JAMES Wolffe, Lord Advocate of Scotland and the country’s chief prosecutor, is looking at a piece of his past. It is a picture of his grandparents Hildegard and Walter Schmidt.

Hildegard is leaning back slightly against her husband and there’s the beginning of a smile on her face, as if Walter’s just told her a joke and she’s trying not to laugh.

What you can’t see, though, in the old grey snap of Hildegard and Walter is the dark outline: what the couple had to endure in Nazi Germany and how, more than 70 years later, it has helped form the values and ideals of Scotland’s top lawyer.

The Lord Advocate is looking at the photograph, and a few others from his family collection, in a basement room of the Garnethill synagogue in Glasgow and he’s doing it in the same way that he speaks: carefully, slowly and shyly.

As the head of the prosecution system and the man who provides legal advice to the Scottish Government, Wolffe has a higher profile than almost any other lawyer in the country – a profile raised even further by his role in defending the Holyrood Brexit Bill at the Supreme Court over the summer. And yet it would be hard to imagine a man less suited to fame of sorts that comes with his job than this cautious and introverted 55-year-old advocate. Today’s visit to the synagogue is for the Lord Advocate to find out more about its archives centre, which works to preserve and disseminate information about the Jewish experience in Scotland, as well as to deposit a file of papers on the Wolffe family, including the picture of Hildegard and Walter.

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Wolffe himself doesn’t identify as Jewish; neither did his father, the late Antony Wolffe, who was brought up a Lutheran, but his grandmother was from a prominent Jewish family in Berlin and Wolffe has become increasingly interested in that side of his family history. And, as with any Jewish family that lived through the 1930s and 40s in Germany, much of the story is disturbing.

We talk about his father first. Later in life, after he had settled in Scotland, Antony Curtis Wolffe established a reputation as an architect in Edinburgh and Galloway, where he raised his family, but it was only in his great old age (he worked as an architect until he was 92) that he started to talk to his children about his experiences in Germany. “It’s fair to say that he had a number of years in his retirement where I think he reflected on the way life had taken him,” says his son.

Wolffe talks me through what he knows about his father’s time in Germany. “He was born in 1920 so he was a schoolboy as the Nazis were coming to power. He talked about how his mother used to comb his hair, which was dark and wavy, in order to make him look less Jewish.

“In the early 30s, he was also beaten up in the street by the Hitler Youth. As he told it, his father went round and told the leader of the Hitler Youth to lay off, which was rather brave in the circumstances.

“I’m assuming they had identified him as Jewish. There also came a point where he wasn’t allowed to play sports at school because he was identified as being half-Jewish and I think that that, for him, was most significant.”

Wolffe’s father also had memories of the fate met by some of his relatives: the cousin of his mother who was shot dead at his front door in Berlin; the relatives who stayed in Germany but would sometimes have to go into hiding to escape capture; the cousins of his grandmother who were sent to concentration camps and died there.

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And all the relatives who left Germany and were scattered around the world, and still are – Wolffe’s father came to the UK permanently in 1937, just before the war broke out. And then there is the story of Hildegard and Walter. Hildegard was a Red Cross nurse who served on the Belgian front during the First World War, but as a German patriot resisted her husband’s repeated suggestions that they emigrate. Walter at first said they should leave for Palestine and again suggested in 1939 that they go to Sweden but it was apparently anathema to Hildegard.

However, both knew that staying in Germany would put them in danger, so Walter came up with a plan.

The plan was risky. Hildegard was a Christian but the race laws introduced by the Nazis in Nuremberg in 1935 said that the status of Jew was passed to children and grandchildren whatever religion they practised and therefore Hildegard was a Jew under the new laws and in terrible danger. Walter’s plan was to change that by claiming that his wife’s mother had had an affair and that Hildegard’s real father was not a Jew at all but an Aryan, an artist called Wilhelm Lucas von Cranach.

The affair never happened, of course, but it bought Hildegard and Walter time and was enough for a Nazi doctor, comparing the cranium, face, lips and ears of Hildegard and her alleged Aryan father, to declare that von Cranach was her real father. They kept the truth secret and the plan had worked.

Wolffe tells me that his grandparents were only doing what they had to in the circumstances. “I wouldn’t put it that she was ‘passing’ as non-Jew – she wouldn’t think of it in those terms. She was at significant risk because she was a Jew in the definition that the state applied. My grandfather took steps to seek to have his wife identified as half-Jewish rather than fully Jewish clearly as an effort to minimise the risk. At that point, there is a clear seeking to distance from the Jewish background. My father didn’t and wouldn’t identify himself as Jewish; it wasn’t part of his own upbringing.”

