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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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...'

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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.

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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.

Stop Shooting

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By Sadananda and Alakananda

Stop Shooting

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Stop shooting blacks

Stop shooting Jews

Stop shooting cartoonists

Stop shooting Muslims

Stop shooting Hispanic kids

Stop shooting Mexican migrants

Stop Ukrainians shooting Ukrainians

Stop shooting in Nigeria, CAR, South Sudan,

Stop shooting Sunnis, stop shooting Shia,

Stop shooting Yazidis, stop shooting Christians,

Stop flogging bloggers,

Because black lives matter

Brown lives matter,

Muslim lives matter

All lives matter.

If he doesn't matter, she doesn't matter, they don't matter

Then I don't matter

And neither do you.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.'

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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

Never Forget

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English: The main gate at the former Nazi deat...

"It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.
It's utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more."

- Diary of Ann Frank
July 15, 1944


How do we grieve when there has been no funeral? How do we find peace when the fate of our loved ones remains unknown? How do we remember those we have never known, snatched from us before we were even born? My relatives, Polish Jews, were killed in Auschwitz, leaving me with a lifelong quest to draw some kind of meaning from their death. For at least thirty years, I waited for a letter. Surely someone must have survived and would eventually contact us? My heart refused to believe that all of them were gone, irrevocably. My mind refused to be content without information of their specific fates.

In this complete lack of resolution, I have tasted a drop of the pain that tears at the heart of parents of Iguala's forty three missing students, the pain of survivors of the Boko Haram massacre in Baga, the abiding anguish of the relatives of those who perished in Sbrenica, Bosnia. In the loss of my innocent family for no reason other than their race, I experience a fragment of the pain of parents whose children have been shot because the colour of their skin rendered them objects of suspicion.

In the steadfast and lifelong effort to remember those I never had the chance to know, I find illumination in Ann Frank's words, 'people are truly good at heart'. I will not remember my relatives out of bitterness. I remember them with faith in basic human goodness.

Thirty years ago today, on the fortieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I wrote:
This alone will avenge your blood, which cries to me for vengeance; the conquest of hatred by love, of racism by solidarity and fraternity, of warmonger by peacemaker. At sunrise and sunset, kinsfolk of mine, I will remember you, and offer you the fragrant incense of peace and non-violence. Guided by the flame of anger that burns for you, I pledge myself to venture into the Valley of Shadow, to confront, accept and transform the forces of darkness in the depths of my being, to experience within myself the transmutation of hatred to love, fragmentation to wholeness, conflict to union. Let the genocide perpetuated upon you not be the herald of suicide for humanity. Sisters of Rachel, I take heed. I bear the torch your deaths have kindled, the prophetic wrath of the peacemaker

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Today I can say that I have fulfilled that pledge for these past thirty years. I have honoured my relatives the only way I knew--by love, by peace, by tolerance. I find comfort in the solidarity I feel with those who suffer so much today because of their race, religion, tribe or the colour of their skin. And I still aspire to the courage and faith expressed by an unknown Ravensbruck victim.

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all of the suffering they have inflicted upon us: Instead remember the fruits we have borne because of this suffering, our fellowship, our loyalty to one another, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble. When our persecutors come to be judged by you, let all of these fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.

The survivors of the Holocaust are leaving us one by one.
Their message must live on--the message of generosity and greatness of heart. The message that we are all one humanity on one earth, and whatever befalls one of us befalls us all. The message that I am my bother's and my sister's keeper, whatever their race, colour or creed.

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The Prophets Weep

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Muhammed: Ottoman Miniature.

Prophet Muhammad one day took a nap among us and woke up laughing. We asked him: O Messenger of Allah, why did you smile? The Prophet said: A Surah was revealed to me before. Then he read out :"In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful: Verily, We have granted you, O Muhammad, AlKauthar"...... Do you know what AlKauthar is?..... It is a river in Paradise Allah pledged to give me. It is full of everything good and my Ummah will aim at it on the Day of Resurrection. Its cups are as many as stars.

In their beauteous abode in Paradise, the Prophets are weeping. They weep a river of tears, as copious as AlKauthar. Isa and Muhammad, peace and blessings upon them, are not weeping because people have ridiculed them. Prophet Isa taught us that all prophets are ridiculed and maligned for their message.

No, the Prophets do not weep for the actions of unbelievers. They weep for the betrayals by believers. They weep for those who forgot that Allah is mercy and compassion without limit. They weep for those who do not listen when they say, "How can you love the God you do not see, if you cannot love the brother you see?"

The prophets weep for the death of innocents--even irreverent innocents. The prophets weep over those who are killed and maimed in the name of religion--and they weep too over those who kill and maim in their names.

The prophets weep when those who claim to follow them abuse and enslave women. To them all women are their radiant mothers, Maryam and Amina.

