Joan Zilva

Text Box: An  account of a 14 year old’s WW2 overseas evacuation based on her letters home

AT AN AWKWARD AGE

A TEENAGER’S TRANSATLANTIC WARTIME SAGA

Chapter One: Background

Text Box: Born November 23rd 1925 
Text Box: Great Great Grandfather Vevers’ engagement gift to fiancée c.1850 
Text Box: With my Mother and Father 
Text Box: With Grandmother Foster (née Vevers) and Mother
(Dorothy)
Text Box: Mixed-up school kid 
Text Box: With Grandfather Foster on holiday in Scarborough 
Text Box: Family group “June 1940. The end of an era. At the ends are my cousins, Isidore and Magnus. Between are my Father, me, my Mother, my Aunt Goldie and Doreen, Magnus’ wife. Just a month later Tony, in front (Magnus’ and Doreen’s son) was sent to New York and I left for Canada . 
Text Box: Extracts of Headmistress’s letter during Munich Crisis 
Text Box: A very small selection from the first letter 
of the new Headmistress
Text Box: To navigate click the appropriate link above. 
A few letters, written with ink and pencil on the same page or on poor quality wartime paper, may inevitably be difficult to read. 
For permission to reproduce in any form contact the author on Jzilva@aol.com.
Text Box: When I started to write on the last day of the second millennium, I realized with a shock that I had lived through nearly three-quarters of its final century.
I was born on November 23rd, 1925 and, apart from minor inconveniences, such as the need to wear spectacles and a new knee, I feel now, in 2011, as I did 60 or more years ago.  In my mid eighties I am, by definition, geriatric.  Only when I read letters from the past do I realize how insidiously and yet radically day-to-day life has changed. The young may think that if I remember the second “World War” I should be dead: this  would save the State money, to some of which I contributed all my working life. When I was young I, too, felt that I was never going to be old. Be warned: old age comes to all who survive long enough, as surely and, to me unbelievably, as death will to me soon.
Quite suddenly, in the middle of a very busy life, these unwelcome facts hit me.  A barrier rose between me and my younger friends - their inability to comprehend the effect “The War” had on the lives of those who lived  through it.
More recently during  a class composed mostly of those under forty, we were reading a German novel based on that period.  I said that I remembered buildings as described in the book. Rooms with just one wall missing might have been stage sets; inside pictures hung crookedly and furniture was still in place.  Where, I was asked, had I seen such a thing? When I said “in Croydon”, rather than some more recently war-torn country, they were disbelieving.
I used to think of  history  not as something  remembered as if it happened yesterday, but as made up of events that took place long before my birth. The 1914-18 War, talked of by my parents, had ended only seven years before I was born, and yet it seemed to me to belong to an unimaginable historical past: that is how my memories now seem to others.  I have crossed a boundary that I never believed I would.  “My” war, that chasm between me and my younger friends, was a watershed which affected my whole life.  It is equally difficult for me to remember that something that seems so recent to me is, for them, as distant as the Boer, or even Franco-Prussian, War is for me.  Why should they understand why I so hate the sound of sirens?  Now I cannot ignore that what seem to me to be recent memories are, to most of those alive today, ancient history. 
Television programmes showing black and white propaganda films and documentaries of the period, now seeming very stilted, show how much I take for granted.  Even watching the television is evidence of this change: we had no such thing, even in black and white, and saw similar films in cinema newsreels. Who, I ask myself, are all those old people being interviewed?  In my childhood the veterans of the 1914 to 1918 War at Remembrance Day services seemed to me to have never been young?  Now such oldies talk of memories I share and I realise with a shock that they are my contemporaries or younger - the boys and girls who were at school when I was.  I feel young and cannot be one of them; others see me, to put it politely, as an elderly lady.
Especially since I retired, vivid memories return.  Before the war many friends did not have telephones and, if they did, only local calls were feasible. The post within Britain, on the other hand, was inconceivably quicker, more reliable and cheaper than it is today.  Consequently we wrote personal letters, even to friends a few miles away, which might be kept for posterity: nowadays we communicate instantly with the furthest corners of the globe by telephone or email.  Often no copy is kept and historical records are lost.  Letters which, at the time may have seemed trivial and of fleeting interest, can bring the past alive for the next generation.  Old photos and letters remind me not only of my own past, but of the stories told by my parents, giving me an insight into relations I never knew: some killed in the First World War are to me as much part of history as are Wellington's troops.  These second-hand memories stretch back for about 150 years in, for example, my great—great‑grandfather's tinted photograph on a bracelet given to his fiancée as a wedding present in the 1850s and the stories my mother told me of the idiosyncrasies of her grandparents.  In 1900, when she was eight years old, she had a day off school after the relief of the eight-month siege of Mafeking (now Mafikeng) in the Boer War; she celebrated by careering down a hill on her bicycle with her eyes shut for a dare, cutting her head open on a pile of stones. My life today is one my parents could not have foreseen, but I am linked, in collective memory, to the age of Dickens or earlier.
