World War II Jewish Evacuees

Table Tennis & Afternoon Tea

We knew that there was a fair chance of being evacuated for a week or two before the 1st September 1939 when we were actually sent away. We kept a small suitcase with a change of clothing in our classroom. Each day we took from home a bag of fresh sandwiches. We did not know when we left home and said our goodbyes if it would be the last time. On the day off we all marched to Liverpool Street Station. We were terribly excited, not knowing where we were off to. The train stopped once, I believe it was Bishops Stortford, where the wonderful Salvation Army ladies gave to each of us a tin or corned beef; one tin of condensed milk; a large bar of chocolate and a packet of biscuits - to be used only in an emergency. Needless to say, after really taking heed for about a month, I really enjoyed the chocolate and biscuits. The residue I gave to my foster parents for their general household use.

For some reason, which was never explained, we lads of the Third Year Tech. of the Jews’ Free Central School, were not sent together with the rest of the school to Isleham and Soham, but to the village of Fordham with the Jews’ Free Infant School. After a few months so many of the boys had gone home to London that I was transferred to Soham with the rest of the school. Life became much brighter now. We were in an organised school with more or less normal lessons. The greatest boon was that our school was situated in the Conservative Club premises, with ample facilities for playing table tennis and billiards. I spent most of my spare time playing table tennis with Bob Gelkoff who was a local friend from East London. Later on, when I became more proficient on the small sized billiard table I moved onto the full sized one where I could enjoy many good games (when he allowed me to play) with Sidney Leperer, who was three years older than me. Better still was a game with our teacher, Mr J Benjamin (no relation).

The first house I stayed in Soham was with Mr and Mrs Turner. There was no running water inside the house. I had to take a tub outside in Mill Lane and use the communal pump - terrible in winter. The last family I lived with were the Skipworths. They were a very decent couple who, although they had no children of their own, treated me with all the care of one of the family. When I came home after school, the daily maid Eva, prepared a trolley with a choice of white and brown sliced bread and butter, jam, marmalade and cakes. On occasions my parents visited (never at the same time as the fare was expensive). After a while parents, who usually lived near each other, organised a coach which made life simpler. The teachers’ wives organised themselves together with the local ladies and had several little pastimes going. One which I remember was a knitting class. The snag was the shortage of patterns. I was asked to hand copy several for them, which I did, and received a regular supply of home made biscuits - lovely! Our senior master, Mr Joseph Benjamin, who was very strict in London, turned out to be the most sincere and fatherly figure - still strict, but very helpful. Mrs Benjamin was a very friendly lady too.

As a whole the local population was friendly towards us evacuees, but on occasions the local press were not. I can recall the occasion when three or four boys, the eldest being Sidney Leperer, were prosecuted for congregating outside our school, while discussing general matters between themselves. The headline in the local paper was ‘Hooligans in Soham’. When I was 15 years old, my father decided it was time for me to get a job. I went home and became apprenticed to a jewellery manufacturer. In between I was working a surgical instrument maker for four years during the war time and four years after. Being away from home in a non-Jewish environment made me much more devoted to religion when I returned and as time progressed.
Jack W. Benjamin who now lives in north-west London. Inevitably with such an influx of children, many of whom had never been out of the East End before, there were some tensions, problems and accusations.


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