Remembering World War II from England

    January 2010            
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Opinion & Society


After the War

By Naidia Woolf

Much of what has been written about the post-war period in Britain (after the Second World War) refers to the stringent food rationing that continued for several years (which I have described from a personal/Jewish perspective elsewhere); the signs of devastation wrought by bomb raids and landmines; the desperate (and destitute) men and women arriving from POW camps in war-scarred Europe, and so on. The grim, still reverberating toll of the worst war humankind has ever known.

In the minds of English Jews the end of hostilities removed the threat of Nazi occupation, the fear of being rounded up and herded into cattle cars and transported to concentration camps to an almost certain death. In formerly occupied Europe. The liquidation of whole Jewish communities, in particular their rich, cultural heritage and contributions to the life of the mindmusic, art, literature, philosophy, science and medicine, etc.left a tragic and irreplaceable void, what one Pulitzer prize-winning journalist refers to as "A Hole in the Heart of the World."1

English Jews - especially those of my generation - who experienced war-time conditions in Britain first-hand sometimes wonder how the British people, with its subtle but nevertheless pervasive and long-term anti-semitism (especially among the upper classes) would have treated "its" Jews if the country had been occupied by the Nazis. A few years ago I saw a quasi-documentary on PBS which imagined how Britons would have responded after a successful German invasion. I'd turned the TV on after the program was already half through and remember seeing actors depicting ordinary Britons being armed with weapons and explosivesthe beginnings of a resistance movement. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I don't remember what hypothetical fate awaited English Jews. As a child I remember having a nightmare in which Hitler, looking like the old Kaiser in his "spikey" helmet, was looming over my bed and aiming a bayonet at my chest and waking up terrified.

A year or so after the war I saw the first newsreels of the liberation of the concentration camps: the opening of the cattle cars and gas ovens, the piles of white corpses, thrown in heaps like garbage or dirty laundry, the mass graves; the few remaining, emaciated survivors, like scarecrows, naked or dressed in rags, being supported or carried on stretchers by weeping, ashen-faced British soldiers.

Today all I can remember of what followed was the sheer horror of it all. I was only eleven years old at the time. I sometimes wonder why I was allowed to see this newsreel. Surely my parents were aware I was watching it; they may even have been seated next to me. There may have been other children present. As those hideous black and white images flashed before my eyes, my familiar known world, although far from ideal, was permanently shattered, changing me, and the world as I knew it, for ever. Since those first newsreels, that same, ghastly footage has appeared in countless television and movies. It still has the power to shock me although not with the same terrifying immediacy of that first time.

Other, more personal, memories of the post-war period have become indistinct or have become indistinct or completely forgotten over time. Today, most of what I experienced back then seems inconsequential compared to what I learned, as a young girl, about the fate of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, but back then, as I experienced them, they were important to me.

For many Anglo-Jews, the end of the war also indicated the beginnings of a happier as well as more peaceful era. This was symbolized by re-opening of kosher hotels in seaside resorts on the south coast, by then safe from invasion and cleared of land mines. One of them was the Normandy in Bournemouth, a favorite, pre-war holiday destination. On cold or rainy days, between lunch and tea, we would sit in the lounge overlooking the front.

An indelible memory of my then eleven-year self (presumably similar to that of other food-deprived souls during the war) was the wonderful breakfasts served at that Jewish hotel more than half a lifetime ago, still in existence today. At one breakfast in particular I remember being served fresh scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. During food rationing (described in that other article of mine) eggs were poor, tasteless things familiarly known as dried (re-constituted) eggs. It didn't matter what my mother did with them, to me they always tasted like wet cardboard. At that same memorable breakfast at the Normandy we were also treated to fresh water melon, a fruit that became a favorite of mine. That sumptuous breakfast was in sharp contrast to one served at the Cumberland Hotel in London, where as late as the early 1950s my parents and I were served dried eggs on gold-rimmed china dinner platesas if to distract from or compensate for the miserable fare!

1 Jonathan Kaufman, A Hole in the Heart of the World: Being Jewish in Eastern Europe, Viking Press, 1997


from the January 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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