I was born in London. We lived in a ground floor flat, 62 Albany Mansions, in Albert Bridge Road, Battersea (now very expensive, but then rather down‑market), and I can recall crossing Albert Bridge on foggy winter afternoons and seeing gas lamplighters at work. I remember the call of the rag and bone man (“any old iron”) and muffin sellers; when my mother heard those of the knife sharpeners or chair caners she would hurry out to use their services.
When I was two we moved to Sanderstead ‑ a comfortable, conventional, reasonably affluent suburb of Croydon.  I remember some events of the 1930s with photographic clarity.  When I was seven my tonsils were removed.  I had been told by my parents that I must not cry. I was given no premedication, walked to the operating theatre, climbed onto the table and saw all the frightening instruments laid out. I held out until I felt the open-drop ether on the mask over my nose and mouth suffocating me; when I came round the shame of having succumbed to tears was terrible - worse than the very sore throat.  In 1936, I was wakened to climb our hill to see the Crystal Palace on fire.  Later in the same year, during the abdication crisis of Edward VIII, my friends and I sang “Hark the Herald Angels sing, Mrs Simpson stole our King”.  On the night before the coronation of George VI, a year later, I was taken to London to see the crowds and jollifications.
The backgrounds of the two sides of my family could not have been more different.
My racially, but not religiously, Jewish father had been a Londoner since he was seven.  He was much the youngest of a large family of immigrants which had fled the pogroms in Bialystock in the 1890s.  The entry in my parents' marriage certificate gives my paternal grandfather’s occupation as “building contractor”: he died in 1910 and my grandmother in 1912 and I doubt if they ever spoke much English. By the time I was born the next generation had all made good: my father worked for the Medical Research Council as a biochemist of enough note to have advised the government on nutrition during first World War.  We spent most weekends surrounded by (as it seemed to a child of that time) an atmosphere of embarrassingly uncontrolled emotion and chaos.
By contrast, my very English mother, much the eldest of three daughters of a successful Leeds solicitor, Justice of the Peace and one-time respected Liberal Councillor, came from typically stiff-upper-lipped, reserved northern English stock of a theoretically Methodist family.  They were not totally conventional.  My maternal grandmother was a non-militant suffragette.  A letter from her to my mother in Switzerland includes, among many other fascinating insights into life in Europe and of the summer in Leeds in 1908, a reference to a visit from Adela Pankhurst.  She was the youngest and least well known Pankhurst, who, after a family disagreement, abandoned the suffragette movement and emigrated to Australia, where she was interned for pacifist activities during the Second World War.  My mother, encouraged by an enlightened father, studied history at Cambridge and, finding no career outlet for this, trained as a Health Visitor: it was while she was teaching at Battersea Polytechnic that she met my father, who came as a visiting lecturer (of course a woman had to give up teaching when she married). She owned  an ancient and unreliable car christened “Minnie”, which she had bought from a friend's brother for £10.  After one lesson she drove it from Leeds to London; it had no self-starter and had to be cranked by hand on the frequent occasions when she stalled the engine.  This was very unusual for a girl then, but her family's “differences” were quite unlike those of my father's.  They were unconventional in a very English way. I spent many holidays in Yorkshire in this entirely different atmosphere.
I was always culturally confused by the contrasting worlds of my paternal and maternal relations.  At school I was considered peculiar because I had an “odd” surname and a father with a foreign accent, both of which were very unusual then.  It may help to explain why I still have an identity problem.  This was compounded during my teenage years, the story of which is the main subject of this book.
Only now, when I have time to look back, do I wonder how my childhood and adolescence shaped my character and so my adult life.  I was an almost pathologically timid only child, although those who know me in a later incarnation will not believe this. Nor would they believe that I was (and am) insecure and self-doubting.  My parent's marriage was not a great success and I can remember listening at the top of the stairs when I was supposed to be in bed for sounds of my father shouting at my mother.  Despite his emotional nature and his undoubted pride in me, he found it difficult to show me his love.  I experienced very little physical affection: he even discouraged my mother from kissing me on grounds of hygiene.

