My mother, the refugee
By: john Symon – mtltimes.ca
The news reports are awash with stories of brave refugees, often from war-torn Syria, making risky crossings in small boats, hoping to find some safe haven. Some of what the Syrian refugees are going through sounds very familiar; my own mother was a refugee (she prefers the term “evacuee”) who came to North America from war-torn Europe.
My mother was an 10-year-old English school girl when France surrendered to Adolph Hitler’s Nazis. This followed on the heels of Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg falling. Britain then stood alone against Hitler and there was panic that the Nazis would next try crossing the English Channel. It was hastily decided to evacuate many British school children to safety across the seas.
“We kids didn’t realize importance of the occasion; we certainly had no say in it,” as my mother puts it. “We had to leave on short notice with very little luggage. We set sail from Liverpool in July, 1940 only a few hours after the city was bombed.. About 100 children from my school were packed into primitive quarters, four bunks to a room, all below water line.”
“The scariest thing was when a torpedo hit our ship in mid-Atlantic, but miraculously didn’t explode. The crew at first pretended that it was a big wave that rocked the ship and only told us later what really happened. All children had to wear silver bracelets inscribed with their names and I think we had to wear life belts whenever we were on deck.”
“A week after setting sail from England, the ship pulled up to a berth in Quebec City where a contingent of soldiers was waiting to board. They were singing ‘Roll out the barrels.’ While in Montreal, we discovered a bureaucratic mix-up: the host families supposedly waiting for us in Toronto were no longer available. We then boarded a train and headed south to Connecticut where other host families had been hastily found.”
Overall the evacuee experience for my mother was a very good one. She attended school, and learned how to swim and ride a bicycle. Today she still corresponds with friends she made during that time.
In 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was almost alone in predicting that Hitler would not risk invading England. If the Nazis had landed on English beaches, they likely would have taken a terrific beating. And this would have shattered the myth of German invincibility that Hitler was so carefully crafting. Meanwhile, in British skies, heroic Spitfire pilots made things difficult for the German air force. By the end of 1941, both Russia and the USA joined Britain as allies; the tide of the war soon changed.
Ironically, the German air force never bombed my mother’s hometown; it even became a domestic safe haven for other British school children to go to to escape the bombings. But in the darkest days of 1940, it’s easy to understand why there was mass panic.
Welcome to Canada, refugees! Please realize that many Canadians are descendants of refugees from times gone by…