I started transcribing oral history recordings at the Somerset Rural Life Museum in 1992 and have been enjoying the work ever since. I always feel privileged to hear the person’s voice talking about their life and, for a short time, to have a window into their world. At the beginning there was a considerable backlog of tapes awaiting transcription and one or two of the interviewees, who were very old, had been born in the last decade of the 19th century. A truly memorable one was a retired farmer, Sidney White, who was interviewed by Ann Heeley three times when he was in an old people’s home in Somerton. Sidney could remember, as a young boy, seeing a motor car passing his school with a man walking in front carrying a red flag. It must have been one of the first in Somerset, and to hear this was an incredible link with the past.

But in 2009 I embarked on a quite different transcribing venture. A friend who is half Jewish and half Cornish had discovered and researched the little-known story of the evacuation in 1940 of a large number of Jewish children from the East End of London to the little fishing village of Mousehole in the far west of Cornwall. Most of the children attended the Jews Free School, an old-established school and one of the largest in the country. My friend managed to locate about thirty of the evacuees and almost as many people still living in Mousehole and west Cornwall who were children themselves at the time of the evacuation. She recorded the memories of most of them, and made notes of several others. This is where I came in.

For many of these children it was their second evacuation; at the outbreak of war they had been sent with their schools to various villages in Cambridgeshire and for some of them it had proved an unhappy experience. Because the expected bombing of London and other large cities did not happen for nearly a year, a large number of all evacuees drifted back home but, after the fall of France, it became clear that this situation would not continue, and parents were urged to re-evacuate their children.

Against all the odds the Mousehole evacuation proved to be a great success and nearly all the interviewees have the fondest memories of their time there. Many of them lived in very poor circumstances in tenements and few had seen the sea or the countryside. They had arrived completely exhausted and bewildered after a seemingly endless journey, but they woke up next morning to the sight of the sparkling sea, the harbour, the beaches, St. Clement’s Isle and distant St. Michael’s Mount. As several of them said, it was pure magic.

Mousehole, in common with most villages in Cornwall, is strongly Methodist and social life revolved around the two chapels there. Although the Jewish teachers who accompanied the children tried to arrange for Jewish services on the Sabbath and for lessons in Hebrew to continue, most of evacuees went regularly to chapel with their host families, often twice a day, and also to Sunday school. Their teachers understood that it would be difficult to leave young children alone during these periods but when they found that some of them had been going carol-singing with the local children at Christmas, they insisted that a line had to be drawn! But none of them experienced any anti-Semitism; as the villagers said, they were just children like us, in need of love and care.

Speaking of the effect of the evacuation on their lives nearly seventy years afterwards, nearly all the interviewees felt that it had made a huge impression on them. It showed them that there was a completely different world from the one they knew and that people of other religions to their own could exist happily together and become lasting friends. The Mousehole interviewees who had been children at the time felt the same way and many said it made them realise how fortunate they were to live in a beautiful place where they had almost unlimited freedom. There will be a reunion of evacuees and villagers in Mousehole on June 13th, 2010, seventy years to the day that this momentous event in all their lives happened.

But for my friend the most poignant aspect of her research was that while these Jewish children were travelling westwards away from danger to safety, her own aunt and grandparents who lived in Paris, were soon to go on a journey eastwards – to Auschwitz and death.

Mary Vidal

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