This is a selection of the opening chapter of my memoirs of my life as an evacuee.

 

 During an occasional restless night, as insomnia prowls about my bed and I wait for my brain to finally spin down and sleep to envelop me in its soft wings; my mind drifts back to my beginnings in England. Faint images and experiences I had long forgotten, start to swim out of distant corners of my memory, some just shadowy wisps others as clear to me as yesterday's happenings.

At these times, the period of my life that I most often reflect on is the tumultuous era of the late 1930's and early 1940's- the days of my childhood. Perhaps at this point I should digress from my own memories of that time and briefly discuss the political storm which was then brewing in Europe.

This was the moment when the leaders of Germany's Third Reich decided to right the wrongs that they felt that the victors of World War I, principally France, Britain, The United States, and Italy had committed against them after Germany had signed the armistice that had ended the "Great War" in 1918. This is how it began.

At four o'clock on the morning of September 1, 1939, the Wehrmacht of Adolph Hitler's immoral regime of gangsters and thugs, without warning, provocation, ultimatum or declaration of war, attacked their neighbor Poland. German airplanes machine-gunned and slaughtered fleeing civilian refugees, as well as soldiers. Simultaneously the Nazi's seized the disputed Danzig corridor.

Reluctantly, the British government under the ineffective leadership of its pacifist Prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, issued an ultimatum to Hitler: Completely remove your forces from Poland by Sept. 3, or a state of war will exist between us. The Nazi dictator of Germany had always been able to get his way before by using a succession of lies, deceit and bluff. No doubt "Der Fuhrer" thought he could stare down the Allies again, and continue to extend his occupation of the rest of Europe in his quest for Lebensraum for the "Master Race."

This time however, Hitler had completely misread Chamberlain's temper. At last the British government's previous policy of appeasement had ended. So when the Nazi War Lord ignored Mr. Chamberlain's ultimatum, the British, whose patience was completely exhausted, declared war on Germany at eleven A.M. on September 3. Although their Armed Forces were not fully prepared for combat against the mighty German war machine.

Fifteen minutes later, at eleven fifteen A.M., apprehensive citizens of the United Kingdom with their ears glued to their radios, heard the following statement read slowly and solemnly by their Prime Minister on the B.B.C.:

"I am speaking to you from the cabinet room at number ten Downing Street. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note, stating that unless the British government heard from them by eleven o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now, that no such undertaking has been received, and consequently this country is at war with Germany. The situation in which no word given by Germany's ruler could be trusted, and no people or country could feel itself safe, has become intolerable. Now we have resolved to finish it. May God bless you all. May he defend the right, for it is evil things that we shall be fighting against, brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution; and against them I am certain that right will prevail."

The French government reluctantly followed Britain's lead, and their Prime Minister, Eduard Daladier, declared war against Germany at five P.M. the same day.

W.W.II had begun, it was to last for almost six terribly violent and bitter years. The civilized world plunged over a precipice into a new dark age, during which time untold millions of innocents perished.

Minutes after the Prime Minister had finished his broadcast, the banshee wailing of air raid sirens were heard in London. Thousands of Londoners filled with fear and consternation, ran to take cover, but fortunately, it was a false alarm. Before long the "All Clear" sounded a long, continuous note. With many sighs of relief London's residents emerged from basements and shelters into the daylight.

The final blow against the Poles fell on September 17, 1939 when the USSR, which had made a clandestine non aggression pact with Hitler, swept in from the East, its Red Army conquering all before them. Germany and Russia rapidly divided up the corpse of the vanquished Polish nation between them. The Soviet Armies were to stay in Poland until the dissolution of the USSR in 1992.

Because war fever had been in the air all summer, the British Government had decided that if the unthinkable should take place and war break out, all school aged children living in the major cities would be evacuated out of harm's way, and leave their homes to seek refuge in safer areas in the countryside.

