Recently in Living Witnesses Category

It is a stretch to call this piece 'living witnesses', as we are going to introduce you to an inanimate object--a small printing press. We 'met' this amazing witness last summer in Assisi--and what a story he has to tell! Please take a few minutes to hear:

The story of the printing press.

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I'm retired now and live in a museum. But for many years I worked in a small souvenir shop in Assisi, printing prayer cards for pilgrims who came for St Francis' blessing. Just how powerful that blessing was, none of us knew, until the dark times came. You see, in September 1943, just as our friends the British and Americans landed in the South of Italy, our 'allies' the Germans occupied Umbria and all of Northern Italy. With war now raging in our beautiful land, all the monuments and pilgrim sites of Italy were under threat of bombing--and the Italian people were in dire straits. Worst of all, Italy's Jews were now threatened with deportation to the East.

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The Brizi Souvenir Shop

Well, my friends, the first blessing came from an unexpected direction--the Bavarian officer in command of Assisi. Col. Valentin Müller was a fine man, a medical doctor, very devout, went to mass at the Tomb of San Francesco every day, or so I heard. (Sitting all day in a popular souvenir shop, you hear all the local gossip, you see.) It was he who arranged for Assisi to be designated a hospital city. As such, not only were we spared the Allied bombings, we were also freed from the presence of German troops--making it much easier for us to hide people in our midst. The Colonel must have known what we were up to, but he turned a blind eye to our efforts to save people from the death camps. For that was what we did--save three hundred Jews--and in a city which had never before, or since, had a Jewish community!

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Col. Valentin Müller

The next blessing was equally unexpected--our Fascist mayor, Arnaldo Fortini. He was a kind man, a lover of San Francesco and Santa Chiara in his own way. He even wrote a biography of St Francis! Not only did he too play a part in lobbying for Assisi's demilitarized status, he also risked a lot to support our efforts, passing on warnings of impending Nazi raids.


You see, once we became a hospital city, a safe zone in the midst of bombing, our population was swollen by thousands of refugees. And among them were several hundred desperate Jews who had heard about the kindness of Fortini and hoped they might be safe here. They got more than they could have hoped for. No hiding in sewers or barns for the Jews that came to us. And that's where I played a very important part, as you will soon hear.

The third blessing for Assisi in those days was surely our wonderful Bishop, Guiseppe Placido Nicolini. He had already set up a "Committee for Assistance" to help the refugees. Under cover of this committee, he began the dangerous and difficult work of saving Jews. Our Holy Father, Pope Pius XII of blessed memory, had ordered Catholic institutions to save, hide and protect the Jews. And the humble and tireless Montini, who later became Pope Paul VI, coordinated all these efforts.

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Bishop Nicolini

The plan was to give all the Jews false papers--and that's where I and my owners, Luigi and Trento Brizi, came into the picture, you see. Father Aldo Brunacci was placed in charge of the rescue operation, along with Father Ruffino Niacci. Friar Niacci was a simple man from an Umbrian village who had never even met a Jew before! Yet he rose to the occasion and did what San Francesco would have done. I will never forget the day when Niacci came into our store to ask us to print the false papers. Luigi agreed to do this, at risk of his own life. And young Trento rode his bike to Foligno to get a friend who was expert in etching to create the seals. The documents were produced here by yours truly and taken to a different location to be stamped. I made false papers for other Jews too, those who just passed through Assisi and went on to live elsewhere

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Luigi Brizi


An example of the false papers

When the Jews first arrived, they were hidden in various convents and private homes and even in the Bishop's palace. I can tell you, our Bishop Nicolini was not above giving his own bed to the exhausted refugees. But the Bishop was not content to keep the Jews in hiding. His plan was that they should not just survive, but thrive to the greatest extent possible. And thanks to the fake identity documents I produced, the Jews were able to rent apartments, work within the community, obtain rations, and--most importantly of all to the Bishop--the children could attend school.

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Father Ruffino Niacci at tree planting ceremony in Yad Vashem, being honoured as Righteous among the Nations

The Bishop felt it important to care for all the spiritual and material needs of our Jewish friends. He kept their valuables and money in his vault for them and hid their special religious objects in his palace cellars. He and dear Father Aldo constructed false walls with their own hands to create hiding places for sacred texts and other Jewish items. And when a family wanted to leave, the pair broke open the wall with a pick and shovel and then re-plastered it. He made sure the Jews could celebrate their special holidays, too. I remember Yom Kippur of 1943 and how the Sisters prepared the fast-break meal for the Jews. And the indomitable Father Aldo even arranged for a secret Hebrew school for the Jewish children to learn their faith!


Don Aldo Brunacci

There was one family I could not help. The Finzis from Belgium had arrived early in the war and were already registered as Jews. Well, you will never guess what our Bishop did! He hid them in the most secure hiding place he had--the strict enclosure of the French Colettine Poor Clares. Here their baby was born and here they celebrated the Passover Seder with the nuns. How beautiful that our sisters, whose enclosure was so strict, allowed a family to live with them to save their lives!


Colettine Poor Clare Monastery

On 17th May 1944, we were horrified to learn that Don Aldo and some other members of our network were arrested. Thanks be to God, Montini was able to get them out. That was a blessing in itself. But the greatest blessing of all was simply the fact that not one of the Jews who came to Assisi was lost. By our collaborative effort and all the risks we took, we were able to save three hundred lives. And how many old printing presses could say that?


Some of those who were saved

Last summer Alakananda and Sadananda came to visit me here in the Museum of Memory, housed in the beautiful Palazzo Vallemani, where I live surrounded by false papers I printed and pictures of Bishop Nicolini, Don Aldo, Friar Niacci, Mayor Fortini, Col Müller, my owners and some of the dear ones we saved. My new friends stroked me lovingly and Sadananda took several photographs of me. Tears were sparkling in their eyes--tears of gratitude for those whom we saved and tears of sorrow for the millions who were lost. We can only hope and pray for a future when--by San Francesco's blessing--nobody will ever be killed because of their race, colour or creed.

Hear Don Aldo's testimony here.



Related Links: Living Witnesses Part 8: An Umbrian Teenager

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm. My parents' generation, people born in the mid 1920s, grew up in the war years. Many of them served their country either in active service or civilian war work. In these blogs, we will hear British, American, Jewish, German and Italian voices. The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard. They share tales of tragedy and trauma, heroism and hope--and also of romance, not because war is romantic but because they were young and war or no, it was their time for romance. It is easy for us to ignore the voices of the very old. Some of those who we interview live in institutions--society's strategy for protecting ourselves from the Messengers--old age, sickness and death. Soon enough, these witnesses will be gone. The intention of these blogs is that their stories not die with them.


Wandering through the beautiful hill town of Spello in Umbria, we met the amazing elder pictured here. Spello is described as 'Assisi without Francis.' Close to Assisi and built of the same glowing pink stone, Spello represents what Assisi would be like without all the souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants and crowds of pilgims. It is a peaceful and picturesque place. Yet our friend was eager to tell us of a time when the beautiful Umbrian plain and the slopes of Subasio were anything but peaceful. In the latter years of the war, Umbria was under Nazi occupation--and Allied bombardment. Foligno, in the plain below Spello, was particularly hard hit, reducing most of the historic town to rubble. Perhaps our friend was in Foligno at the time.

