World War II Jewish Evacuees

“Really?” I said, trying to sound suitably impressed. I had no idea where Cambridge was. The day was warm and sunny. We sat huddled together in the small compartment under the benevolent eye of Mrs Harris, but the predominant memory of that journey is of thirst. At Newmarket, our destination, the platform was abuzz with local people being helpful. Ladies from voluntary organisations were busy supplying much-needed glasses of cold water, boy scouts supervised by scout masters were helping with our luggage and handing out large bars of milk chocolate and other goodies. My brother remembers a tin of (non-Kosher) corned beef which tasted “delicious”, but I have no memory of this. Our reception at the station was to make a lasting impression on me. I was to revise my attitude towards strange big boys because of it. Clearly it would be silly to suggest that all previous encounters with unknown older boys had led automatically to physical or verbal abuse, but in the pre-war East End one kept a wary eye open. What was new was the experience of being actually helped by unknown bigger boys, strange polite youths going out of their way to be helpful...to us!

Our school - historically a rather famous one on the Anglo-Jewish scene - split up in those hours never to reassemble again in its old form. Coaches took some classes to Isleham, others to Fordham, while we ended up in Soham’s Church Hall to sit watching a whispering group of adults who stood watching us, about to decide which of us to take into their homes and their lives. That day we acquired a new designation - evacuees. My brother and I were chosen early on in the proceedings by, it seemed, two ladies who walked with us wheeling their bicycles (everyone had bicycles) and chatting in the most friendly way. At first it wasn’t clear which was which, but it turned out that the elder distinguished-looking lady was Mrs Boyce, our new foster mother, and the younger her friend, a nurse named Mary Smith. How kind they were, how transparently good, like characters in an E M Forster novel. Both were to die in the prime of life, Mary Smith tragically within months, but in those moments they were our security and gratefully we clung to them.

Mrs Boyce told us that she had two sons of about our ages and that her husband, a livestock farmer, kept pigs and hens in his field. On reaching her home in Kings Parade ( a part of Fordham Road), we entered by the side garden to find Masters Donald and Tony with a friend or two chasing each other with buckets of water. “Young scamps,” said Mrs Boyce tut-tutting. That was all. No explosion. In London we lived in a third-floor flat which had no garden but an adjacent walled flat roof on which we played. Throwing buckets of water about would, I suppose, have been marginally more acceptable that hurling sulphuric acid, but neither was warmly encouraged. Now this was freedom. There was one small initial problem that had to be addressed without delay. My parents, strictly observant Jews, had brought us up to have our heads covered at all times, in the house as well as in the street (though, paradoxically, not in the school classroom). I had to explain this embarrassing fact, with the request that we be allowed to keep our caps on inside the house in accordance with religious custom, to people who might never have seen a Jew before and who could easily misconstrue the request as bad manners. I needn’t have worried; no fuss was made and we were never made to feel self-conscious.

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