As a consequence of geopolitical intrigues and Machiavellian schemes entirely beyond my understanding, I found myself, at the tender age of five and a half years, at my school on the morning of Sept 1, together with all of my fellow students and our teachers. We were assembled in our auditorium at the Jews Infants School in Commercial Street, Stepney. The school had been founded back in 1841 by a Jewish philanthropist, a Mr. Walter Josephs when he learned that The London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Among the Jews was planning to open an infant's school in the vicinity.

I was accompanied by my mother and my brother Norman, who was then a slender, mischievous thirteen year old lad. Totally bewildered and confused by all the noise, excitement and activity going on around me, I clung to my mother's coat, never letting go except for an occasional visit to the boy's bath room. None of us children had the slightest idea of why we were all there, or what momentous events in world history were taking place around us.

Miss Silverman, my favorite teacher, approached my Mother and handed her a tag and a safety pin. "Write his name and address on this!" she said, "And pin it to his coat." Before long, all of my schoolmates & I had tags dangling from our coats as though we were two legged packages waiting to be mailed.

After a seemingly endless wait, we formed a line two by two and we left the school playground through the wrought iron gates, led by our Headmistress Mrs. Davidoff. We hurried through the narrow working-class streets of the east end of London. We turned right onto Wentworth Street and a few minutes later as we turned left into Brune Street, I took one last look up at our apartment in the familiar, soot stained block of flats where my family had lived since 1933, the year before my birth. Then we crossed Bell Lane, walked through the medieval Artillery Lane, and on through Frying Pan alley. We crossed the bustling wide Bishopsgate Street as the City of London bobbies held up the traffic for us, with our parents walking alongside us. Many mothers and fathers held their child or children by the hand. Some mothers, who perhaps had nowhere to leave their youngest child, pushed their infant children in baby carriages. People in the crowded streets turned around to stare at us as we hastened past. Some women no doubt understanding what was happening to us, dabbed at their eyes. Finally, perhaps fifteen minutes later we arrived at our destination the cavernous, dingy Liverpool Street Station, the terminus of the London and North Eastern Railway.

The walls and ceiling of the old Gothic-styled building were coated with thick layers of grime and soot, the residue of smoke from countless coal fired locomotives-deposited there over the preceding seventy odd years. The sulfurous stink from the engines hung in the air like a brown miasma. The vast station vibrated and rang with a deafening cacophony of sounds. Departure and arrival announcements constantly boomed from the public address system. With a hiss and roar, clouds of steam issued from the huge engine's brake cylinders. The wheels of the many baggage carts, loaded high with passenger's luggage, squealed in protest as harried porters pushed and tugged them around the crowded platforms. The hullabaloo and tumult from the hordes of confused children and parents scurrying hither and yon all blended together. Truly, the building was a veritable bedlam.

This scene was to be repeated that day and the next several days in all of the nation's large, vulnerable cities. Between three and four million people, consisting mainly of mothers and their children, but also including elderly people and invalids, participating in what was the nation's largest mass evacuation ever attempted, left their homes to seek safety in the next few days. Those people who had the means, simply left the large towns and cities at their own expense and rented accommodations in whatever rural community they could find that had temporary quarters available for them.

After a seemingly interminable wait on the crowded, dirty platform, we kids scrambled aboard the sooty, third class carriages of the specially supplied train of the L.N.E.R. Each class was accompanied by its often frazzled home-room teacher. Shortly thereafter, the guard garbed in his blue uniform and peaked cap, blew his whistle and waved his green flag to give the go ahead to the engineer. We kissed our tearful parents goodbye, and the train chuffed and chugged its way out of the station, slowly picking up speed, belching black smoke and white steam, taking us to-we knew not where. The smell of the smoke, the click-clack of the train's wheels, the cinders in my eye were all new experiences for me; it was my very first train ride.

Although Norman and I had attended different schools, our parents had decided to send him along with my school to keep an eye on me rather than let him go away with his own schoolmates from The Jews Free School, which I know he really would have preferred.