"Bomba! Bomba!" he said, wide eyes lifted towards the skies, once so dangerous, hands portraying the massive shocks of bombardment. 'Brroooom!"

Due to the rudimentary nature of my Italian--and his lack of teeth--it was difficult to grasp the details of the story. But the sheer terror of those times was vivdly portrayed for us. Even more telling was the fact that, seventy years on, this was the only thing he wanted to talk about. On a warm and peaceful summer afternoon in a delightful town, the horror of those days was still alive for him.

Italy is the quintessence of Western civilization, home to a heritage that belongs to all humanity; home too, of the people who have nurtured that heritage. The war destroyed many irreplaceable monuments and places of beauty and left Italian civilians hungry and terrified. Today, proxy wars around North Africa and the Middle East continue to destroy the monuments of Greek, Roman and still earlier great civilizations. Many today live in the same fear our friend endured as a boy. Our Umbrian friend, like our other living witnesses, reminds us that the ending of one war is not necessarily peace. As long as any young person looks to the sky in fear, peace has not yet come.

As Saint Francis said in blessing Brother Leo:

May the Lord
bless you and keep you.
May He show His face to you
and be merciful to you.
May He turn His countenance to you
and give you peace.

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Umbrian plain, by Sadananda

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm. My parents' generation, people born in the mid 1920s, grew up in the war years. Many of them served their country either in active service or civilian war work. In these blogs, we will hear British, American, Jewish, German and Italian voices. The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard. They share tales of tragedy and trauma, heroism and hope--and also of romance, not because war is romantic but because they were young and war or no, it was their time for romance. It is easy for us to ignore the voices of the very old. Some of those who we interview live in institutions--society's strategy for protecting ourselves from the Messengers--old age, sickness and death. Soon enough, these witnesses will be gone. The intention of these blogs is that their stories not die with them.


Dick Newell was born in 1919, in the tiny coal-mining town of Red Lodge, Montana, (pop. 3,000) at the Northeast entrance of Yellowstone Park. Miners had been brought in from many lands, so the town had seven nationalities--Italians, Yugoslavs and so on. At first the Catholics and Protestants kept themselves to themselves. "But in time they got to intermarrying and forgot all about who went to which church and we became a very good community," Dick said.

"In such a small town you get well acquainted and the High School was crammed with good athletes from every community--Finnish, Yugoslav, Italian--you name it. I was among the English-Scotch ones. We had seven festivals a year, one for each nationality, each with their national food and dances." Tourists came from Billings to enjoy the various festivals in Red Lodge and the opportunity to have spaghetti with meat balls, Yorkshire pudding, haggis, Finnish smoked beef and so on.

Red Lodge sits in a valley, with steep hills on either side. Cattlemen and farmers were in the hills. Dick and his family lived two blocks from the edge of town, where the road ran westward into the hills. The cattlemen ran their cattle down the street, crossed the railway and herded them into the cattle cars.

"And that's how I got to college. In those days we couldn't afford to get out of town. I took a cattle train as far as Chicago and then a bus to Yellow Springs Ohio, where I went to college." The conservative boy from small-town Montana attended the famed liberal arts school, Antioch College, for two years. Despite its reputation for activism, which did not interest Dick at all, he chose Antioch because of its innovative programme offering one semester of school followed by one semester of work experience, which enabled him to work his way through college. "It was a beautiful campus, I'll say that for it. But one day a kid from Tacoma Washington and I got together on campus and both of us said, 'Why the hell are we here?' You see, we were pretty conservative, and here we were studying science in a famous liberal college. But we lived through it."

From Antioch Dick went to the University of Montana in Missoula for his major in forestry. Dick's political awakening came not at Antioch but in Montana's capital city, Helena, where his father was a legislator. Visiting his father in legislative session sensitized Dick to the issues he cared about. Around this time, Dick also developed a lifelong passion for Big Band music--then all the rage-- and ballroom dancing.

By late 1941, Dick was in Weather School as part of his forestry studies. But the life he had planned changed dramatically when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941. Weathermen were crucial to the war effort, especially for bombing operations in the Pacific Theatre. Dick and some of his classmates were called up for the 15th Weather Squadron, established April 10, 1942. Immediately, they were shipped off to Australia from Seattle. During the voyage they stopped at an island where the inhabitants were very fond of tobacco. Here, they were able to exchange cigarettes for fresh fruit.


First the weathermen went to Melbourne for a two-week orientation. Then Dick was shipped on via Sidney to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, and the main US base during the war. He spent some time in Brisbane, helping US bombers who were traveling to and from South America. Then he was sent on from there to Cairns in the far North. The young man from landlocked Montana did not waste his opportunity to enjoy the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. In Sydney he enjoyed swimming at the famed Bondi Beach with its white sands. At Cairns he went to a beach hut on the ocean with the daughter of the local American furniture store operator together with her best friend and her friend's boyfriend. Although the waters were shark-infested, they never saw a shark.

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Bondi Beach in 1942

The life of a weatherman was quite solitary. The weathermen did not belong to a specific bomber squadron, nor did they stay in a cohesive weather group. Instead, they were moved around as need arose. In Northern Australia, Dick's weather group consisted of a husky Australian, two Englishmen, Dick and another American. Then Dick was assigned to the Beaufort Bomber squadron. Officially called No. 100 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), the squadron was raised in early 1942 from the remnants of a British unit that had been destroyed in Malaya and flew Bristol Beauforts. In September 1942, the 100th squadron was sent to Milne Bay, New Guinea. Dick travelled to the islands in a Sunderland flying boat with General Thomas Blamey. General Blamey was Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces, and commander of Allied land forces in the Pacific, second only to the American, General Douglas MacArthur.


General Blamey, left, General McArthur with teacup, New Guinea

They set off from Townsville, and flew to Milne Bay, New Guinea, with its six hundred coral islands. The Sunderland made a brilliant water landing, kicking up a mighty spray.


Sunderland flying boat

Dick was impressed by the weather station, built by the indigenous Papuans with palm leaves, which provided excellent shelter for the delicate meteorological instruments as well as the weathermen themselves. The 'native boys,' as the airmen and weathermen called the Papuans, would climb the palm trees and knock down coconuts. Then, they would place the coconut between their feet and, with startling skill and speed, cut off the top with a machete to open up the delicious coconut milk. However, much as Dick loved New Guinea, it was at the time an active war zone. They were regularly bombarded by Mitsubishi bombers dropping 500 pound bombs which cut down palm trees 'like mowing the grass.' " When the bombers flew over we hid in foxholes--and we made sure they were very deep."

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Beaufort Squadron on New Guinea

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Base in Milne Bay, New Guinea

Most of Dick's social life consisted of his small weather group--they had little to do with the 'fly boys' or bomber pilots due to their different and very specific schedule. But the bombers depended upon the weathermen for their missions. ''And you didn't have to be a very good weatherman, because it rained every day. You couldn't go wrong!"


The 100th RAAF squadron

Next Dick was sent back to Australia, to Fenton Airbase, just south of Darwin.The B24 Liberator bombers were stationed there, and needed weather support.This too was an active war zone, with frequent Japanese bombing raids. The staging point for Darwin was Alice Springs, in the geographical centre of Australia and the wartime civilian capital of the Northern Territory, after the evacuation of Darwin. In Alice Springs Dick encountered Aboriginals, who he describes as 'ancient-looking.' And in Sidney he particularly remembers a beautiful Aboriginal woman who was a nightclub singer.

