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Home truths of past and present

28 November, 2019 — By John Gulliver

Philippe Sands (3rd left) with the gathering outside his house in Willow Road – the former home of artist Milein Cosman and musician Hans Keller – where a blue plaque has been unveiled

THE blue plaque erected at number 50 Willow Road, Hampstead, couldn’t have found a better home – if only by the irrational laws of serendipity.

It was put up on Monday before a large gathering at the present home of the barrister, author and podcaster Philippe Sands. And the plaque links both the past and the present in a way that almost makes this story stranger than fiction.

The plaque honours two outstanding artists, painter Milein Cosman and musician Hans Keller, both Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. But who should be living in their former home now? Philippe Sands who, apart from practising law, now writes best sellers about the hidden lives of Nazis and how they murdered millions of Jews and other minorities.

When Philippe and his wife Natalia Schiffrin spotted the house – “it was a bit run down” – in 1999 they didn’t know its recent history or the connection with Milein Cosman and Hans Keller, both of whom have died. They lived in it from the mid-1950s to the late-1960s.

Philippe Sands

Now, almost as if he is slipping ghost-like into Hans Keller’s shoes, Philippe uses his study to write his startling books on the Nazis. He “starts at the best time of the day, 6.30am,” and works for several hours before turning to his other life – preparing law lectures at University College London.

His latest book, The Ratline – it is out next April – follows a Nazis high commander Otto von Wächter, indicted for murder by the Allies, who went on the run and then hid in the Vatican only to die suddenly in 1949.

Milein Cosman moved to England in 1939 to attend the Slade School of Fine Art and soon established a reputation as a fine artist working for various national and international publications. She later married the unique “musical writer” Hans Keller who was an established figure at the BBC.

The plaque was devised by the Association of Jewish Refugees who played an 2005 interview with Milein Cosman in which she said that when she met Hans she had secured something she had longed for for years – “a little ruin of a house…actually a stable”.

It was “raining through the skylights but it was absolutely wonderful. In those days Hampstead was truly like a little village.”

Listen to Milein talk about what home means for a refugee, and watch the full video on the AJR Refugee Voices site: https://www.ajrrefugeevoices.org.uk/lives-in-focus

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