By Alex Bennett
“The day war broke out” as some comedian used to say to begin his monologues, I was put on a train from London to Peterborough. I was carrying a haversack of a brightly striped material, almost as big as me. I was just five years old. On arrival in Peterborough I was immediately evacuated to the village of Yaxley, some five miles away. There I met my “foster” parents, Billy and Lily Richardson, with whom I was to stay for two and a half years.
Uncle Billy, as I called him, worked at the local brickworks. Aunty Lily, who had no children of her own, thenceforth acted as my mother and, on reflection, did a marvelous job. During the whole of the war my real mother stayed in London. I was not aware until almost the end of the war that my father had died of peritonitis in May 1939. In those days Jewish parents used to keep such information away from young children. She came to visit me as often as she could, arriving in the village on a “charabanc” as some long distance buses were called. Soon afterwards my cousin Harold joined me.
During my evacuation at Yaxley I remember that in the village school there were six or seven Jewish evacuees beside myself. The infants’ school went to the trouble of arranging for a Jewish teacher to give us weekly Hebrew Lessons. We worked from a basic aleph bays(bet) book which we took home to study. As I slowly learned the Hebrew alphabet my non-Jewish foster parent, Aunty Lily, stood over me to make sure that I did my work. I did not dare make a mistake, little realizing that she had not the faintest idea about Hebrew! Good for her.
On another occasion when I had been naughty, she ordered me to go to the Billeting Officer which was at the bottom of Church Lane. Sadly I left the house and decided that it would be quicker if I went via Middleton Lane. About half an hour later she caught up with me having been unable to find me in Church Lane where she had gone in order to call me back. Of course she had never intended me to reach the Billeting Officer, but did I get a further telling off for going the wrong way and getting her really worried. But we soon became friends again.
In 1942 Harold’s father, my Uncle Morry and Auntie Betty, rented a house in Sundon Park near Luton and, after a very tearful farewell from Billy and Lily, we moved there.
There were a few other Jewish residents in the village whom we met regularly. Cheder classes were held in Leagrave, some two miles away and we had to walk there and back every Sunday. We learned to sing Israeli songs there and I still partly remember some of them which ended with lots of “Li li li li li” etc. Kosher meat was available from a butcher in Luton which also had a Synagogue. Relying on buses made such visits quite rare.
Again, like Peterborough, war was very distant, although we had regular air-raid practices at school, sitting in brick shelters wearing our gas masks. Harold and I usually finished top each term in infants’ school for some reason. I was even presented with a dictionary by our head master.
One New Year Uncle Morry bought a glass faced calendar with a picture behind the glass made up of folded coloured silver paper. He stood on a chair to fix when, unfortunately, he dropped it and it smashed to pieces. Harold and I laughed and were quickly silenced. The following year he bought another and tried to fix it on the wall. The same thing happened and, I am ashamed to say, we again laughed. (I still do at the memory of it.)
Soon afterwards, as the blitz worsened, more and more of my uncles and aunts used to travel up from London each night to sleep with us and go back home in the morning. Not my mother though and one of her sisters. The curious thing was, however, I never heard a bomb nor saw a German plane during the whole war, despite the fact that there was the Perkins Diesel Plant in Peterborough, and in Luton there were Vauxhall Motors and, more importantly, the Skefco Ball Bearing works. Had this been bombed it would have affected the production of most military vehicles. So much for German Intelligence! We were so lucky to have lived at Yaxley and at Sundon Park during the war, first with Richardsons and then with Betty and Morry to whom I am ever grateful
On VE day I returned home to my mother in Stamford Hill. I also had a brother Phil, nine years older than me, who was evacuated with his school, “Grocer’s” to Kings Lynn. Apparently his billet was so awful that he cycled all the way back to Mum in London! On the day I joined Grocer’s school in 1945, in front of the whole school in assembly, the Headmaster pointed to me and said, “Ah Bernstein (as I then was) I hope you don’t turn out like your brother!” As a footnote to this: in form 2a the master unlocked a desk drawer that happened to have been locked since before the war. He pulled out a mass of papers and threw them on the floor inviting the class to sort through them. By chance I saw a letter addressed to the same Headmaster and I read it. It was dated May 1939 and said:” Dear Sir, I am sorry that I cannot come to school today but my father has just died.” It was signed by my brother!