When Dick got leave for R and R, he went to Adelaide," a beautiful area in the South, great water." Dick admired the houses set up on stilts to prevent flooding. "You could crawl under the houses." A beachfront hotel in Adelaide was reserved for the American troops. As a weatherman, Dick was more solitary than the troops. One day, as he was walking around town, he stopped in another hotel, one available for the public. Here, he saw that he was not the only one sitting by himself. On the other side of the restaurant a young woman wearing WAAF uniform was dining alone. "No self-respecting young American is going to let a gal eat alone. So I asked her if I could buy her a drink and she said, 'of course!' So we joined forces and I bought her a drink." The pair tried to get into the hotel reserved for American forces but were not allowed in. So they walked to the shore, carrying her lunch with them. Sitting comfortably by the ocean, their feet dabbling in warm water, they swapped life stories.

At the time of the unconditional surrender of Japan on 2nd September 1945, Dick was in Fenton. He was sent to the main base in Brisbane to be demobilized. Upon his return, he realized that forestry did not have many job prospects, so he decided to become an acountant. His family had moved to Arkansas by then. Under the GI Bill, Dick was able to attend the University of Arkansas, graduating in accounting in 1947. Eventually he became comptroller of a large company operating coast-to-coast.

Dick does not minimize the horror of the war, yet he loved his palm-roofed weather station in New Guinea, and he loved Australia as well. With his positive outlook on life, he retains happy memories of the war years, despite being bombarded by the Japanese on numerous occasions. Whenever he goes into a state of relaxation, he is back in Adelaide, his feet in warm ocean water and a pretty WAAF at his side.

Related Links:

Living Witnesses Part 5:The Refugee

Living Witnesses Part 3: The Medical Student

Living Witnesses Part 1: The Fire Warden


For the past several weeks we have been hearing from the living witnesses who experienced the Second World War. Today we are in the grip of the worst humanitarian crisis since that war. As we mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of Second World War and the fourth anniversary of the Syrian conflict, let us take a look at what the Living Witnesses have to tell us about Syria.

The story of the Living Witnesses is not just a tale about the past, about events which unfolded before most of us were born. Their story is a contemporary one, for they know and understand what the Syrian people are enduring today. Baerbel Miller, Joyce Hudis and Frances Hollander have told us how their education was disrupted by persecution, bombings or displacement. Peter Hudis, the sheltered only child of a middle class Jewish couple, contracted tuberculosis due to sleeping in the London Underground during the blitz. Today we are creating a Lost Generation of Syrian children whose education has been disrupted and who lack basic protection from communicable diseases.

We have heard how Joyce, the evacuee, did not see her parents for three years and we have seen four-year old Garry Hunt turn away from the father he did not know. They understand the feelings of Syrian families separated by war and fighting. We have heard about the persecution experienced by Frances Hollander and Isidor Kiefer at the hands of the Nazis, and how Isidor was forced to flee the beloved city where his ancestors had lived for nine hundred years. Today some of the world's most ancient minorities--Assyrians, Chaldeans, Yazidi, experience genocide at the hands of ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria. We are in danger of losing our Aramaic-speaking Christians and other precious ancient minority cultures just as we lost the rich cultural heritage of European Jewry.

Frances had to flee her home in Essen and all her friends and childhood memories to go to a strange land where she did not speak the language. Baerbel was a refugee too--starving, cold, exhausted and in constant danger as she fled the advancing Red army. Four million Syrian refugees today, many of them children, share similar experiences.

When Joyce was on Peckham Road during the worst buzz bomb incident in Camberwell, she barely escaped with her life. Many others did not. Baerbel crawled out of a cellar window to cross a street strewn with white phosphorus. Garry Hunt vividly remembers bombings he witnessed even before he could speak. Peter, the fire warden, watched London burn. As Baerbel said, 8th May 1945 brought, not peace, but the laying down of arms. And arms laid down in one place are soon picked up in another. Whether in Ukraine, South Sudan or Syria, the endless war rages on. As long as any child watches their city burn, the peace has not come. As long as young people lie at night terrified of the sound of bombs, as long as homes are destroyed and people have to flee their ancestral lands, peace has not come.

Seventy-five years ago, we turned our back on the Jews. Today the world turns its back on Syria. How many more people must suffer as the War Babies suffered, before we say, enough? We cannot take away what the Living Witnesses have suffered, but must their suffering be in vain, just a part of an endless cycle of violence? We could not help the War Babies because we were not yet born. We could not stop the Holocaust because we were not yet born. The conflict in Syria is ours to stop and the children of Syria are ours to help.


Syrian Refugees pour into Kurdistan

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm.The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard.

The story of the War Babies is often overlooked because they played no active part in the war. Yet these are the ones who, from the moment of birth, or even in their mother's wombs, experienced sirens, bombs, fighting, parental deprivation, food rationing and other extreme events. This is a cohort of individuals who came into the world without an experience of 'before', of 'normality.' In whatever country they were born, they were war's innocent victims. For the War Babies and their children, the war will never really be over until they find peace in their hearts. As we think of all the children suffering from warfare around the world today, let us take the time to hear the wisdom and experience of the War Babies.


Six-year-old Baerbel in 1946.

When General Alfred Jodl signed Germany's unconditional surrender on 7th May 1945, five-year-old Baerbel Gergen and her mother Hilly were on a train heading West, together with hundreds of other starving and exhausted refugees. Having fled the advancing Red Army, they were on their way home to Worms. Now, as citizens of an occupied country, their welfare was partially in the hands of the occupying US army in the territory of Germany they were passing through, as well as the French army, which occupied Worms and its environs.

Their onward journey was by no means straightforward. Sometimes they had to walk for long stretches where no trains were running. Sometimes they rode in a normal passenger train and sometimes in cattle cars. Often, as the train slowly rolled through a town, American GIs would throw their own rations into the train in an effort to help the hungry travellers. At one train station an American soldier gave her a small tin of chicken soup. She brought it to her mother who said, "Don't take it, don't take it!" Hilly did not want to accept anything from American soldiers.

"Are you crazy?" asked a fellow refugee. " Take it for your little girl, she needs food. Even if you don't want to touch it, take it for her."

Another time, an American soldier grabbed her and gave her a bear hug so tight she could hardly breathe. She took him by the hand and brought him to Hilly, saying, "I've found us a Daddy! I've found us a Daddy!" How badly the little orphan girl wanted a father!

At last, after the long, exhausting and chaotic journey, Baerbel and Hilly arrived in Worms. They were home at last--or so they thought. The pair went straight to their house on the outskirts of town and knocked on their neighbour's door to collect the key. "We don't have the key any more," the neighbours told them. 'There is somebody living at your house." Shocked, they went to their home and rang the doorbell. To their astonishment, a maid in a white apron and black dress came to the door. It was a bizarre sight to see a uniformed servant at a time when most people were suffering so much deprivation--and in their own home too!

"What do you want?" asked the maid.

"I want to get into my house," Hilly replied.

"Just a minute." But little Baerbel pushed by her, ran to her room and tore open the cupboard where her toys were.