We hung out of the train's windows, watching the unfamiliar countryside slide past, pointing them out to each other whenever we glimpsed unfamiliar sights like cows, horses, sheep and other exotic creatures. We wondering out loud whither we were bound and what our fate would be. After traveling for about an hour or so, we arrived at our destination, the small town of Newmarket in the county of Suffolk.

Located some sixty-five miles north east of London, Newmarket is famous all over Britain as the home of one of the nation's best grass race tracks and some of the best-known horse-breeding stables in the country including the National Stud. In fact, racing has been the town's principle business and obsession since the reign of King James I over three hundred years ago.

A few minutes after the train had come to a grinding halt, our teacher told us that we had reached our destination. Gathering up our few belongings, we disembarked from the overcrowded train and assembled in groups on the station platform. After a short wait, a green uniformed lady of the. W.V.S. (Woman's Volunteer Service) pushing a cart loaded to the gunwales, appeared and handed each of us a package containing a couple of sandwiches, a bun, and a small bottle of milk. After wolfing down this brief lunch, we boarded the special double decker busses that had been rented for this occasion by the local municipal authorities. They soon distributed small groups of us to different sections of the small town. Led by our teachers and a Billeting Officer, we walked through the unfamiliar streets, each child holding hands with a classmate in the formation known in England as a "crocodile." We all carried a small bag or shouldered a backpack containing our personal belongings. Many a child was clutching a favorite doll, a beat up Teddy Bear or a Golliwog for comfort.

Slung over every child's shoulder by a piece of cord, was a brown cardboard box containing the red rubber gas mask, shaped like the face of Mickey Mouse, with big round glass eye pieces and a long nose like appendage. We had each been issued the gas masks before we left our school. The string on my gas mask box must have been too long because the box was constantly banging against my legs at every step I took. We had been given these masks since many people feared that the Germans would drop poison gas bombs on us after the start of hostilities as the Italians had done during their conquest of Ethiopia. Indeed, deadly phosgene and mustard gas, as well as other poison gases had been used extensively with horrific results, by all sides during W.W.I.

My mother had been injured during a German air raid on London in 1917, by Zeppelin dirigibles and Gotha bombers. During this raid that the enemy dropped explosive and mustard gas bombs on the civilian population. Mum told me many times that it was whilst she was recovering from these injuries, she and my father had gotten married later that year.

The authorities required everyone to carry their gas mask with them wherever they went. Since we evacuees were sent to what was considered to be a safe area, we very seldom complied with that regulation. However many people living in the cities, as well as members of the Armed Forces, the police and firemen did carry their gas masks around with them everywhere they went whilst they were both on and off duty.

Our particular group was dropped off at a street called Exning Road, near the outskirts of the town. The small children, one or two at a time, were marched up garden paths to disappear from the view of the rest of us and into the unfamiliar homes of their new foster parents.

Eventually our turn came Norman and I were led across the Exning Rd. by an anonymous local official to number 32 L------ Terrace. I particularly remember the house number since it happened to be the same number as that of our London apartment, 32 Brune House. We nervously ascended the steep flight of concrete steps to the front door of the house, and were introduced by the Billeting Officer to our hosts, Mr. and Mrs. B. and their son Terry, who was about four years old. Both Mr. and Mrs. B. appeared to be in their late 30s or early 40s. She and Terry were blonde and blue eyed. Her husband had a rather tweedy appearance, with a cigarette permanently glued to his lower lip. Shortly after that, Mrs. B. took our coats and bags, and showed us to what was to be to our bedroom. It was their guest room, upstairs at the rear of the house.

After tea, which consisted of several slices of bread and jam and tea, Mrs. B. wrote her address on the post cards that our teachers had distributed to us before we left our school, so that we could let our parents know where we were now living. We mailed them home that evening from the mail box at the next corner.