The prophets weep for girls stolen from their families.
The prophets weep for the blood of children spilled in Peshawar.
The prophets weep for their beloved ones, the Yazidi, the first to welcome Isa to the world.
The prophets weep for fathers shoveling snow off flimsy tents and refugee children shivering without shoes in the winter night.
The prophets weep for families huddled in the bowels of rusty vessels, upon the beautiful sea that once carried the preachers of the living word.

The prophets weep because they are hungry, they are cold, they are naked, they are in prison, they are bleeding, they are bereaved. For whatever we do to the little ones, we do to them. Whatever we withhold from the little ones, we withhold from them.

The prophets weep because their followers forget this.
The prophets weep for us--because we too forget.

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Muhammad, Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer in Paradise.

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Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: The Three Wise Men" (named Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar). Detail from: "Mary and Child, surrounded by angels", mosaic of a Ravennate italian-byzantine workshop, completed within 526 AD by the so-called "Master of Sant'Apollinare". (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, January 6th, is the Feast of the Epiphany. As children we loved this day, getting the last sugar mice, chocolate money and little gifts from the Christmas tree. We enjoyed the final embers of the yule log as we sang favourite carols like,

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

According to the story related in the Gospel of Matthew, Magi or wise men traveled to Bethlehem for the sole purpose of presenting gifts to Baby Jesus. It remains unclear whether this incident was an actual historical occurrence. But it is a story of great significance that has captured the human imagination for two millennia.

The Roman author Tertullian was the first to refer to the unspecified number of wise men as 'three kings'. Over time the legend grew. Much of the story as told today is found in
the History of the Three Kings, attributed to the fourteenth-century cleric John of Hildesheim. Originally, the visitors from afar were portrayed not as kings but as Magi. Some think these Magi were Persian Zoroastrian fire worshipers. However, it seems even more likely that the Magi were from Mesopotamia, present day Iraq. So it could be fair to say that Iraq's unique pre-Christian minorities, such as the Yazidi, are the real Magi.

Epiphany means the shining forth. Three incidents, the adoration of the Magi, the Baptism by John in the River Jordan and turning the water into wine at Cana are seen as the Epiphanies, in which the divine nature shone forth amid humble human circumstances. In the case of the Magi, the manifestation of divinity is evoked by generosity. The Magi bring the most precious items of the known world and bestow them as gifts to a little child who they will never see again and who has nothing tangible to give back. By this act of generosity, divinity reveals itself in human form. There is a deep message here: generosity unveils divinity. When we give of our time, effort and treasure, the very act of giving opens us to the divine humanity and the human divinity. The timeless manifests within time, and infinite love reveals itself in our little lives.

Today, the Yazidi descendents of the Magi are suffering unimaginable horrors. As I recall the beauty and warmth of my childhood Epiphany celebrations, I think too of the children of the Magi, cold and hungry, bereaved and forlorn in poorly equipped camps. Compared to them, we are richer than kings. I invite us to pray for the real Magi, holders of a four thousand year old wisdom tradition. Speak out on their behalf, donate to charities that support Iraqi refugees and keep them in your heart.

This New Year, may you experience the power of generosity and the epiphanies that giving brings!

Adoration of the Magi by Fra Angelico and Fili...

Adoration of the Magi by Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)









26th December 2014

Once to ev'ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Off'ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
'Twixt that darkness and that light.

James Russell Lowell

Greetings dear ones,

Yesterday we celebrated a remarkable centenary--the Christmas Truce which arose spontaneously in the first winter of World War I. The so called Great War was a defining experience for my grandparent's generation, leading some to cynicism and despair and others, like my grandfather, to a thirst for justice, a burning need to set things right.

A cross, left near Ieper in Belgium in 1999, t...

A cross, left near Saint-Yves in Belgium in 1999, to celebrate the site of the Christmas Truce during the First World War in 1914. The text reads: 1914 - The Khaki Chum's Christmas Truce - 1999 - 85 Years - Lest We Forget. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, in 2015 we will celebrate seventy years since the ending of World War II. For my parent's generation, the Second World War was the defining experience that shaped their adolescence. The war gave my mother a country experience as an evacuee in Somerset, living a life very different from her inner London childhood. My father contracted tuberculosis, apparently from sleeping in the London Underground side by side with strangers during the Blitz. And my adopted Uncle Henry, a kindertransport refugee, lost his mother and father in Bergen-Belsen. My parents came out of their wartime youth determined to create a peaceful and just society.

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Frank Meisler Kindertransport memorial (2006) stands outside Liverpool Street Station. Kindertransport (Children's Transport) was the informal name of a series of rescue efforts which brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to Great Britain from Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1940.

Fifty years ago, young Americans like Sadananda faced the prospect that yet another generation of young men was being wasted in war--a pointless and unjust war. Vietnam became the defining experience for the youth of the sixties. Draft resistance and antiwar protests, along with the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle to end segregation coincided with the discovery of LSD and the call to 'tune in, turn on and drop out'. These synchronous events gave birth to a transformative social and cultural movement--the hippie revolution.