"Get out of here, you filthy brat!" said the maid, grabbing her.

As it turned out, their house had been requisitioned by the government and allocated to the Lord Mayor of Cologne, a city about four hour's train ride from Worms.

"He lived in our furniture, he used everything we had--and we had nothing."

Their house had belonged to a baron who ran the leather factory, which used to manufacture the fine leatherwork for which Worms was famous. Baerbel's father was an important member of the upper management and had been assigned the house as part of his compensation. After his death, Hilly continued leasing the house. But now the house had been snatched away and his widow and daughter were homeless. All of the Gergen's heirlooms and mementos--their silver, books, special cameras, items of sentimental value that had belonged to Baerbel's father--all were taken over by the Mayor and for the most part never returned.

Although their house was a large one with several floors--in fact it is currently home to four families--there was no question of Baerbel and Hilly being allowed to share it. They were sent out into the country to live in the attic of a farmhouse. Hilly was given a just a few pieces of her own furniture to furnish the attic. Fate had left them destitute. Their reluctant hosts--the wealthiest farmers in town--were unwilling to feed them, saying they needed the food for their pigs. The attic was unheated. In the winter there was ice on the windows and they had to wear hats and gloves indoors. No longer refugees on the road, Baerbel and Hilly were still enduring displacement, hunger and hardship.

The village was seven kilometers from Worms, so Baerbel had to start first grade at the village school. But she and her mother simply did not fit into peasant life. Hilly was a sophisticated woman who wore lipstick, scandalizing the villagers, while Baerbel was mercilessly teased for her 'weird name.' Once she did move back into town, she was half a year behind the other students!

Eventually Baerbel's wish to have a father came true, when Hilly met and married a local dentist named Walter. Now they could move out of the country attic and settle in the comfortable house near the cathedral that is Baerbel's home to this day. Her new father loved and cherished her and never raised his hand to her. But still Baerbel's troubles were not over. Walter was a veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the most horrific battles in the annals of war--and one that relatively few German soldiers survived. He was wounded in the leg at Stalingrad and a piece of shrapnel and a fragment of leather boot were later removed from his leg. Inevitably, more than his leg was wounded. Like many of today's Iraq War veterans, Walter was prone to frightening outbursts of anger. PTSD was not known or understood at the time and no therapy was offered to traumatized veterans, so the family was left to manage as best they could.


Piece of shrapnel and leather boot that were removed from Walter's leg.

Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Worms were being held to account for their actions during the war. While families such as Baerbel's had always been opposed to Nazism, others were in a different position. Hilly was working for a doctor who had been a Nazi. When questioned by the Americans, he said,

"Yes, I was a Nazi. I don't like all the stuff Hitler did--some things were good, and a lot of things were not." His interrogators were astounded by his bluntness.

"You are the first person we have encountered who admitted that he was a Nazi!"

Everyone else was denying that they were ever connected with the Nazi party. Baerbel's uncle by marriage was also a doctor but refused to join the Nazi party. As a result he was in and out of prison several times during the war. Inevitably he would be let out because of the shortage of doctors. His wife, Baerbel's aunt, was also arrested at one point, because she sent her maid to a Jewish department store to buy a zipper.

Baerbel's maternal grandmother was known Oma Lies-chen. She was also called Frau Doktor because she was engaged in alternative healing practices. Before the war, a prominent Jewish family, Isidor and Else Kiefer, lived next door to Oma. Isidor was a tin manufacturer and longtime chairman of the Jewish community. But by 1933, life was becoming very dangerous for Worms' ancient Jewish community--especially for those who were wealthy and prominent. There were beatings, murders and deportations. In August 1933, a large group of Jews from Worms were sent to the new concentration camp at Osthofen. The Kiefers left for America in 1934, via Belgium. After the war, they used to send care packages to Oma, complete with dresses for Baerbel that had been outgrown by their daughter. Why did the Isidor Kiefers send gifts to the city where they and their community had suffered so terribly? Did the kind-hearted and selfless Oma risk her life to help them in their hour of greatest need? Later, in 1961, Baerbel visited this family in their apartment hotel in New York, on the day she arrived in the USA. She brought them some lilies of the valley, which she had picked in their garden and smuggled in under her coat. This would have meant so much to the family! Isidor was closely involved with efforts to rebuild Worms synagogue--the most ancient in Germany--after the Holocaust, as well as the Jewish cemetery and museum. He is especially noted for extensive research on the history of the Jewish community in Worms and his incredible collection of papers and archival documents, covering the history of Worms' Jewish community from the 11th Century to the 1930s.

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Isidor Keifer

By the mid-1950s, television was becoming a feature of middle class German homes. And with it came footage of the camps. Fourteen-year-old Baerbel, who until then had heard nothing about the Holocaust, was horrified and shocked, experiencing a profound sense of betrayal. She and all her friends were furious with their parents. How could they have let such atrocities happen? We have spoken in other blogs about moral injury. For the War Babies of Germany, and indeed for their children, simply being German in the postwar years was a profound moral injury. Baerbel and her contemporaries felt immense shame and guilt for actions they could not have influenced, for they were just little children. All of Hitler's attempts to create a master race had resulted in generations of Germans who felt morally inferior to the rest of humanity.

It is easy to draw the wrong lesson from the Holocaust and all the other Nazi atrocities. Those of us who grew up in the postwar years have tended to lay blame on the German people as a whole. We imagine that some inherent defect in the German character and German culture made these appalling events possible. If we allow ourselves to hold such beliefs, we miss the real lesson. The Holocaust showed us, not the evil of Germans, but the evil of which we, humanity, are capable. Whenever we mind our own business, look the other way or 'just obey orders', when we ignore human rights abuses, or fail to speak out on behalf of the vulnerable, we become a part of the same pattern that allowed the Holocaust to take place. Empowered by the pain of what happened in their land, generations of Germans have learned to speak out for peace. May they, like Baerbel and her family, serve as inspirations to us all!

Related links:

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm. My parents' generation, people born in the mid 1920s, grew up in the war years. Many of them served their country either in active service or civilian war work. In these blogs, we will hear British, American, Jewish, German and Italian voices. The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard. They share tales of tragedy and trauma, heroism and hope--and also of romance, not because war is romantic but because they were young and war or no, it was their time for romance. It is easy for us to ignore the voices of the very old. Some of those who we interview live in institutions--society's strategy for protecting ourselves from the Messengers--old age, sickness and death. Soon enough, these witnesses will be gone. The intention of these blogs is that their stories not die with them.


Frances Hollander, a witness to the rise of Hitler and the Nuremberg Laws

In 1921, a young Jewish couple, known as Leo and Minda Last, came from Poland to the German city of Essen in search of opportunity. Situated in the Ruhr Valley, Germany's industrial heartland, Essen was a major city, known for steel, coal and iron. At the time there were about 5,000 Jews in Essen. Many were prominent members of the local community--bankers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and clothing merchants. There were philanthropists, art collectors and art patrons among the wealthier German Jews. The East European Jews, more recently arrived, were traders, miners and factory workers. Leo himself worked as a salesman.

Essen had one of the largest and most beautiful synagogues in Germany, styled after the Jerusalem temple. Desecrated during Krystallnacht, the synagogue survived the heavy allied bombing of Essen and is now maintained as a memorial.



