colour. I only walked in to the Print Room because I thought it might be a solution to that problem when you are near finishing a painting, last marks, which will either ruin or make the painting. I thought printmaking would be a sort of scaffold, but once there I fell for the ‘bitten line’ in etching and then back to layers of colour just putting them on different plates for the final image.”
She never looked back and went on to become a founder member of the Richmond Printmakers. Later she started to spend more time back in Oxford and discovered the Oxford Printmakers and ended up doing all her work with them. She also became a full member of the Oxford Art Society. She loved choral music, particularly early church music and Benjamin Britten (but not ‘Turn of the Screw’) and one of her regular treats was going to Choral Evensong at Christ Church. Despite this, Caroline was quite unable to sing in tune. Her last request was for ‘Spem in Alium’ by Thomas Tallis.
The other important happenings on our return from Kenya was the Cruise Missile Crisis, the great resurgence of CND and the setting up of the Greenham Women’s Peace Camps. Caroline took part in several demonstrations and did get arrested. She had used a hacksaw blade to try to cut the Greenham fence but got charged with defacing the fence because she had been given a can of spray paint by another demonstrator and a policewoman swore in court that she had seen Caroline use it (she hadn’t).
Caroline was a passionate supporter of the Greenham Women but then discovered Christian CND (CCND) and became even more strongly involved with them, an involvement that continued to her death. She went on to be a co-chair and initiated many activities, in particular the very well attended Treaties Day Schools and trips to France to highlight the Anglo-French Teutates agreement to share resources for the development of nuclear weapons.
Caroline was also actively involved with Abolition 2000 and No Trident Replacement and was elected to CND Council. She went to New York, Geneva and Vienna to lobby at United Nations Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meetings and the meetings that led to the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, signed by 122 nations and now nearing the 50 full ratifications needed to make it a binding law. The International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for their part in achieving this and one of Caroline’s proudest moments was to have been involved and to get to hold the real Nobel medal.
Probably her most successful bit of individual lobbying was at the Church of England General Synod. Lobbying there was a regular event for CCND and on one occasion she seized the opportunity to inform the Archbishop of Canterbury that the C. of E. was out of line with all the Churches that had produced clear statements denouncing nuclear weapons. Getting a stand and/or fringe meeting at the General Synod is a bit complex and involves having a sponsor who was on General Synod. This was usually Paul Bayes, a former co-chair of CCND and now Bishop of Liverpool, but he was away on sabbatical.
The then Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, who Caroline had first met on the steps of St. Martins in Trafalgar Square at a big CND rally, came to the rescue and managed to set up a fringe meeting to discuss the morality of nuclear weapons. This was put into a small room somewhat hidden away and we expected a small attendance but then in came Justin Wellby and his entourage and the result was that there should be a full debate on the subject. Thus at the next General Synod in York in the summer of 2018, Stephen Cottrell, now Archbishop of York, successfully moved motion GS 2095 asking the British Government to ‘respond positively to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by reiterating publicly its obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its strategy for meeting them…’. There was a heart-stopping moment at the start when the debate was interrupted by a call by a synod member (from Oxford) for a move to ‘next business’ (winter care for the homeless). This was decisively defeated and the General Synod went on to pass +Stephen’s motion by 260 votes for, 26 against, 21 abstentions
Caroline was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 but this was treated successfully and she was given an all clear. In the autumn of 2019 Caroline developed a bad cold which we thought had left her chronically unwell, feeling weaker and weaker, eating less and less, and going to bed earlier and earlier but there were no other symptoms until after the start of the Covid-19 lockdown when she noticed a lump in her abdomen. An initial ultrasound scan was inconclusive as was the first attempt at a biopsy and it was not until quite a while after a CT scan and a second biopsy that we were told that Caroline had an untreatable grade 4 carcinosarcoma of the uterus along with a major thrombosis near the heart, secondary growths in both lungs and signs of problems with the kidneys.
Caroline came home and had to endure daily injections of a blood thinner to treat the thrombosis but after about three weeks her right leg started to swell so she went for another CT scan and never came back to Stratford Street until the day of her funeral. The swollen leg was caused by another thrombosis but the scan also showed that the tumour was stopping her kidneys functioning and she needed drains inserted into them. The first two attempts were not successful. A third attempt was initially thought to be working but then that too got blocked and David and I were allowed to visit her.
At this point we were told that she would be transferred to the Sir Michael Sobel House hospice as soon as a bed was available which there was two days later. Once there, there was a definite improvement in her condition, probably because the functioning of the kidney drains improved, but this was short lived and she declined rapidly.
Her last actions, just days before her end, was to dictate a message to Stephen Cottrell, asking him to be the keynote speaker at a meeting celebrating 60 years of CCND and to congratulate him on becoming a grandfather, and to dictate her thoughts on how CCND should go about helping to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
She was incredibly calm about her situation, never quite giving up hope of coming home but at the same time fully aware of the seriousness of her condition. In the end, thanks very much to the care and skill of the staff at Sobell House, she was kept relatively free of pain and passed away peacefully just after 2 am on Tuesday, 30th of June, 2020.
She had wished to be buried with her grandfather in Wolvercote Cemetery but this was not possible and she had to be laid to rest in the closest available spot within the cemetery.