Past and present, some personal reflections – your influence on my life
Extract from Journal of the ’45 Aid Society, Issue no. 24, Autumn 2000.
Born in London in 1924 and still living here today, Barbara Barnett was evacuated to Canada during the war. When she came back to London she trained as a social worker specialising in child welfare on a course taught by Donald Winnicott, one of the leading members of the British Psychoanalytical Society. In December 1946 Barbara was invited as a volunteer to socialise with a group of young survivors who had just arrived at their temporary shelter in London. In this article addressed to The Boys, Barbara describes to them her memories from these early days.
My first knowledge of your existence was in the winter of 1946. Someone … approached me at Lauderdale Road Synagogue and asked if I would visit young survivors of the Camps who had just reached London… I was an undergraduate on a Social Science course at LSE. What had I had to offer? I visited the shelter together with my then friend, Richard Barnett… That decision had a profound impact on the rest of our lives.
We learned some facts: that the British government had agreed to offer 1,000 child survivors under 16 years old, temporary visas to the UK. The proviso was that the Jewish community took full responsibility for them until they were rehabilitated overseas, and ensured that none became a financial liability on the state. The Jewish Refugee Committee had accepted this undertaking and then set up the CCC, the Committee for the Care of Children from the Camps, with Leonard Montefiore in the chair. No one more caring, capable and discerning could have been selected for that sensitive position.
Richard and I introduced ourselves at the Jews’ Temporary Shelter in the East End of London. There we met the boys in one dormitory and the girls in another, the rooms crammed with beds separated by small lockers. It was strangely quiet, the only sound occasional humming or snatches of song. We went round shaking hands in an attempt to make some contact. The language barrier was formidable and Richard decided it would be unacceptable to you to speak in German.
You were all teenagers, mostly from that part of Hungary that had been Czechoslovakia. You had chosen to come here as a first step to aliyah – or to joining relatives elsewhere. You spent your first few months at the shelter in Mansell Street… We were told you needed help and encouragement in learning the language, introductions to local Jewish families and guidance in adapting to living in London. We were at a loss. How could we get to know you when there seemed no point of contact? ...There were no Zionist Youth Groups in our community. Slowly some information had reached us … about the concentration camps but only after D-Day came the ghastly reports of the findings by Allied forces.
Once you… had mastered some English - and how rapidly you did so – Richard invited a few at a time to spend an evening drawing and painting at his flat… I produced refreshments, but they must have been very simple as we still had strict rationing. We never knew who would turn up on these occasions as it took some time before you trusted us.
The next stage found you reaching major decisions. The CBF counsellors worked with you, one by one to discover your ambitions and lead you through what options they could find; to study and make up for lost schooling, to learn a trade, or to find a job. There were limits. The British economy had been drained by the war and you were competing for work and training alongside ex-servicemen. Many of you were disappointed with what was available… Arthur Poznanski had a rough time, Richard helped him find more congenial work; they came together… through their enjoyment of music.
As decisions were reached, lodgings were sought for each of you, usually a room in a private house with a Jewish landlady. This meant you would be isolated, living alone, or sometimes with a friend, and losing the firm support and deep-rooted solidarity that had built up with the others. No one else could be expected to understand what you had been through or what your life once was. So the Primrose Club was established in Belsize Park to provide a meeting place and a social centre. It proved a brilliant idea that was developed by Yogi Mayer, the very experienced and indefatigable leader, to become an outstanding success. You flocked there from your widely scattered digs. Every evening offered a growing variety of activities; there was a canteen and a small hostel… you excelled in sports. At interclub competitions the Primrose teams became famous.
We came to meet you there. Richard brought records and introduced musical appreciation sessions. These became very popular. For some it was a first discovery of classical music …while for others powerful memories were evoked of music enjoyed in their childhood homes before all hell was let loose. Through art and music, people can find expression without any language barrier. Once that barrier disappeared I had added weekly play-reading and later on performances at St Peter’s Church in Belsize Square. Do you remember Chaim Liss as the leading man? Hugo Gryn took part too... Nowadays art, music and drama are recognized as valued outlets for self-expression – we didn’t know that then.
Eventually Richard and I married… and made our own home in Belsize Park, we were able to welcome a few of you there often to share our Friday evenings. A few names and a few occasions I remember well, but I plead with those people and happenings omitted here to accept my apologies and know I have warm feelings for you all. So many of you I continued to meet at ’45 Aid Society gatherings and lectures and other occasions are familiar from those early days, like Michael Etkind, Roman Halter, Jerry Herzberg and Kopel Kendall… Abe Herman dropped in quite often… he would play the piano, share a meal … and advise us on how to renovate our house.
Richard …became the Chair of the Primrose Club Management Committee. Their meetings were in our house. Then came a blow; the lease expired on the Belsize Park properties. The CBF said the club would be closed. The CCC’s function in rehabilitating your group was reaching an end, for most of you were nearing independence… But Richard was adamant the club must stay open - it was The Boys’ sole meeting place. There you provided each other with mutual support unavailable elsewhere. So he was to it that the club continued to function on a part-time basis at St Peter’s Hall till a new plan was made. Eventually the Finchley Road premises were taken on and the club was again a flourishing concern. Local youngsters were keen to join. The new leaders were Sol and Thelma Marcus for, by then, Yogi Mayer had moved on to the Brady Club. He knew you could now manage your own lives. With his great wisdom, sensitivity and understanding he had played a major part in your personal development.
A fresh chapter was written when as adults by then, you founded the ’45 Aid Society – with Ben at the helm as he has been ever since… You created a self-help group for mutual assistance among you, now young adults, struggling to maintain your independence, coping with numerous ups and downs at work, with difficult landladies, with personal relationships. Some would say this was a normal picture. The huge difference was you had no family to fall back on as had your British contemporaries. But you had – and continue to have - the ’45 Aid Society as your family. Inevitably as in every family, there have been, and still are, squabbles and disagreements and sibling rivalry.
There came a time, after most of you were married, when you had stable jobs, businesses and careers and reached a more settled period. Your partners were then, and are now, a great strength, and marvellous support. Those who had had no wartime experience akin to yours quickly learned that any demands from The Boys took precedence over theirs - that loyalty and solidarity among The Boys was paramount.
As you matured, so too did the ’45 Aid Society. Suddenly (or so it seemed to me) a role reversal took place. You were contributing, and generously, to charities in Britain and Israel – while always retaining responsibility and concern for each other… Ben and others have been in the forefront of negotiations for reparations and in numerous other educational and memorial activities… Special mention must be made of the garden dedicated to the Six Million in Hyde Park, your support for Beth Shalom, that very special memorial, and the development of the new Imperial War Museum exhibition.
The greatest pride of all, the true measure of your accomplishments, lies surely in the achievements of your children. It is overtly evident how you have led them to take full advantage of educational opportunities and career openings and provided every encouragement to do so – along avenues you were denied but dearly wished to enter. Their levels of success speak for you … many of your children, far more than in their peer group, are actively concerned with human rights issues… your generation has entrusted them to keep alive knowledge of what the Nazi machine attempted to do, how far it went, the atrocities that were committed that took six draining years by the Allies to extinguish. It is a heavy commitment.
I feel privileged to have been a member of your society and to have shared some of your joys and sorrows. Your strengths and achievements provide living evidence to the rest of us that good can triumph over evil.