In the final days of 1922, Minda gave birth to a dainty and beautiful baby girl, who they named Frances. The little girl was born into turbulent times. Only days after her birth, a chain of events was set in motion in the Ruhr valley that was to change her life--and the lives of millions around the world--dramatically. In January of 1922, French troops entered the Ruhr valley. The occupation of the Ruhr, known in Germany as the Ruhrkampf, was in response to Germany's failure to pay the huge reparations required under the treaty of Versailles. Hyperinflation accelerated until a wheelbarrow of money was needed to buy a loaf of bread. The stage was set for the dramatic rise of the Nazi party and the transformation of the Weimar republic into a totalitarian dictatorship.

Frances, her parents and later her brother lived in a small one bedroom apartment. Frances' parents each had a bed and Frances herself slept on a board between the two beds. The apartment did not have its own bathroom and two tenants shared a toilet. Once a week, the family got out the tin tub, heated some water, and everybody had a bath using the same water. Finally, when Frances was twelve, her parents bought a couch. From then on she slept on the couch in the living room. "But I could not always use the couch. My Uncle had a non-Jewish girlfriend. So they could not go to a hotel to be together. Instead, they used my couch." Frances' nursemaid slept on a couch in the kitchen.

Frances brother, David, known as Dollie, was born on her fifth birthday. As he grew up, the lively boy was a handful for his parents to manage in a small apartment. Eventually, when he was eight, Dollie was sent to stay with relatives in Poland for a year. On his return at the age of nine, he started working in a bookstore. To everyone's amazement, he would answer the telephone, take orders and then deliver the books on his bicycle, from one end of Essen to the other. His precocious skills foreshadowed a successful business career.

Frances was ten and her brother five when President Hindenberg appointed Hitler Chancellor. The lives of Jews in the Ruhr valley immediately changed for the worse. There was strong support for Nazism in Essen. With Hitler in power, Essen's Jews were immediately subjected to all kinds of brutality--arbitrary arrests, beatings and murders.The notorious Brownshirts enforced a boycott of Jewish-owned stores and scores of Jewish merchants were taken to concentration camps. A pall of fear descended upon the Jewish community as antisemitism revealed itself in its full ugliness.

"We were always so worried about the boys," Frances emphasizes. "A German girl had only to complain about a Jewish boy, and he would be killed, even if he had done nothing. Maybe she wanted to have a date with him and he turned her down. Even then she could accuse him of touching her. And he would be killed. Every time our boys went out, we were so worried, and so glad to see them come home. But if a German boy wanted to get a date with us Jewish girls, there would be trouble if we turned him down. We would say, 'But I am Jewish.' And he would say, 'Never mind.' And what could we say?"

There were other changes too. The young Frances used to enjoy listening to Gypsy music on the radio, Now Gypsy music was verboten. If you wanted to hear it, you had to listen in secret and at great risk. Foreign radio stations were also verboten and newspapers were censored, making it inceasingly difficult and dangerous to get any information other than Nazi propaganda.

The Lasts lived one block from Gerlingplatz, the market square, one of the well-loved places in Essen. But on June 21st 1933, just weeks after Hitler came to power, Frances witnessed an event that was to change her perception of Gerlingplatz forever. Books by Jewish and Socialist authors were gathered into a huge pyre in the centre of the square. The sensitive Jewish girl watched in horror as books by Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Bertolt Brecht and many others were consigned to the flames.

Book Burning.jpg

Soon Frances began noticing that food was increasingly scarce. The money that should be spent on feeding the population was instead being put into Hitler's rearmament efforts. "He took the food from us and hoarded it underground for the army," said Frances, "But you could not say anything. If you went into the grocery store and saw something funny, like ersatz bread, you could not say anything or you would be arrested and never seen again."

"He was a madman," Frances went on. "I heard his speeches on the radio. Only a madman could talk that way. But nobody dared voice opposition. If you did, even your own children would denounce you."

On 15th September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were enacted and Frances' life took a further turn for the worse. "Jews had no civil rights. You could not go the library, or the theatre,or a restaurant, or sit the park. My father could not work." Jews were fired from their jobs and Jewish children were forced out of school and all placed in one Jewish school. Frances was the first to use this opportunity to break down the class distinction between wealthy, assimilated German Jews and poor Polish Jews. She made friends both among children of wealthy families and among those from the poorest neigbourhoods. Frances became close friends with the daughter of one of Essen's most prominent Jewish families. A chauffeur would pick Frances up and bring her to her friend's handsome villa. The friend had three rooms for her use-- a bedroom, playroom and a big library where she had her music lessons. There the girls played happily until it was time for the chauffeur to bring Frances home. One day, the girl's mother wanted to see where Frances lived. The arrival of the elegant lady caused quite a stir in the neighbourhood. But the wealthy woman showed no trace of snobbery as she sat on the couch and chatted courteously with Frances' mother.

Frances had a cousin, Brunhilde, who had a non-Jewish mother. Brunhilde was an enthusiastic member of Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girl's wing of Hitler Youth. Proudly sporting her blue skirt, white blouse and neckerchief, she was a strong believer in Nazi ideology. Eventually, Brunhilde's father was deported to a concentration camp. His wife chose to go with him, and Brunhilde, the exemplary Nazi, was sent there too. In spring of 1945, they were told to dig their own graves. But while they were busy with this macabre task, the Allies liberated the camp and their lives were saved "And this happened to my cousin, the Nazi!" Frances exclaimed.


While her cousin pursued Nazism, Frances herself was secretly studying Marx and Engels as a member of a radical Zionist youth group. All her friends were preparing go to kibbutzim in Palestine with Youth Aliya--a programme run by the Zionist movement to rescue Jewish children from Germany. Frances desperately wanted to go too. But Minda and Leo had other plans. They intended to bring their family to America. Frances' hopes soared again when she received a special scholarship to finish school in Heidelberg for two years and then go to college in Jerusalem. She would not be going alone, either. A friend of hers had won the same scholarship. "He was an incredible young man, like a saint, very wise." Frances was bitterly disappointed that her parents would not allow her to go to Heidelberg. Her friend, however, did go. Tragically, he was killed soon after he arrived in Heidelberg.

The blackest chapter in the story of Frances' experiences under the Third Reich ocurred in 1938, when she became one of the earliest victims of Nazi human experimentation. Devoid of real scientific value and completely unethical, these so-called experiments were little more than exercises in sadism and dehumanisation. Early that year, Frances became ill. Insisting that her parents would be unable to feed her properly, the Nazi doctor admitted Frances to hospital. "I was sick for only two weeks with an upset stomach, but they kept me in hospital for three months. Three months! I was confined to my room, which I shared with a sixty three year old German woman, who never spoke. I was not allowed out of bed, even to go to the bathroom. Every day five doctors and nurses were doing experiments on me from morning to night. When I insisted that I was not sick and wanted to go home, they told me I was lying. They had huge jars of fluid, which they injected into my arms every morning. Then they would pump my stomach. That was a horrible experience as you are absolutely convinced you are choking! I had a friend who was half Jewish. He had a large house where they hid political dissidents in the basement. He came to see me almost every day and took me for a walk in the garden. Without him, I don't know how I would have survived that terrible time."

