World War II Jewish Evacuees

Wellington Boots & Bicycles

August 1939 was a time of unparalleled anxiety and confusion in this country, not least for the children of the big cities and their parents.
I had just turned twelve, and like everyone else knew that war was imminent. Like everyone else living in London I assumed that the onset of war would bring swift horror and destruction from the air. We knew from the newsreels what modern war was like and we had no illusions about Adolf Hitler. All around us were ominous signs of preparation: air raid shelters; piled-up sandbags to prevent flying glass; specially constructed reservoirs in the streets and parks; barrage balloons reshaping the sky.

Parents faced the agonising decision of whether to hold onto their young children or allow them to be evacuated for safety in the countryside with their schools, as they were being officially urged to do. My own parents made a last-minute decision to let my brother Cyril, who was aged ten, accompany me, issuing constant pleas: “Whatever you do, don’t let him be separated from you.” We made our way to school each morning in that last week of August not for lessons but with an improvised kit-bag each, a gas mask, a label of identification; ready to move off into the unknown or to be sent home again an hour later. Such was the situation as that extraordinary month drew to its close. Bliss was it not in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was - learning to accept the unreal as real, the abnormal as normal.

Then on the morning of Friday, 1st September Hitler’s troops stormed into Poland and we knew that the waiting was over. In a way it was a relief. The growing tensions and fears of recent months - and years - were replaced now by a kind of resignation, a spirit of adventure almost. We were going to be sent into something called the “country”, known more from picture books (kindly-looking cows, fluffy white clouds, a darling lamb) than from any first- hand contact. It was possible to feel guiltily excited.

Our school was situated in the heart of the old Jewish East End, a stone’s throw from Petticoat Lane market. That morning we marched out of its gates for the last time, past streets lined with weeping mothers and waving hands, a long orderly line of children and teachers on their way to nearby Liverpool Street Station. We brought the Bishopsgate traffic to a halt. All over the Capital similar scenes were being enacted. It was goodbye for ever to a world that died that weekend. Our world. “I hear,” my teacher’s wife said to me as we waited for the train to leave, “that we are going beyond Cambridge.”

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