I have very few clear memories of the three or four months I stayed with this family, but three things definitely stick in my mind. The first was that I was horribly homesick for my parents and the familiar surroundings of home. The second was that Mr. B. was a "Turf accountant," or bookmaker by trade, and worked during the racing season at the Newmarket race course. The last was that this "Gentleman" made the first of the many anti-Semitic remarks I was to hear during my almost five years experience as an evacuee, and during my two years of involuntary servitude in the Royal Army Ordinance Corps later in my life. But that's another tale!

It happened in this fashion. The date was a few days before Christmas 1939. One evening, several neighborhood youngsters came to our front door and began singing Christmas carols. At the conclusion of their performance, Mr. B. said to me, "Well, aren't you going to give them some money?" "I don't have any," I answered. He shot back, "Well, you wouldn't give them any if you had it, would you? You're a Jew boy."

Early in 1940, much to my delight, my parents took me back home to London. But for reasons still unknown to me, Norman stayed behind in Newmarket with the B. clan. Sometime later that spring, all the teachers and students of my school were relocated about five miles to the northwest to the small village of Fordham in the flat fen country of the adjoining county of Cambridgeshire. Once again they all had to get used to living with unfamiliar, new families. This small rural community had a peacetime population numbering perhaps fifteen hundred souls. Some of the kids found good homes with kind well-meaning folks, but many did not, and soon returned to their families in London.

On September 7,1940, the Germans began their Blitzkrieg on London. Night after night after night the enemies' bombers and fighters swarmed over London and other major cities in their hundreds. They were based just across the narrow English channel in defeated and humiliated France. Many intruders were shot down by our anti aircraft guns, and the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the R.A.F. But our radar, which had been secretly developed during the 1930's, and which was capable of detecting the enemy planes as far away as one hundred and twenty miles at altitudes up to thirty thousand feet, is really what made the strategic difference to our defenses. Without the aid of this new defensive technology our Air Force would have been crushed by the superior numbers of the German war planes, and our islands swiftly overrun and plundered by the Nazi hordes, just as they had most of the rest of the Continent of Europe.

I vividly recall standing on the balcony of our apartments on the night the "Blitz" began in earnest. I stood transfixed with disbelief as I watched with my parents and our neighbors as the skies to the east of us turned crimson. We heard the savage crump, crump, crump of bursting bombs. Our eyes stung from the clouds of acrid smoke drifting over us as most of the vast complex of the London docks, from Rotherhithe in the east to Tower Bridge in the City, went up in a raging holocaust of flames.

Prewar, these docks had been a part of one of the largest dock complexes in Europe. They were targets impossible for the Luftwaffe to miss, and they didn't. Wave after wave of enemy planes rained down their bomb loads upon the East End of London. The raids continued on and on for more than eight hours. Attacking planes needed no help to find the capital city that night. The raging dockland fires were all the beacons they needed. The docks and surrounding areas burned constantly for days afterwards. Our exhausted firefighters struggled manfully against insurmountable odds, but they were rendered virtually impotent due to the enormous scale of the havoc wreaked upon that quarter of the city. Most of the water mains were shattered, and the low water pressure added immeasurably to the problems of the men of The National Fire Service.

As the war progressed, German cities, in their turn, felt these same horrors of war meted out to them, Bremen, Hamburg, Frankfort, Dresden, Berlin, Cologne, Lubeck, and most other large cities were laid waste by the constant night and day raids of the British and American air forces.

During what became known as the Battle of Britain, London was pounded continuously for fifty-seven nights by an average force of one hundred and sixty enemy bombers. During this period, the overworked flyers and ground staff of the Royal Air Force destroyed 1733 German aircraft, while losing 915 British planes. The Battle of Britain is deemed by British historians to have begun on July 10, 1940 and to have ended on Oct. 31, 1940.

Britain was and still is essentially a manufacturing country with a population quite high in proportion to its land area so that the bulk of its food supply, as well as raw materials, and all of its oil and gasoline had to be imported from overseas. The German U Boats were constantly sinking the ships that were bringing in much needed food, and supplies for industry. According to Winston Churchill, in his book The Gathering Storm, during the first eight months of the war, they sank one hundred and seventy-two British and merchant ships, and by 1942, they were sending over 700,000 tons of US and British shipping to the bottom every month. The Allies were losing ships faster than their shipyards could replace them.

