World War II Jewish Evacuees

On our best behaviour, trying to be polite, there we sat, my brother and I, to all intents and purposes in the midst of aliens. Nothing was familiar. The butter was deep yellow and tasted salty. For the first time since leaving the Infant school I was being addressed as ‘Frank’ instead of by my surname (the normal practice in schools those days) or the family nick-name ‘Chicky’. The friendly aliens were doing their best to make us feel at home but it was patently and pathetically obvious that we were not at home. Where were we? Odd though it sounds now, I had the vague fear that we were lost in the middle of nowhere, and how was anyone going to know where to find us? Cut off from the rest of our school companions, how were we ever going to find them? It was not until I ventured in to the High Street and saw with profound relief a familiar face that the sense of isolation was lifted, but even then - the uneasy fear persisted - how were our parents going to find Soham?

Donald and Tony took us to “the field”, our future 21 acre playground, ten minutes walk away (but family bicycles would always be at our disposal) and bounded by the river. In Petticoat Lane hens were creatures cooped up in wooden crates or carried squawking and fluttering upside down by the legs. Here they wandered freely around the hen houses. Bullocks grazed by the river. The highlight of the experience was watching the pigs being fed, the low point walking into stinging nettles. Nobody had told us about nettles; nobody had prepared us for the sights and scents of the pigsty. This was the country as it really was, not the sanitised edited version fed to town children. We were told that we could help collect the eggs in the evenings if we wished. Things might have been a lot, lot worse.

We wrote to our parents without delay reporting all the wonders. Mr. Boyce had over a thousand chickens! More precisely, as we knew, he had eleven hundred, but a thousand sounded better. And Mrs. Boyce wrote too, promising that she would care for us as she did her own two boys. And when that night, our first ever away from parental care, we were woken by a cracking thunderstorm she came into our room to allay any fears asking if we would like Donald to stay with us.

Nearly six years later, in the early hours of V E Day, another memorable thunderstorm woke everyone up, only this time we in London lay in our beds listening with wonder to the sound and fury, serene in the certainty that it was “only thunder”. Saturday morning, and the issue was Wellington boots. “A boy can’t live in the country without Wellingtons,” Mr Boyce said. The day was the Jewish Sabbath when entering shops was unthinkable - a sin. But we went with him un-protesting to the local shoe shop because 24 hours is a long time to be away from home influence and - well, a boy can’t live in the country without Wellingtons. The following day a different issue was occupying our minds. We were in the garden when Mrs. Boyce came to tell us that this country is now at war with Germany. “Does that mean,” I asked, “that war has broken out?” The wording seemed to matter. “Yes,” she replied, “we are at war.” I think I went on playing. The not insensitive boy whose childhood was haunted by the spectre of war relegated the Dread Presence at the moment of his coming to his place in the queue. I still find this disconcerting.

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