Reunited with the Past - Second World War Evacuees
PUBLISHED: 13:12 20 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:34 20 February 2013
Through a series of coincidences, Susan Soyinka learned about a group of children evacuated to Cornwall during the Second World War. Fascinated by their story, she has now produced a book, From East End to Land's End. By Lesley Double
Through a series of coincidences, Susan Soyinka learned about a group of children evacuated to Cornwall during the Second World War. Fascinated by their story, she has now produced a book, From East End to Lands End, to tell how and who came from the Jewish Free School (JFS) in London to Mousehole in June 1940, writes Lesley Double
In 1938, Susan Soyinkas mother, Lucy Smetana, came to England to escape Hitlers clutches. Lucy was a Viennese Jew and lost several members of her family during the war, including a sister, Sonya, who was sent to Auschwitz. Consequently, Lucy rarely spoke of her experiences and for many years Susan knew very little of her family and past.
When we were children, we would come to Cornwall for holidays. We fell in love with west Cornwall, and Mousehole in particular, explains Susan. In 1958 we attended a house party organised by a fellow Austrian Jew, Erna Lowe, which was held in St Clare School, Penzance. We went there for three years running, and used it as a base to explore, and my brother, Peter, worked in the Mousehole Bird Hospital during these holidays. In the 1980s, Susan and her family returned to Mousehole for their summer holidays, staying at Harbour Cottage for many years until it was sold.
That could have been the end of the story, but Susans brother, Steve, had moved to Cornwall, and Susan had married a man whose father came from Mousehole, so there were often trips down to the Westcountry. In 2007, Harbour Cottage came up for rent again, so Susan returned for holidays, this time with her children and grandchildren, to the place she had known and loved. Over the years, Susan had learned a little more about her family, how some of them had escaped the war and gone to America and Australia, and she made contact and visited several of them. Wanting to connect with her Jewishness, she took up a job as an educational psychologist, working for a Jewish charity. Susan worked in many Jewish schools in London, one of which happened to be the Jewish Free School (JFS).
During her holidays in Mousehole, Susan made friends with Greta Lewis, who directed her to Marian Harris, who happened to be a distant relative of Susans son. Susans visit to Marian, in May 2008, was to change her life. While Marian was making tea, Susan looked at the photographs on her mantelpiece. There was an old photo of a group of people, says Susan. They were obviously Jewish and I asked Marian who they were. What she said completely amazed me. The photo was the family of Lenny Marks, a child from JFS who had come to Mousehole during the war, and thus the story of the evacuation unfolded. I was astonished that I hadnt heard anything of this before, especially as I had connections with both Mousehole and JFS, says Susan. I plied Marian with questions, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to tell this incredible story.
Marian was able to give the names of 22 evacuee children as well as some of their teachers, which was a very good start to Susans research for her book. She compiled a list of 100 children who were evacuated, alongside names of many of their teachers and their families. Of course, a lot of the original evacuees had since died, but Susan spoke to dozens of evacuees and Mousehole villagers for her book. Moving so many children from London to a tiny Cornish village could have been a disaster, but the evacuees integrated into life in Mousehole well and lifelong friendships were made. The local children used the school in the mornings and the evacuees in the afternoons (after lunch, it was renamed JFS Mousehole), and the village hall in the nearby village of Paul was hired for their Sabbath services. The JFS children were taught to swim, sail and fish, and spent many hours playing on the beach. One JFS evacuee told Susan: We couldnt have gone to a better place, and others said their time in Mousehole had been magical, a fairyland and a wonderful experience.
Moving so many children from London to a tiny Cornish village could have been a disaster, but the evacuees integrated into life in Mousehole well and lifelong friendships were made
Several evacuees kept in contact with their host families in Mousehole long after the war was over, and some returned to live in Cornwall. I heard numerous stories that brought a lump to my throat, continues Susan, including one of a man returning to Mousehole in 1999 for the first time since the war. He spent a week looking for someone who knew of the evacuation until he ultimately turned up on Marians doorstep. On asking if she knew of his host family, she said, youre not little Jacky Goldstein, are you? With that, little Jacky Goldstein, now in his 70s, burst into tears.
This year is the 70th anniversary of the evacuation, and on 13 June, exactly 70 years to the day when they first came to Cornwall, nine former JFS evacuees and their families travelled to Mousehole by train, just as they had all those years ago. Met at the station by friends both old and new, and members of the Cornish Jewish community, there was plenty of laughter and tears. Most of the evacuees stayed at the Old Coastguard Hotel, Mousehole, but there was a special treat for one evacuee, Pamela Fields. Pamelas father was one of the JFS teachers, and Pamela was actually born in Cornwall during his time teaching in Mousehole, explains Susan. The house she lived in during the war is now a holiday cottage, and so Pamela and her niece stayed in that very same house in Foxes Lane.
Susan and the evacuees were greeted at a reception by Cllr Jan Ruhrmund, the Mayor of Penzance, and were reacquainted with some of the villagers they had known all those years ago.
The evacuees attended a reception/buffet at St Clements Sunday School, hosted by the ladies of the village, many of whom appear in the book. Later they attended a performance by Mousehole Male Voice Choir, some members of whom lived in Mousehole during the time of the evacuation. The evacuees also visited Mousehole School and, later, Susan gave a talk at Penlee House Gallery, Penzance, where there was an exhibition about the evacuation.
During the war, many children experienced great trauma during their evacuation, torn away from their families, not knowing if or when they would see them again, concludes Susan. Against this backdrop, the evacuation of children from JFS to Mousehole is so remarkable. It is difficult to imagine two more different groups of people. I hope From East End to Lands End will bring to life an area of our history so often clouded in sadness, but in this case filled with hope, love and acceptance. This is their story and I hope Ive done them proud.