On 1 September 1939, as His Majesty’s armed forces made their final preparations for war, another section of the population was also getting ready to mobilise. Under a government scheme, a 735,000-strong army of schoolchildren was to be sent from the soon-to-be-bombed cities, industrial towns and ports to the safety of the British countryside.
Being separated from parents and sent to live with complete strangers would be difficult for any child, but for the 25,000 Jewish evacuees there were added complications. “Because of their religious needs such as keeping kosher, Jews had unique evacuation experiences,” says Tony Kushner, Professor of Modern British Jewish History at the University of Southampton.
“Most had grown up in the close knit communities of the East End of London, Manchester or Glasgow and had hardly mixed with non-Jews before the war. Suddenly they found themselves in very non-Jewish areas. Sometimes there were tensions between evacuees and locals but in other places understandings were reached. So much depended on the individuals.”
In the Cornish town of Polgooth, where Sonya and Irene Harris were evacuated to from Hackney, the locals had not met anyone from outside Cornwall, let alone a Jew. “They thought we had horns,” says Sonya. “Or else we should be walking round like people from the Bible. It must have come as a shock that we were quite normal.”
Evacuation for the Harris sisters started badly. On arrival the evacuees were taken to the village hall where they were picked out like cattle. “The villagers wanted boys who could be farmhands or pretty girls with blue eyes,” says Sonya. “Nobody wanted us. So the billeting officer forced us on a young woman whose husband was in the army.”
The young woman didn’t know how to look after nine-year-old Sonya and three-year-old Irene. They became ill and rundown; their hair infected with lice, their mouths with thrush.
The girls have few memories of their brief six-week stay in Polgooth — their mother, horrified at the state of them when she came to visit, arranged for them to change billet — but one in particular stands out for Sonya: “The lady gave me roast pork again and again. I refused to eat it. I just couldn’t — I had a physical repulsion. But she was persistent so I went without dinner.”
Happily, their hosts at the next billet in Hewas Water, near St Austell, were much kinder. The middle-aged couple doted on Irene and Sonya. Staunch Methodists, the couple took the two little girls with them to church and would not allow them to read, write or sew on a Sunday. Irene and Sonya had not been observant Jews at home so it was with a Christian family on a Sunday that they “kept Shabbat”. Sonya recalls her mother did not mind her taking part in Christian rituals because they were also learning Hebrew for the first time. “A rabbi from London was sent to teach the evacuees. On his motorbike he came to visit Jewish children scattered around the Cornish countryside.”
At the other end of the country, nestled in the Yorkshire Dales in the parish of Kettlewell, another evacuee was practising his Hebrew with a very different kind of reverend. Ronnie Garfield from Brighton was amazed to learn that the priest who had taken him in owned a Hebrew-English Bible. “He had studied Hebrew at Cambridge,” says Garfield. “He asked me if I spoke it too. I opened up the book at the Shema and I rattled it off. He was really impressed.”
Garfield is grateful that the priest never tried to convert him and understood he would not attend church services. “The only time I got involved was to decorate the Church for Lent. I brought back leaves and branches from the Dales to make garlands.”
Yet despite the priest’s understanding, Garfield longed for Jewish family life and sent his mother tear-stained letters begging her to take him back to Brighton. “Pesach was coming up. Where could I get matzot in Yorkshire?” Not so for Garfield’s sister Julie, who was evacuated to a farm in Waddington, Lancashire. She remembers her annoyance when the postman arrived asking, “Be you the Jew girl?” and presented her with a box of Rakusen’s which her mother had sent her. “I had entered a different world,” says Julia. “I hated the taste of matzah and was only too pleased to have an excuse not to have them.”
Beatrice Pollak was also evacuated to a completely alien environment. From a Chasidic household in Stepney she was dumped on the doorstep of a ferryman in Windsor. “His wife took in five girls. I’m sure she only had us for the money,” says Pollak.
Indeed, the ferryman and his wife were doing a good business. Those receiving evacuees were paid a weekly rate of 10s. 6d. per child — that is 53p, at a time when the average weekly salary was £5. “We were all made to sleep in one bed and they left us with a bag of crisps and lemonade while they went off to the pub each night.”
Pollak managed to change to a nicer billet where she stayed with a widow and another Jewish evacuee. The other girl’s parents were not observant. They came to visit her on a Saturday, bringing with them lots of presents. “The lady of the house felt sorry for me. She took me to the park so I wouldn’t feel ignored. But I missed home and going to synagogue.”
“When I finally came home in 1943 I wasn’t as religious as I had been before the war. I had to get used to being observant all over again.”
Jewish evacuees all over England found themselves torn between being good guests and staying true to their heritage. “For some the experience strengthened their religious identity,” says Professor Kushner. “They realised for the first time they were different and were proud to be different. But transferring from a predominantly Jewish community to a strong Christian environment left others with a confused identity.”
More than just affecting their religious beliefs, the evacuation had a profound effect on the children’s sense of identity as Jews. For some it was positive: “It took them from the ghettos and helped them to identify with the rest of the British nation,” says Kushner. Others faced hostility and only felt more keenly their sense of “otherness”. Either way, it was an experience they would never forget.