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What Sylvia did in Winston Churchill's War Cabinet

Teenage secretary’s war memorabilia highlighted in new exhibition

    Sylvia Goodman joined the War Cabinet in 1938 as a teenage secretary
    Sylvia Goodman joined the War Cabinet in 1938 as a teenage secretary

    A Jewish woman who served the British government during the Second World War still remembers Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s “grin”.

    Sylvia Goodman, née Arnold, who worked in the civil service during the war, has had her lifetime collection of documents, photographs and letters showcased at the Jewish Military Museum in London.

    Mrs Goodman, now 92, joined the War Cabinet in 1938 as a teenage secretary to Lord Hastings Ismay, chief military assistant to Winston Churchill.

    She described Lord Ismay as “an absolutely wonderful man who was under a tremendous amount of stress. He was at Churchill’s beck and call but he always stayed very calm. Everyone admired the way Lord Ismay carried himself.”

    Mrs Goodman initially wanted to attend art school and sketched both Lord Ismay and Mr Churchill. “At the time, it was just a job. I didn’t realise how lucky I was to be there because of all the top people I met,” said Mrs Goodman, who attended government conferences in Washington, Quebec and Malta.

    Mrs Goodman’s wartime sketch of Winston
    Mrs Goodman’s wartime sketch of Winston

    “When we used to work in the Cabinet War Rooms late at night – some defence committee meetings would start at 10pm – Churchill used to walk by and give us a grin. I always found that the higher up the rank you were, the nicer you were.”

    She also recalled having lunch with Mrs Churchill who was also “very nice and friendly”.

    The Stanmore United Synagogue member, who served the Cabinet from the Czech crisis in 1938 until she married in 1947, remains discreet about what was said in official meetings that she noted and transcribed.

    “When we all joined, we signed the Official Secrets Act,” she said. “In the office we never heard about any leaks – that says a lot about the people who were really there and fighting for Britain.”

    The mother of two will be going to the Museum exhibition which displays a number of her sketches, her marriage announcement from the JC in May 1947 and a Rosh Hashana 1944 letter from her optician father Sidney Arnold, who had co-founded Edgware Synagogue on Mowbray Road in 1931.

    The letter, from a concerned Mr Arnold to his daughter who was working many late nights at the height of the war, read: “Dear Sylvia, we so hope you are keeping well, but we would like to have a letter from you, even if it is only a few words. Everybody at home is quite well and are all anxious to hear from you. So do please write as soon as you possible can – best wishes for a Happy New Year from ALL.”

    Working in the Cabinet offices, “I never hid that I was Jewish,” said Mrs Goodman, who grew up in a traditional and kosher home in Edgware. “We weren’t extreme, but I stayed away from school on Jewish holidays.”

    Mrs Goodman worked in an office with 15 other girls. She recalled: “Women took on so much responsibility when the men were called up during the war”.

    Roz Currie, curator at the Hendon-based museum, said Mrs Goodman “was one of many Jewish women who helped in the war effort. By 1943, 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women were employed in war work – women were vital to winning the war.

    “Jewish women worked in every part of industry you could imagine, from directing fire services in north London to voluntary aid detachment. When the men returned and the women married, most them did not go back to work.”

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