Meanwhile, Frances parents had her passport and US visa prepared and were ready to leave for America. This was still the time when the Nazi plan was to expel and plunder the Jews. The Final Solution--extermination--was to come later. Many of Essen's Jews left at this time, relinquishing all their possessions. Because the Lasts were Polish citizens, they were able to leave. After repeated pleas, they finally extricated Frances from her traumatic hospital experience. The family left Germany in May of 1938, six months before Krystallnacht. They settled in New York, where Frances lived until her spiritual quest drew her to Boulder, Colorado. To compensate the adventurous and independent girl for the loss of her chance to go to Palestine, her parents allowed her to hitch-hike to Montreal with a friend!

One of Frances' Polish cousins opened a dental practice in Vienna. One week after he opened the practice, Hitler annexed Austria. Stormtroopers marched into the dental office and made him destroy every piece of dental equipment--years' worth of hard work and saving on the part of his family. Desperate, he wrote to the Lasts, begging them to bring him to America. "I felt so terrible that we could not save him. But we did not have the means. But I should have gone there myself and married him. Maybe I could have saved him." In our previous blog, we spoke of moral injury. Forced into 'choiceless choices' that made them complicit in their own destruction, the Jews of the Holocaust suffered severe moral injuries. Frances' inablility to save her cousin's life was one such injury.

Frances has led a long life full of healing endeavours and spiritual experiences.Today she lives in a shared nursing home room. At night, she lies awake thinking of her experiences of Nazi Germany, her friend who was killed and her cousin whom she could not save--wondering what she might have done differently. Her sorrow reminds us all that we must never forget. For what we forget, we are doomed to repeat.

Related Blogs:

Next time, Living Witnesses Part 5: The German war baby. Hear Baerbel Miller's experiences of her early years in wartime Germany.

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm. My parents' generation, people born in the mid 1920s, grew up in the war years. Many of them served their country either in active service or civilian war work. In these blogs, we will hear British, American, Jewish, German and Italian voices. The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard. They share tales of tragedy and trauma, heroism and hope--and also of romance, not because war is romantic but because they were young and war or no, it was their time for romance. It is easy for us to ignore the voices of the very old. Some of those who we interview live in institutions--society's strategy for protecting ourselves from the Messengers--old age, sickness and death. Soon enough, these witnesses will be gone. The intention of these blogs is that their stories not die with them.


Joyce Board in 1943, with her Aunty Amy, baby cousin Garry, grandmother Olivia and mother Emily.

In our previous installment of Living Witnesses, Joyce Board was a young teenager evacuated to Somerset. By late summer of 1942, Joyce had finished school and returned to London to continue her education at Chelsea Polytechnic, where she met the love of her life, Peter Hudis. For the remainder of the war, Joyce lived with her parents, Joe and Emily, on Shenley Road, Camberwell.

Joyce's return from Somerset was not the only excitement for the Shenley Road household that year. Her cousin, Garry Hunt, was born in May 1942, the youngest member of his generation. His father, Ted, was in the Royal Air Force and was stationed in India and Burma. Leaving the comparative safety of her home in Morden, Surrey, the young mother, Amy and her baby son spent most of their time living in the house on Shenley Road, where Amy could get support and companionship. Garry writes, 'I can remember many of the sights of the war, parts of London burning...'


Here we see Ted in his RAF uniform, with Amy and baby Garry

On 4th February 1944, the so called 'mini Blitz' started. "First came bombs, then the buzz bombs, then the rockets," Joyce says. The bombs were incendiary bombs, the V1 buzz bombs or doodlebugs were self propelled flying bombs. Finally came the rockets or V2s, the first ballistic missiles used in war. The Shenley Road house was on a hill, with a view over London. Every morning the family would go outside to see if St Paul's Cathedral was still standing. To their great relief, it always was. 'St Paul's was still there, we were still there. So it was alright." Although badly damaged, Christopher Wren's iconic dome survived the war, a symbol of hope for the Londoners.

St Paul's Cathedral surrounded by fire on the ...

St Paul's Cathedral surrounded by fire on the night of December 29, 1940 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In one particular air raid, Joyce had a near miss. On June 28th she was in a telephone kiosk on Peckham Road, talking to Peter, when a buzz bomb fell on nearby Bentley House, a block of flats, shattering the kiosk. "The glass of the telephone kiosks always imploded, killing whoever was inside," Joyce says, " Yet this time the glass exploded outwards--I don't know why. But I survived the bomb." Stunned by the explosion, Joyce watched in horror as the residents emerged from the flats, blood pouring from their heads. They had been sheltering in the basement and the ceiling had fallen in. The scalp bleeds very freely, and the terrified young girl thought that everybody was mortally wounded and about to die. In reality, they had nothing more than superficial scalp wounds. Just then, a very worried Joe appeared, calming her and escorting her home. Nineteen people were killed in this incident, one of the worst V1 bombing incidents to affect Camberwell.

Determined to go to medical school, Joyce was doing her pre-meds at Chelsea Polytechnic. She did excellently in botany and well in zoology and chemistry, but failed physics and had to re-take it. The second time, she made it through the weekly problems because they were basically the same problems as those of the previous year. But she approached the exams with trepidation, knowing she was bound to fail. Fate, however, intervened. As she was in the middle of the oral exam, there was a huge explosion. A buzz bomb had landed on the examination hall. While the examiner cowered under the desk, thinking only of his own safety, Joyce stood amid falling rubble. "I didn't know what to do. And I utterly despised the professor." Embarassed, the professor gave Joyce a pass on the oral test. And because all the exam papers were destroyed, Joyce and the other candidates were passed on their grades. "If it were not for that bomb, I could not have become a doctor. And I got through medical school alright, despite never understanding physics."

After graduating from Chelsea Polytechnic, Joyce was 'called up' for civilan war work. Much to her frustation, the young scientist was assigned to the Fuel Research Station in East Greenwich. Established during the First World War, the Station was tasked with an experimental investigation of more economical and efficient methods for the preparation of coal and its products, such as coke and coal gas. Joyce was frustated with the tedium of the job and embarassed that her war work seemingly contributed nothing to the effort to defeat Hitler. Joyce describes the Fuel Research Station as a building the size of a detached house, with a long beam that had a thermometer at the end. The work consisted of measuring the BTUs of various fuels such a coal and coke. There were three shifts; the evening one ended at 10pm, leading to a late night, while the night shift ran from 10p.m. to 6a.m. Meanwhile, Joyce was a young woman in love and got away whenever possible to visit Peter at his parent's home in Edgware.

Luftwaffe bombings continued to disrupt life in London as Joyce persued her medical education. Women were generally not accepted in the prestigious London medical schools, so Joyce had few options for her training. After finishing her war work at the Fuel Research Station, she was due to start at the London School of Medicine for Women, attached to the Royal Free Hospital. But on 5th July 1944 a buzz bomb hit the hospital and medical school, causing immense damage. Then on 9th February 1945, a V2 rocket destroyed the laboratory wing. As a result, the new students were initially sent to Guy's Hospital instead of their own medical school. They were far from welcome there. When the young women arrived, the male medical students queued up and stood silently, staring at their legs. And when the women were invited to attend a Sunday afternoon record concert, all the men got up and walked out. " It didn't bother me, because I had such a rough Cockney childhood. But only two or three of us were working class. For the genteel middle class girls, this kind of treatment was very painful."

