World War II Jewish Evacuees

Taken for a school walk early on, when everything was still fresh, I enquired about the puzzling small mounds of freshly-dug soil in open fields which seemed to have no purpose. A fellow-pupil explained. The farmers go round and cover up the cow droppings (that was not the exact expression he used) with earth. It didn’t sound right but neither of us had heard of moles. Neither had we heard of conkers. Boys’ playground games in leafless London E.1. involved bats and balls, spinning tops, cigarette picture cards, yo-yos, marbles, matchsticks even, raced against each other in gutter streams - the Queen Mary versus the Normandie. But conkers? The nearest patch of public grass was inaccessible at the Tower of London half a mile away, the nearest park a bus journey of two miles. The game of sloshing your opponent’s conker became a passion, played with the zeal of converts to a new faith who wanted to make up for lost time.

But it was to foster-brothers Donald and Tony that Cyril and I owed most for initiation into country life. Donald, some months my senior, was a particularly important source of illumination and enlightenment. A likable boy with a healthily normal outgoing nature, his sense of fun could pop up in unexpected places. One night after Cyril and I, sharing a double bed, had settled down to sleep the bed began to make mysterious little movements. “Stop it,” I said. Moments later the movements started up again. “Will you stop it!” I said. “You stop it,” he retorted, thinking that I was trying to be funny. So it went on until the culprit, unable to control his giggles emerged from under the bed.

From Donald, and to a lesser extent the younger Tony, we learned how to care for rabbits and what fresh plant food it was safe to give them; how to ease the sting from nettles with a dock leaf (it didn’t seem to help much); the cycle routes to Ely, Newmarket and the surrounding villages; the names of aircraft flying in the sky; and the many bits of wisdom that the experienced impart to the inexperienced. In return we taught them how to play chess. Mr. Boyce told me more than once how grateful he was for this piece of instruction, so useful for the long, blacked-out evenings. I was too young in understanding and too socially inept to reply that all the gratitude should have been on our side, nevertheless it was true that in some very basic ways we educated each other. Donald told us later that when word first got around in the village that evacuees were coming from London’s East End they had braced themselves for an invasion of little ragamuffins with torn - or no - trousers. I suppose that we must have been something of a relief.

And what were we London kids to make of our new world where nearly everyone spoke funny (That they did!) and where knocking at the front door was considered impolite and walking round to the back door the thing to do? Well, at least people spoke, not only to each other in shops and over the garden wall, but to passers by in the street, to strangers, to us. And, astonishingly, they left the doors of their houses unlocked at all times. Even at night. Even if the family went off for the day to Cambridge. But couldn’t someone walk in and help themselves? The question left them slightly bemused. Apparently nobody ever did. It was the same with bicycles. They could safely be left unattended beside a wall or hedge and called for the next day. Now you couldn’t do that in London. That you couldn’t.

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