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Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to an anti-Vietnam war rally at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul on April 27, 1967

Meanwhile, growing up in a small town in England, I experienced not war, but peace as a defining moment. Coventry Cathedral, firebombed by the Luftwaffe in 1940, rose again from the ashes as a twentieth century architectural masterpiece. I remember visiting the new cathedral with my parents it shortly after its consecration in 1962. Nationwide, something still more remarkable was happening. From the misery and squalor endured in the interwar years, from the ashes of the war and from the dying embers of an Empire, something new was being born--a Welfare State that provided cradle to grave healthcare and support for its citizens. "Each for all and all for each" was the mantra of this bloodless revolution. The intention was to create a society of unity, community, caring and sharing, a nation defined by the understanding that I am my brother's and my sister's keeper.

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Coventry Catherdral: Baptistry Font & Window

For want of a better word, let me say that I am a child of the Caring Revolution. I am a product of the caring and sharing society. I was reared by parents who believed in this new vision and worked for it. As a sixth-former (analogous to high school student) I attended seminars training teenagers to be the co-creators of the caring society. And as an NHS doctor (employed by the National Health Service) I worked as a public servant. The caring society has shaped who I am and how I see the world.

To every revolution there is a counter-revolution. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, neo-liberalism--by which the market runs the state--and trickle-down economics formed the counter-revolution to both the hippie revolution and Britain's caring revolution. In America, the wealth gap grew ever greater. In Britain, individualism replaced community and a mandate for selfishness took the place of a call to caring. Instead of "Each for all and all for each" the new mantra was "I got mine, you get yours."

Meanwhile, the year that Ronald Reagan was elected, an English former NHS doctor and an American former hippie met beneath the coconut palms on the shores of the Kaveri River in South India. Alakananda's deeply felt experience of the caring society met Sadananda's hippie Utopian ideals--and a vision was born. For twenty-five years we have been living our vision of community, caring and sharing here at Alandi Ashram in Boulder. From making chutneys for our neighbours to sharing our small abode with a homeless pregnant woman, bringing love and cheer to nursing home residents or attempting to start a Food Co-op in Boulder, we have done what we can in small and bigger ways to foster a sense of caring amid a society of rugged individualism, alienation and a growing wealth gap.

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O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry.
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.

GK Chesterton, 1906

Today again we face a defining moment. There is a new world war, one fought in many theatres and under many titles. The enemy facing us as a species is the mutually exacerbating conjunction of global climate change, environmental degradation, hunger, displacement and the trend towards corpocracy. A term coined by David Mitchell in his novel Cloud Atlas, corpocracy--absolute rule by a vast corporation--is the final apotheosis of neo-liberal economics and corporate personhood. The misery caused by these invisible enemies leads many of us to scapegoat visible enemies in the form of people of another race, colour, ethnicity or religion. My Uncle Henry could tell us where such scapegoating of the other leads. ISIL, Al Quaeda, Taliban, Klu Klux Klan, Boko Haram, Al Shebab, National Front, UKIP, Golden Dawn, Freedom Party, Neo-Nazi--all these extremist, jihadist and racist groups and parties are the voices crying out in the wilderness of a planet undergoing degradation and a species in danger of losing its soul. We must indeed be radicalized--and this letter comes in full intention of radicalization. If we are not to splinter into endless war and terrorism between competing extremist groups--as is already the case in Syria--we must be radicalized to global humanitarianism and passionate care for our environment.

This summer, while in the UK, Sadananda and I watched Ken Loach's documentary Spirit of '45, about Britain's caring revolution. The final message of the film was a mandate to us, the elders, to talk to youth about creating a caring society. We did it once and we can do it again. For those who have never experienced a caring society, this may be a hard message to convey. I have lived it, and understand its importance. At this hour of global crisis, we need to create a caring world, knowing that I am my brother's and my sister's keeper, wherever in the world they live. I am the keeper of all species and steward of our beautiful Earth. As human family, we must stand "Each for all and all for each." Let it begin right here, at the dawn of 2015. Let it begin with me, with you, with us, the Alandi family.

wishing each of you a joyous New Year

with my love and blessings always

Alakananda Ma

Earth from Space

Earth from Space (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alandi Ashram's candlelight vigil for the children of Peshawar was held on Monday 22nd December, the seventh night of Hanukkah. We chanted 108 mahamritunjaya mantras and also shantadurga mantras. It was a deeply moving event.

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A hundred and forty five candles
Each a mother birthing in pain and hope
A child reared with love and care
Each a youth full of promise
Each a pool of blood on schoolroom floor
A wooden coffin
Each the tears of fathers, mothers,
Siblings, cousins, grandparents
Each a family rent with sorrow,
A city, a nation, bereaved.
And above them all
The menorah
Speaking of truth that conquers falsehood
Light in darkness
Life triumphant over death
Hope in desolation.
Shalom, salaam, Shantih.

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