One of Joyce's most disconcerting war memories concerns her attitude to the bombing of German cities. On February 14th 1945, the BBC announced: British and US bombers have dropped hundreds of thousands of explosives on the German city of Dresden... As soon as one part of the city was alight, the bombers went for another until the whole of Dresden was ablaze. "There were fires everywhere with a terrific concentration in the centre of the city," said one Pathfinder pilot. RAF crew reported smoke rising to a height of 15,000 ft.

Joyce will never forget and perhaps never completely forgive herself for celebrating this holocaust of civilians and refugees, as well as the earlier bombings of Cologne and Hamburg. These terrible acts seemed at the time to be bringing victory closer, as well as being just retribution for the London Blitz and the destruction of Coventry. Infused by war propaganda, the adolescent Joyce truly hated the German enemy. "This was the worst thing I ever did" she reflects. Throughout my own childhood and youth, I experienced her ongoing remorse as a healing thorn. Neither she nor my father had a shadow of willingness to collude with prejudice or hatred in any form. Reminding us of those terrible days, Joyce constantly exhorted us to consider justice and human rights above any personal or nationalistic concerns. Looking back, I can only say that Joyce, along with millions of other young people exposed to war propaganda, suffered a moral injury. Due to her inherent resilience and her Christian faith, has been able to transform and make meaning of this moral injury, yet the pain remains.

The European war ended on VE Day, 8th May 1945. "That was a most wonderful day in London," Joyce recalls. "Everywhere people were dancing and singing in the streets, complete strangers hugging each other. We were so happy on that day."

Yet the war had a long aftermath. One day, sorting through papers for my parents, I came upon a child ration card bearing my own name. Until that day I had no idea that rationing in Britain continued until 1954. The sight of my own ration card brought the war uncomfortably close. Demobilization took a long time too. Ted Hunt was 'demobbed' only in 1947. The photograph below paints a poignant picture of the social disruptions caused by the war. Immense costs were born by all concerned, from the soldiers at the front to the child in his mother's arms. In this picture, taken by Joyce, we see Ted wearing his new 'civvies', excited to return to his family. But his four year old son does not know or acknowledge him. Garry pulls away from his father and leans towards the only Daddy he has ever known--his uncle Joe. Neither Joyce nor Garry have ever forgotten this moment. The bond between father and son, lost in those early years, was never fully regained. Like many other war babies, Garry paid a heavy price for a global conflict he was powerless to influence. As for Joyce and Peter, their wartime experiences led them to raise us, their children, as pacifists and peacemakers and to seek thoughout their lives for the path of peace and justice.


Next time-- Living Witnesses Part 3: A Jew in Hitler's Germany. Hear Frances Hollander's experiences as a Jewish child in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party.

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm. My parents' generation, people born in the mid 1920s, grew up in the war years. Many of them served their country either in active service or civilian war work. In these blogs, we will hear British, American, Jewish, German and Italian voices. The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard. They share tales of tragedy and trauma, heroism and hope--and also of romance, not because war is romantic but because they were young and war or no, it was their time for romance. It is easy for us to ignore the voices of the very old. Some of those who we interview live in institutions--society's strategy for protecting ourselves from the Messengers--old age, sickness and death. Soon enough, these witnesses will be gone. The intention of these blogs is that their stories not die with them.

Mum 1.jpg

Joyce Board, a witness to Operation Pied Piper

When I was growing up, we did not study the recent world war in school. History ended with the Treaty of Versailles, while Current Affairs began with Yuri Gagarin. But the war's oral history formed a regular topic of conversation at home. My parents and grandparents all had tales to tell--most of all, my vibrant, outgoing mother, a born storyteller. Here I retell her story.

On Saturday 2nd September 1939, Joyce Board and her parents, Joe and Emily, returned home to London from a late summer holiday. The school year had already started and Joyce, who had just turned fourteen, was looking forward to joining her classmates. They found a tense atmosphere in the capital. Next day, Sunday, at 11.15, the family gathered around their wooden radio to hear Neville Chamberlain announce: (Hear the speech here)

This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that, unless we 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 now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.

As the National Anthem played at the end of the Prime Minister's speech, the air raid sirens wailed. Although this was a false alarm, it brought the reality of war home.


At the insistence of London's mayor, Herbert Morrison, Operation Pied Piper, the mass evacuation of children from cities, had begun on Saturday. Joyce's school, Charles Edward Brooke School, had already been evacuated to Yeovil, Somerset. Many of the pupils were placed in East Coker, of Four Quartets fame. Due to her late return from vacation, Joyce was in the latter wave of the four day evacuation. She had to undertake a long and frightening journey alone from London to Somerset to join her schoolmates. Soon she had a very personal experience of the chaos and confusion inherent in Operation Pied Piper. Disembarking the train at Yeovil, she had no idea where to go or who would meet her, and wandered desperately down the streets, clutching her suitcase and gas mask. Eventually she was found and brought to a farmer's wife who was overseeing the operation in the area. This woman was very angry about Joyces' late arrival and gave her a good scolding before finding her a place to stay.

Joyce was first sent to Ilchester, to stay with a with a couple in their eighties. The old man was gardener to the local doctor. The old lady no longer cooked--a big change from home, where Emily was a devoted cook. A spirited fourteen-year-old girl and a very elderly couple proved to be a bad mix, so Joyce was then placed with a family. Joyce describes the family as "very nice, very friendly, but they never cleaned." This was a shock for Joyce, as her mother was an excellent homemaker! "They had a bathroom, but nobody bathed. I don't believe I had a proper bath the whole time I was there." The family had a lot of cats, which Joyce enjoyed. The father, who Joyce describes as "a lovely man," was a baker who had to get up at four in the morning to bake the bread. He came home exhausted and rolled into bed covered in flour. So, since nobody ever washed the sheets, his bed was full of flour and caked dough.

For a teenager like Joyce, evacuation was a mixed blessing. She missed her parents, her parish church and her large Cockney family, with its rowdy parties and singing of 'Knees up Mother Brown.' Evacuation was not like boarding school, for boarding school children normally went home for holidays. The evacuees did not go home, ever, so Joyce did not see her parents at all for three years. At the same time, she enjoyed a taste of independence and country life. Fortunately, Joyce's cousin, Terence Board, musical genius and a former child prodigy on the organ, was then in the Royal Air Force and stationed nearby. They would hitchhike to Yeovil together to go to the cinema when he had a day off.

Early in 1940, food rationing began and Joyce received a ration book. Living in the countryside, it was easy to supplement the rations by growing vegetables. Milk, meat and eggs could also be obtained locally. Joyce even learned to make West Country specialties like clotted cream.


While Joyce was in Somerset, she had one terrifying experience. She was out in the countryside with her friend, a teenage girl from her host family, when a German plane returning from bombing Bristol spotted the two young girls and strafed them. Crouching amid the gorse bushes, they somehow survived this wanton attack.

Evacuation ended for Joyce when she matriculated out of Charles Edward Brooke School and embarked on her inter B.Sc. at Chelsea Polytechnic. So in 1942, having just turned seventeen, she rejoined her parents in their house in Shenley Road, Camberwell. By this time, many foods, including meat, eggs, milk, butter cheese, rice, biscuits, jam, sugar and margarine were rationed, as well as soap. In London, there was a thriving Black Market. Much to Emily's chagrin, Joe, influenced by his Quaker mentors, would not allow the family to buy anything at all on the Black Market.

