lady painting

 

Mar 2002 Journal

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A child refugee in England

Many who came to England on the Kindertransport have horror stories to tell of winters spent in cold chalets or of being treated as servants by the host family. Theirs are not emotions 'recollected in tranquillity' but are of a bitterness which seems to include all British Jews who fostered children. I don't doubt the reality of their stories, but I feel it's only fair to explain that my experiences were rather different.

Of course, like most of the others, I suffered the traumas of separation (at nine years old) from my parents, whom I never saw again, having to learn a new language fast, and adapting to the total strangers who had come into my life, as well as the impact of a long war. But what I did have was the comforting presence of the childless Jewish couple who had agreed to foster me. They were not ideal parents. Though a poorly educated couple with a restricted knowledge of the world, they had a shrewd eye for the basics and a kindness which enabled them to see me through school and university without any financial reward other than the share of my scholarship grant which I gave them for my board and lodging.

My strongest memories of my foster mother - I called her 'auntie' - are connected with her cooking. Her kitchen was small and poorly equipped by modern standards and all it housed was a sink with a cold tap, a table and chairs, a large 'easiwork' cupboard and a cooker islanded behind the door with never a work surface near. In a passage outside the kitchen was a safe where perishable foods were kept, and for most of the year the temperature in that spot would have given points to a refrigerator. In summer a tiled well in the cellar provided some additional coolness. There was also a living room, but this was a misnomer. Its solid mahogany table and hide three-piece suite were only pressed into service when we had visitors. The kitchen was the place where we lived and had our being.

I associate coming home from school on Friday with steamy windows and the smell of chicken soup, its flavour mingling with the carrot and onion and a leafy vegetable called 'soup greens'. My job was to sew up the neck of the chicken, which had been stuffed with flour, pepper and fat to give a gritty texture. At other times there would be blood-red borsht with a few potatoes to take the edge off a sharp appetite.

Another familiar sight was a basin covered with a cloth which would be removed reverently from time to time and the contents inspected. Inside the basin was the dough for one of auntie's renowned yeast cakes, left to double its bulk in a warm corner. There were also things preserved and pickled such as cucumbers, sour and garlicky, an excellent foil to fresh rye bread and a good spread of butter (we hadn't heard of cholesterol then), elderberry wine and cherry brandy. Outside, the world was tearing itself apart, but in auntie's kitchen were sweet and savoury foods to tempt the palate and lift the spirits.
Martha Blend

previous article:Combating the 'Big Silence': Hitler and the man-in-the-street
next article:The ultimate conspiracy