After signing up with app-based agency companiions, Rob Pitman developed a friendship with 100-year-old George Portland.
To describe Mr Portland’s life as colourful would be an understatement.
This is a man who evaded capture by the Gestapo in Prague on the eve of the Second World War, was awarded France’s highest military honour, joined the British Army and then witnessed the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen Belsen.
Mr Portland’s story has been highlighted as a result of his chats with Mr Pitman after both men signed up with companiions.
The duo began meeting last year after Mr Portland was signed up to the agency by his son, who lives in Spain and is unable to visit his father regularly.
Mr Pitman, who was born and grew up in Jersey, has lived in England for the past 13 years and made the short journey to Mr Portland’s house in south London.
The former Victoria College pupil had not spent long in Mr Portland’s company before he realised he was no ‘average George’.
‘I’ve always been interested in history, especially the Second World War, having grown up in Jersey where there are so many links to the war and the Occupation,’ he said. ‘It was quite something to meet someone who had been awarded the Legion d’Honneur.’
Mr Portland was decorated with the honour as a result of his attempts to defy the German invasion following his escape from Prague, where he and his Jewish family were at risk of persecution.
Forced to escape the Nazis for a second time, Mr Portland fled France and, after travelling from Bordeaux to Belfast by boat, he joined the British Army and later returned to mainland Europe during the final stages of the war, during which time he travelled to the Bergen Belsen camp in northern Germany.
‘George is really sharp and lucid and some of his older memories are totally built-in,’ said Mr Pitman, who said that he felt he had got as much, if not more, from the friendship as the man more than three times his age.
Escalating Covid-19 restrictions have prevented the pair from meeting recently but their friendship has received coverage in the national media and Mr Pitman hopes they will be able to meet up again when the pandemic eases.
Lisa Robinson, chief executive and co-founder of companiions, said: ‘Rob and George’s story is wonderful to hear and perfectly demonstrates why we set up companiions. Despite the 67-year age gap, they formed an unlikely friendship and George has been able to share his amazing story.’
The agency operates in a similar way to networks such as Airbnb, with users setting up profiles which, after they have been verified, are matched with other users. Some people are paid for the time they spend, while others – like Mr Pitman – volunteer their time and give the money they would have earned to charities such as Age Concern.
For more information, see companiions.com.