Practically every kind of foodstuff, other than fresh vegetables, milk, and bread was strictly rationed. In October 1939, the Ministry of Food issued every civilian with a ration book, and long queues for food became the order of the day. Queuing became a standard way of life, and "jumping the queue" was done at one's peril. The custom of "queuing up" continues to the present day, and "Brits" still wait patiently in line for busses, trains, movies, theaters, etc.

Everyone had to carry a powder blue National Registration Identity Card with them. This card contained one's name, address, and identity number. Your number soon became as familiar as your own name since it had to be noted on any form, or government document one filled out. I can still recall fifty years later that my number was TYEI-209-5. Your I.D. card always had to be carried on your person, or you risked being fined two shillings, (not a small sum in those days) if you were stopped by a policeman, or a soldier on duty, and you didn't have it with you.

The food rationing system seemed to work reasonably well, albeit with much griping and complaining by the public, although the allotment of food per person was small. Each person was allowed to buy one pound of butter, one pound of ham or bacon, one pound of cheese, forty-eight ounces of sugar per month (but this was soon reduced), thirty-six ounces of fresh meat, a small amount of canned goods, and only eight ounces of tea a month. The ration of only a half a pound of tea a month was a particular onerous burden in tea-loving Britain; in our family, we used our tea leaves for a second, and sometimes a third time, in order to stretch our meager ration. This tea-drinking habit is widespread in all strata of British society from Royalty to the common man. The nation's favorite hot beverage is enjoyed by most of its inhabitants anywhere from one to eight times each day. It's drunk to heat one up in winter and to cool one down in summer. It's drunk as a morning "waker-upper" and an evening's refreshment. It's drunk to counteract shock and to celebrate happy times. It's drunk to pick up one's spirits on sorrowful occasions, to be neighborly, or simply because it's four o-clock. , and that, as everyone knows, is tea time.

An ordinary can of Spam became a much sought-after item, and ah, a tin of red Salmon-that was a rare prize indeed hoarded by the housewife for a really special occasion. We didn't see bananas again until 1945. In fact, children who were born after the commencement of the war, had to be introduced to bananas, when the yellow fruit became available again after the war's end. At one particularly bad period during the war, the egg ration was reduced to one egg per person per month. Dried eggs (when they could be found) were reconstituted and used in place of the real thing. Many recipes were devised by newspaper cookery columnists, to prepare the yellow powder in more appetizing ways, but we could always detect the difference in taste between these ersatz eggs and the real McCoy.

Poultry and rabbits were unrationed, but they soon became almost unavailable in city butcher's shops, and were sold at vastly inflated prices when they could be found. Fresh fish, which had been abundant prewar and had been a staple food in our island nation, became scarce because many fishermen were now serving in the Navy. The Royal Navy used many wooden hulled fishing boats for mine sweeping duties, thereby reducing the size of the fishing fleet still further. Toward the end of the war, whale meat, and a mysterious South African fish called Snoeck (pronounced Snook) were offered for sale, but both quickly became the butt of comedians' jokes, and never became popular with British housewives.

However, those people who had money to spend could usually find some extras, and a black market in scarce items rapidly arose. Although fines were severe for anyone caught being involved in black marketeering, this illegal activity still went on covertly all over the country.

Minor criminals known as "Spivs," or "Wide Boys," some of whom were military deserters, who usually dressed in loud suits, whose jackets had padded shoulders, and who sported wide colorful ties, two tone shoes and pencil thin mustaches, made a handsome living by supplying stolen food or other hard-to-get items to those who would buy without asking too many questions about its source. A thriving trade in stolen or forged ration books also quickly arose. Petrol was very tightly rationed and was practically unavailable for civilian use. There was only one type being sold, and this was known as "Pool."