So what about Wolffe himself? Here he is in a synagogue in Glasgow exploring his family history – how has it shaped the man he is now? “I wouldn’t identify as Jewish,” he says. “It’s an important part of my family background but it’s not part of my immediate cultural background.”

However, it’s slightly different when it comes to his work as chief prosecutor. “In terms of my own professional situation, I suppose I look at that history and what it tells us is the importance of the protection of fundamental rights and of the need to be very clear and firm about the importance of those values. Germany was a country where the Jewish community was assimilated. My own grandmother’s family were prosperous, they had prospered in Germany, they were part of the professional elite in Berlin – it was not a country where one would expect what happened next to happen. And yet it did.

“While I’m not a fan of drawing parallels to where we are now – it’s important not to draw false analogies – nevertheless the lesson that one takes from that, for me, is the importance of the rule of law as the foundation of any just and successful society and the protection of fundamental rights and, I suppose, also the respect for tolerance.”

Of course, we know that the battle for tolerance of Jews, and other minority communities in Scotland, is not yet won – far from it. The Lord Advocate tells me that he has learned a couple of interesting things on his visit to the synagogue.

First, Scotland is the only country in Europe that has never had anti-Semitic laws and, second, there was a time when Scottish universities were the only universities in Europe that did not require students to take an oath on the Christian Bible.

On the other hand, Howard Brodie, a volunteer at the Jewish archives centre, tells me of the manifestations of anti-Semitism he has seen: name-calling and abuse on the street, for example; he also says anti-Semitic comments are on social media all the time. And then there’s the furore in the Labour Party, which has been accused of being institutionally anti-Semitic.

Brodie says it is a recent problem with the left-wing and the Momentum movement in particular and says he wouldn’t vote for Labour if it was the last party on Earth. “Not in a million years,” he says for emphasis. When I ask Wolffe for his views on the matter, he says he can’t comment on Labour because of his position as Lord Advocate, but he acknowledges that there is still a problem with anti-Semitism in Scotland.

“We encounter hate crimes directed at many communities and it includes anti-Semitic hate crime.”

I suggest to Wolffe that he must also understand that many hate crimes – perhaps most of them – are never reported to the police: the shouts in the streets, the jibes on social media.

“As prosecutors we can only deal with cases that are reported to us, and where there is evidence,” he says. “It’s important that we deal with the cases that we can deal with firmly because I’d like to think that does send a signal about what’s not acceptable in our society and it also sends a signal that the law has a part to play in underpinning a tolerant society in which difference is valued.”

Wolffe tells me that he isn’t really into psychologising, but I ask him if he can see where this view on tolerance might have come from, and whether there’s a direct line from his father’s history. Antony Wolffe was interned during the Second World War, first on the Isle of Man and then in Canada, where the conditions were spartan, but he never held it against Britain. As far as he was concerned, the UK was the country that offered him refuge in the 1930s and a place where he found the freedom and tolerance that was being taken away by force in Germany. It probably helped to make him a welcoming and open person.

“My sister said a nice thing about my father and the fact that he would say things twice,” says Wolffe. “He would start a sentence, ‘Well, well,’ and if someone came into the house, he would say, ‘Welcome, welcome,’ and my sister believed saying it twice was reflective of his character and his welcoming nature.”

That’s possibly one of the lessons that Wolffe takes from his father’s story: the importance of welcoming visitors, incomers, migrants and refugees, then and now. He cites the contribution that migrants have made in Scotland and nowhere is it more obvious than in the relatively small Jewish community.

HeraldScotland: Lord Advocate James Wolffe at Garnethill synagogue. Picture: Jamie Simpson

In recent years the population has declined, partly because of young Jews going away to study and then not coming back to Scotland, and because of older Jews going to live with their children and grandchildren around the world.

But the contribution made by Jews who came to Scotland in the 1930s and 40s is immense. They helped establish new businesses; they have been active and influential in science, medicine, commerce and politics; the contribution they have made is huge.

Wolffe believes it is important that we remember all of that and keep our arms and minds open to refugees now, as we did to the Jews in the 1930s. But there are maybe other, more personal lessons to be taken from the life of Antony Curtis Wolffe.

His son James, who has worked his way to become one of the country’s senior lawyers, tells me how his father kept on working until three years before his death at 95 years old. That in itself is remarkable but Wolffe says that’s just the way his father was and the way Wolffe himself would like to be: a man made of history who lives his life looking forward.