Some of my relations died in concentration camps.  I never met them but the knowledge made an impression on me.  Throughout my childhood a string of German Jewish refugees stayed with us. One of them returned to Germany and was never heard of again. It has been said that in Britain we did not know of the horrors until we saw the concentration camps after the war, but I cannot remember a time when I did not realize that dreadful things were happening in Europe.
After the Nazi Anschluß in Vienna in March 1938 my parents cancelled a French holiday that I had anticipated with pleasurable excitement. It would have been my first trip out of England. I mean England, not Britain. My furthest excursion until then was to Yorkshire, and few holidays those days were taken abroad. Those of us in the south of England usually went to south- or east‑coast resorts, although, because of my Northern connections, I did go to Scarborough.
I remember the Munich crisis as clearly as if it were yesterday. The fear of that September, when I was nearly 13, was mirrored by the weather, which, like the political situation, was dark and foreboding. War seemed imminent. I naïvely asked my mother whether, if there were a war, we would be sure to win. Not only events in Germany, but also the Spanish Civil War, had provided a backdrop to my childhood, and newspaper pictures and cinema news reels of their bombed cities and fleeing refugees had such an impact on me that I was terrified. Even for those very rich who could afford a television set there were no televised news bulletins. We were not sated and bored with pictures of violence and destruction.  But from these blurred black and white images on the printed page and cinema screen I knew what we were facing. Even I could see that war must come. The bright spot during this time was playing Mickey Mouse when trying on gas-masks with my friends.
Unbeknown to us, our parents were facing up to the school being closed and to sending us away. On September 23rd our then headmistress wrote a rather panicky letter, followed by an “elucidation” four days later. Two days later the Munich pact was signed and these plans were shelved.
"How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas‑masks because of a quarrel in a far‑away country"(Czechoslovakia) "between people of whom we know nothing" Neville Chamberlain on the radio after the German annexation of the Sudetenland. September 27th, 1938. [The Munich Pact was signed between Britain, France, Germany and Italy on September 29th]
"This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine....We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo‑German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again." Neville Chamberlain at Heston airport. September 30th, 1938.
"My good friends, this is the second time in history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace and honour.  I thank you from the bottom of our hearts. And now I recommend you to go home and sleep quietly in your beds." Neville Chamberlain later the same day from Downing Street.
Chamberlain's "victory" brought no comfort in our household. On the contrary, it was a source of shame.  My father paced up and down denouncing him. We did not “sleep quietly in our beds.”