Petrol for commercial use was tinted red, so that it could be readily detected if used illegally in private cars, but the "Wide Boys" quickly found out that if they poured the commercial petrol through the filter of a gas mask, the red coloring could be eliminated. Another technique that these sleazy individuals used to remove the dye was to add a small amount of bleach to each gallon of petrol. I have also heard urban legends of petrol being filtered through loaves of bread, but I can't confirm that it actually was done.

As far as we kids were concerned, the rationing of candy was one of the toughest burdens we had to bear, with a quota of just three quarters of a pound of candy per person per month. Now, in normal times, the average person might not eat that much candy in several months, but human nature being what it is, if one couldn't get something one coveted it even more. In my case, with my sweet tooth, that ration was consumed long before the end of the month arrived. One of my favorite kinds of candy was Rowntrees Fruit Gums. These were rubbery, fruit flavored jellies; shaped like fruits; and were sold in either four ounce boxes, or in tubes. The candies in the tubes were round and flat, and were approximately the size and shape of a solid LifeSaver This variety of Fruit Gums was

called Pastilles. I really enjoyed these candies, and would gobble down a whole box of them while watching the Saturday afternoon movies

All street lights and electric signs were shut off for the duration of the war, all automobile headlights had to be masked so that just a narrow strip of the headlight was exposed, and every household had to install blackout curtains over all of their windows at night to make it harder for the Nazi planes to find their targets. With the establishment of the "Blackout," every one carried his own torch (flashlight) around with them at night, and batteries and bulbs were sometimes hard to find. To coax the last scintilla of life out of a dying battery, people would sometimes warm them for a short time in the oven before they ventured out after nightfall.

Street curbs and the bases of lampposts were painted white, but this didn't prevent some unlucky souls from tripping off the sidewalk at night and twisting their ankles.

To avoid having to install blackout curtains on our bedroom windows, and to eliminate the chore of putting them up, and taking them down twice daily, my father painted the window glass with black paint. This meant that either we had to keep the windows open during daylight hours, or keep the lights on during cold or wet weather. In response to official instructions, Dad applied brown gummed paper tape in an X shaped pattern from corner to corner to every pane in all of our windows. The rationale for doing this, was to reduce the risk of our being cut by shards of flying glass if a bomb should explode nearby. Some time later when my resourceful brother Norman, returned home from Fordham, he daubed blobs of luminous paint along the length of the bedroom wall so that he could find his way to the bathroom at night without having to grope for the light switch which was inconveniently located at the opposite end of the bedroom.

After it became evident to my folks that the war had finally reached us in earnest, my Mother packed a couple of bags, and the next thing that I knew she and I were passengers on the two o'clock train to Cambridge, where after a long wait, and several cups of tea later we boarded the Fordham bound train.

Meanwhile, in Fordham, my big brother had found a home with the P. family. Mr. P. drove a lorry for a local trucking company. His wife, a rather thin, chain-smoking woman worked in an office in the village, and drove one of the very few civilian cars still being used in Fordham. They had a young daughter, Vera, and a black and white ill-tempered mutt named Bonzo. The P's lived at the end of the row, in a small, white council house which had pebble dashed (stucco) walls, and a green tiled roof. Their house on Eldith Avenue, which they rented from the local municipal council, was identical to every other house in the housing estate which was located at the periphery of the village.

Mr. Howlett, the village Billeting Officer and member of the Fordham Parish Council, found me accommodation at the house next door to Norman with the family of Mr., and Mrs. H., and their son and daughter. The lad was about my age and size, perhaps a little younger, and their daughter was at that time a petulant, spoiled teenager, with shoulder length black hair. Since neither the P., nor H. family had any room for my mother to sleep, she lodged for a few days in a small room above the saloon bar at a nearby Public House

Since my mother had to look after Dad, my eighteen year old brother, Toby, and my twenty-one year old sister Hetty, she had to leave Norman and me after a few days to return to her domestic duties back home in London.

 

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