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Feb 2011 Journal

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Business as usual

‘Got your gas mask? Got your torchlight?’ was no longer a joke in September 1940. The ‘phoney war’ was over. At the time, I shared a room with my Aunt Ida in Sutherland Avenue in west London. My aunt worked as a finisher in the rag trade; I kept books in Roehampton in the private home of the managing director, in the accounts department of an insurance company most of which had already been evacuated to Maidenhead.

We had got so used to false alarms that the first time the air raid warning meant real bombs came as a great shock. Night after night when the alarm sounded we, together with the other tenants - some Jewish refugees like us, some English - took ourselves to the improvised shelter in the basement and stayed there until the ‘all clear’ siren told us the raid was over. My aunt always took a small case of her children’s photographs with her. (Both her children were safe, one in Switzerland, the other in Australia.) Sometimes the boyfriend of a Jewish refugee girl - a tall, handsome, well-educated Indian - joined us. Two English spinster sisters recoiled in horror. We, the refugees, were Jewish. Not good. We were also foreign. Possibly worse. But at least we had the grace to be white. To be coloured, however, was inexcusable. Every time this most presentable young man was with us the virgin ladies sat, tight-lipped, exuding genteel distaste, pointedly ignoring him.

When it became clear that these improvised shelters provided little or no protection against direct hits we, like many others, tried the nearest underground station but didn’t much like it. So we reverted to ‘our’ shelter, if only for the companionship it offered. Sometimes we just went to bed trying to get some sleep during a raid - not easy with the din caused by planes, anti-aircraft gunfire and exploding bombs - prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best.

In the morning my aunt went to her workshop somewhere in the West End and I set off on my long journey to Roehampton by tube and bus. Everything seemed so normal. Trains and buses ran according to schedule, people reported for work, and indeed everywhere, among the craters and the wreckage, it was ‘business as usual’, sometimes proclaimed in chalk on boarded-up windows.

One night, the house next to ours was hit by an incendiary bomb. We, and everyone else in the neighbourhood, were evacuated and put up in a community centre, where we spent the rest of the night. The atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed; there was friendly banter, and some people even cracked jokes. In the morning we were allowed to return ‘home’.

To celebrate my 21st birthday, a Young Turk - actually a Czech - took me to tea at Liberty’s, the height of luxury and sophistication. A Lyons Corner House was more like it.

The nightly bombing went on and on, right until May 1941, and I was in London throughout it. Yet, 70 years on, I remember very little of the terror and the devastation and practically nothing of the inconvenience of blackout and food rationing - at that time, ‘only’ meat, bacon, butter, sugar and tea were rationed.

In fact - dare I say it? - I remember the Blitz with some nostalgia. All that has been said and written about the British during that period is, in my experience, true. When I witnessed people’s stoicism and courage and sense of humour in defiance of Hitler’s determination to break their spirit, I felt proud, almost privileged, to live in London - among the English - at that time. Also, I was fully aware of the fact that here I shared the fate of millions as an equal (fortunately I was the right colour) - and not, as I would have done in Austria, as an Untermensch.

Edith Argy

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