It was a few months after Pearl Harbour, and the big influx of American GIs into Britain was just underway. The lively and flirtatious Joyce attended afternoon GI dances with a friend. Notwithstanding that the GIs were described as, "Overpaid, oversexed and over 'ere," Joyce says, "They always behaved beautifully. I was very innocent and could easily be taken advantage of, but none of them ever tried to. We would dance and then they would take out their family photographs. 'This is Ma, this is Pa.' They were wonderful." To this day, Joyce remains profoundly grateful to the American GIs who she saw as the saviours of her country and way of life.

Something more exciting than GI tea dances was to come her way. At Chelsea Polytechnic, Joyce met a quiet, pale, thoughtful youth named Peter. Soon the two seventeen year olds were in love. "At Chelsea Polytechnic I met Peter, and my life--my real life-- began." Similar in age, height and interests, the two seemed made for each other. But their backgrounds were very disparate. Peter was Jewish. He lived at the elegant address, 43 Cranley Mews and his father was a civil servant. Joyce was a Cockney girl living in South London. All the elders disapproved of their relationship, with one notable exception. One day, on her way to Cranley Mews, Joyce ran into Peter's grandmother, Rachel, on the London Underground.

"You like my grandson?" asked Rachel in her thick Yiddish accent.

"Yes, I'm going to marry him."

There was a moment's pause before Rachel said, "Alright then."

Their elder's disapproval was not the only hurdle the young people faced. Soon after they fell in love, Peter was diagnosed with TB and sent away to a sanitorium. At that time, TB was an incurable illness and amounted to a death sentence. But Joyce never had any doubt that she and Peter would marry and have four children. And, against all odds, she was right.

The First Kiss

When he came home to die

You shed no tears

Knowing in your heart

The future that was yours.

You had watched him turn pale

Fever dew descend

Surrey sanitorium swallow him.

You'd met at seventeen,

Romance undimmed by

Rationing, buzz bombs

And air raid sirens,

Shared a first kiss

At Willsden Junction station

Two days after Christmas

Nineteen forty-two.

Your sparkling eyes

Gave him a reason to live

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Fled from your ebullience.

Condemned as a callow youth

He spent a rich, full lifetime

By your side.

Next time: Living Witnesses Part 3: The Medical student. Hear what it was like as a student in London amid incendiary bombs, buzz bombs and rockets!

Related Blogs:

Living Witnesses Part 1: The Fire Warden

View along the River Thames towards smoke risi...

View along the River Thames towards smoke rising from the London docklands after an air raid during the Blitz. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm. My parents' generation, people born in the mid 1920s, grew up in the war years. Many of them served their country either in active service or civilian war work. In these blogs, we will hear British, American, Jewish, German and Italian voices. The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard. They share tales of tragedy and trauma, heroism and hope--and also of romance, not because war is romantic but because they were young and war or no, it was their time for romance. It is easy for us to ignore the voices of the very old. Some of those who we interview live in institutions--society's strategy for protecting ourselves from the Messengers--old age, sickness and death. Soon enough, these witnesses will be gone. The intention of these blogs is that their stories not die with them.


Peter Hudis, a witness of the London Blitz

My father, although no longer a living witness, carefully wrote us a memoir describing his wartime experiences. Peter Hudis, a reluctant Jew, was barely fourteen years old when Britain declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939. He was prompty evacuated to the home of a devout Catholic family, an experience he found enthralling. Excited about his new discoveries, and eager to fit in with his hosts, he wrote home asking if he might have a rosary so he could join in family prayers. Of course, his parents were horrified. The danger to their only child's Jewishness suddenly became much more important than the dangers of war--especially during those days of the Phoney War, when no bombs were falling. Peter was immediately brought home to a city virtually emptied of children.

Thus, when the London Blitz started in September 1940, Peter was living with his parents in Cranley Mews, London. He was present on the fateful day, Saturday 7th September, when the skies filled with German bombers, a sight simultaneously impressive, exciting and terrifying to a teenage boy. While most London schoolchildren were evacuees in the countryside, Pete was in London during the entire Blitz. There were few teachers left in the city, and Pete would have gone to school part time, as the same teacher had to teach two batches of children each day. At first, Pete joined the masses who sheltered in the London Underground. Later, the family got an Anderson shelter.

An Air raid shelter in a London Underground st...

An Air raid shelter in a London Underground station in London during The Blitz. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That December, and for every Hanukkah throughout the war years, the family menorah was lit behind blackout curtains.

Eager to be of help in the war effort, young Pete volunteered with Civil Defence as a fire guard or fire warden. This gave him the exhausting and responsible job of staying up all night patrolling the neighbourhood, watching for and reporting incendiary bombs and the ensuing fires. His father, Philip, was a civil servant working in the Ministry of Home Security. Philip was responsible for coordinating London's civil defence. He often had to stay overnight at the Ministry, situated in a building with turf on the roof to camouflage it. After spending sleepless nights at the ministry, Phil would tap Pete on the shoulder to send him off to bed and take over his night fire warden duties.

Peter vividly recalled the Longest Night, 10-11th May 1941, when
Luftwaffe bombers claimed 1,486 lives, destroyed 11,000 houses, and hit the Houses of Parliament, Waterloo Station, the British Museum and many other landmark buildings. On these nights as well as other nights when he was awake as a fire watcher, planes screeched, sirens wailed, explosions shook the air and flames lit the skies over London, an eerie effect that was both hideous and strangely beautiful.


Peter Hudis as a teenager in wartime

When he was seventeen, Pete began studying for his inter B.Sc. at Chelsea Polytechnic. Here he met a confident and ebullient young woman with sparkling eyes. It was love at first sight for Pete, who was determined to marry Joyce. He organized a philosophy club, to which he somehow forgot to invite anyone else except Joyce. With pluck, determination and a bit of strategic trickery, he got his girl. Having saved their son from the rosary, Pearl and Philip now faced the ultimate danger--their son's intention to 'marry out.'

Chelsea Poly.jpg

Joyce and Peter met here, in the chemistry labat Chelsea Polytechnic

Tragedy struck the teen's wartime romance when Pete was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. My father's next set of wartime memories--life in a TB sanitarium--were so traumatic that he spoke of them only once, on a private walk with me, his eldest child. Since TB was pretty much a death sentence, few ever survived to speak of these experiences. For an adventurous and self-motivated youth who loved to explore and find new experiences, the confined and tightly regulated life of an institution must have been torture. The young Pete was given the job of pushing the library trolley from ward to ward, a chilling experience that offered him a weekly glimpse of what lay ahead of him, as he visited the wards full of more advanced cases, thinking that he too was destined to progress from ward to ward towards death. After receiving an experimental pneumothorax treatment, Peter was sent home to die. This he stubbornly refused to do, just as his country had refused to surrender to Hitler. Victorious over La Belle Dame Sans Merci, consumptive pulmonary tuberculosis, Peter participated in his country's victory celebrations and went on to live a long and healthy life.

Related Articles:
Endings and Beginnings--Ma's Blog
Nanny, a deaf woman in wartime--Ma's Blog


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