Sue Ryder was born into a large family and was the youngest of nine siblings. As a child, she assisted her mother to provide help for people in the slums around Leeds. This, along with her strong faith, is thought to have been the influence behind her lifetime dedication to the relief of suffering.
The War and the SOE
Upon the outbreak of WWII, Sue Ryder lied about her age in order to enlist in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry – the link between the field hospitals and the front lines. In fact, in her 1986 autobiography ‘Child of My Love’ she states her date of birth as 1923, still maintaining her fib from all those years previously!
Her time in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry was short-lived as she was given another assignment; joining the Special Operations Executive. Set up by Winston Churchill, the SOE were tasked with conducting espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance against the Axis powers in Europe. In Churchill’s words they were to “set Europe ablaze”. The SOE doesn’t exist today; it was dissolved in 1946. Most agents either returned to civic life or moved in to Mi6. Sue Ryder set to work helping those she had seen displaced as a result of war.
Indeed, it was through her highly secret work in the SOE that she first came into contact with people whose lives had been ruined by war. She first served with the Czech section, before going to Poland where her deep affection for Poland and the Polish people began.
She later served in North Africa, Italy and eventually Germany - witnessing the full horror of war and entering the concentration camps.
Having already been an active humanitarian as a child, what she saw and experienced during the war almost inevitably resulted in her committing the rest of her life to relieving suffering. “The war never ended for her”, a close friend recalled. Sue Ryder was determined her humanitarian work would become ‘a Living Memorial to all those who died for freedom’.
Do what you can for the person in front of you
In the destruction of war and the horror of the concentration camps she witnessed so much suffering. It must have been difficult not to despair, or to know where to even make a start, but Sue Ryder had a simple ethos: do what you can for the person in front of you.
She helped people displaced from their homes during the war, many of whom didn’t have any papers to return home or find work, and so would get in trouble with the authorities because of petty theft caused by starvation.
The love she felt towards Poland was certainly not one-way. She was honoured by the Polish people and given the title Lady Baroness of Warsaw. The Polish people took to her very fondly as she stayed on and helped when other relief teams had to leave.