A year, largely forgotten by me, passed. Then, with the rest of Britain, we listened to Chamberlain's latest announcement, knowing what was coming. 
"This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that, unless we had heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.  I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany." Neville Chamberlain on the radio. September 3rd, 1939.
It had begun. The weather and my mood were totally different from those of a year earlier.  This time it was an idyllic, warm, sunny early autumn and, paradoxically, I felt less fear than I had during the  Munich crisis.  Immediately after the broadcast I went out to play with the boy next door (later killed while fighting in the RAF), only to be called back when the sirens sounded a false warning.  
The very new headmistress was much more businesslike than her predecessor and sent much more reasoned and calm letters, a small selection of which is reproduced here. I am sure that any schoolteacher will feel for her. To me it all seemed like an unreal adventure. The gas masks, and the sandbagged  buildings with windows criss‑crossed with tape to minimize splintering, were new and interesting. The blackout was exciting and the stars were visible as never before or since in built‑up areas.  With neighbours we practised using a stirrup pump for extinguishing incendiary bombs, giving endless scope to us children to get wet and have fun. My Girl Guide Company had an allotment, of which my main memory is "trenching" the soil. I collected acorns to feed the country's pigs and newspapers for recycling long before the days of the Green Party.
Half the school was immediately evacuated to Eastbourne (option 2 in 2nd school letter).  I remained at home for about two months when, to my joy, the Croydon school was closed.  My mother, with her history degree, and the mother of a friend (Stella Davies) who had been a schoolteacher before she got married, tutored the two of us (option 1).  In October about half the staff of the school returned and taught us part-time In the old buildings of the County Secondary School in nearby Purley (option 3). Classes were split between there and Eastbourne, both functioning on a reduced curriculum.
This was the so‑called "phoney war". There was little bombing. Soon cardboard gas‑mask cases were used to carry sandwiches to school. Life was falling into a new routine. We sang "We'll Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line" (the German defence line), but meanwhile, in cold fact, the French (and hence, at that time, “our”) Maginot Line was being bypassed and was soon to be breached.
After the Nazi occupation of France and our evacuation from Dunkirk in May 1940, invasion of Britain seemed inevitable. Those with Jewish blood or connections would be unlikely to survive.  My parents did not want (nor would have been allowed) to leave the sinking ship, but decided, against my will, that I should be saved a grisly fate. I was to be sent to Canada   under an arrangement between the Universities of Cambridge and Toronto.
After my mother's death I found the letters I wrote between 1940 and 1944, during my travels to, and stay in, Toronto.  She had kept all those not sunk by German U-boats.  After watching one of the first 50th anniversary television programmes about children who, like me, were sent to Canada, the United States or even as far away as Australia, I was stimulated to sort these letters into chronological order and read them.  I became fascinated by the contents and my sometimes childish and sometimes remarkably perceptive response to the domestic and historical events of the time.
Travelling time to Canada was longer, and communication between there and England unimaginably slower, than it is today; now we can communicate between the moon and earth almost instantaneously. The ship took ten dangerous days to get from Liverpool to Montreal, dodging U‑boats. After spending a night in Montreal we travelled most of another day by train from there to Toronto.  We could not telephone home; even air mail and certainly telegrams were expensive luxuries reserved for an emergency or special occasions.  Letters  took up to a month or more to arrive: some ended up in the Atlantic when boats carrying them were sunk. Soon after I arrived the London Blitz started.  Toronto newspapers were full of censored accounts of the bombing around my home, between Croydon Airport (London Aerodrome, as we then called it) and Biggin Hill, both then military airports and important targets for the Germans. I could only wonder if my parents were still alive and unhurt, if our house was still standing, and if I should ever see them and England again.  Longed‑for weekly letters, coming in batches of two to four, were usually at least three weeks old,  and provided no evidence that the writers were still alive when I received them. 
In these days of jet flight, direct dialling to anywhere in the world, email, webcams and the internet, it is difficult to realise how cut off from home we were. Even within Britain, speaking to my mother's relations in Yorkshire from London involved a "trunk call": after lifting the receiver you waited for the operator to answer (there was no dial), gave the number you wanted and rang off while the lines were connected; it could be half an hour later or more before the phone rang to say that the connection was made.  Phoning between Britain and Canada was out of the question.
I was having other serious problems in Canada, as my earlier letters show. It did not take me long to realise that I was now on my own and only I, a previously sheltered 14 year old, could do anything about it. Today counsellors would be swarming over me, but then no-one, and certainly not I, knew of the term “child abuse”. Even my parents did not know what was going on and blamed me. This made me no happier!
My surviving letters provide an historical document of the reactions of and effects on one adolescent only child who had never before been away from home for more than two weeks to Guide camp. 
The Second World War came when I was a vulnerable adolescent. However, others have suffered much worse trauma and yet have stayed well adjusted. This is no dramatic or harrowing story of concentration camps, of starvation, of heroic escapes from prisoner-of-war camps, of hiding from or being tortured by the Nazis, or even of battle. I was lucky  to survive in physical comfort. Ann Frank was about my age and, like many others, suffered and died. Many children throughout the world are now suffering inconceivably more than I did.   But I have come to realise that my wartime experiences, my memories of the 1930s, not to speak of my rather unusual childhood, may have influenced my adult personality and so, to some extent, my later life.  I have found it difficult to let anyone really near to me or to believe that I could belong in a close relationship or a family, much as I have longed for it. However, my father blamed any failure in his life on discrimination. Even in childhood I could see that this was counterproductive. I determined never to blame any outside factors for set backs and have tried to follow this precept throughout my working life. I will not now fall into the trap of excusing my shortcomings because of my past.