Thursday, December 28, 2006

An article by Michael Henderson on ‘The role of patriotism in sustaining the evacuees to North America in World War II’ appeared in December 2006
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The following commentary was sent out to the American press by Religion News Service (New York) in May 2005, by Michael Henderson

As we mark the 60th anniversary of the ending of World War II, may I, as an Englishman, express gratitude to the American people. Not only for what you did to preserve freedom in the world but for a less well recognized example of American generosity.

Sixty years ago this month (May) my brother Gerald and I returned to Britain after having spent five years with a family in Boston unknown to us when the war started. We were two of some 3,000 Brits who, in 1940, when it looked as if Britain was going to be invaded by Hitler, were offered refuge in the United States "for the duration of the war." A poll at the time indicated that several million American families were willing to take British children. Thousands more children were signed up to come. The sinking of The City of Benares, with 77 children killed, however, brought the evacuation to an end.

What might seem traumatic, the separation from parents, was, for the two of us, not only the start of a transatlantic adventure but also the impetus for a spiritual journey as well.

"See you after the duration," this 8-year-old called out as we set off for America. Little did parents realize that they were sending their children away for so long; nor did American hosts have any idea their hospitality would be so extended. But young children were oblivious to such considerations. What an excitement to cross the Atlantic in a liner in a convoy escorted by a battleship and destroyers and to return on an aircraft carrier. And to sit on our bunks playing 'battleships'. For all of us it was the adventure of our lives, many of us sustained by a sense of patriotism.

Most evacuees enjoyed their enforced exile but even those who were unhappy speak of the generosity of their host country. They may sometimes disagree with American policies but they do not lapse into mindless anti-Americanism.

It was the return to Britain that caused greater upheaval. Many found it difficult to recognize their parents -- and parents their children. It was hard to live into the minds of parents who had survived the 'blitz' and jumped at any loud sounds. My brother and I often responded to parents' admonitions with, "We don't do it that way in America. We don't do this, we don't do that. ..." So much so that America became known in our family as "We-land."

Our presence in the United States may have helped Americans to appreciate the reality of the war in Europe. It certainly gave us insights into possibilities undreamed of. Shirley Williams, for instance, a political leader and one of a number of evacuees prominent in British life, felt her years in the U.S. gave her a sense of promise of a "new world where everything is possible," which drove her into politics.

Friendships formed during the "duration" have stood the test of time. We have just had staying with us a granddaughter of the family we lived with. She is a grandmother. So it is with five generations of an American family we keep those trans-Atlantic links. A report by the committee that brought many children to the United States described the experience as "an applied lesson in international understanding."

In 1947, concerned about family divisions, we went to the center of reconciliation in Caux, Switzerland. This had been created to heal divisions between wartime combatants. In the framework of thousands finding an end to hates and hurts, we came closer together. Through honesty with each other about ourselves, the barriers were demolished. Our father discovered a new attitude to the people of Africa where he did business while our Irish mother through apology built bridges with Irish Catholics to whom our family had been indifferent. Together we found a way to make real our Christian faith and to relate it to the world's needs.

So the uprooting in World War II, difficult as it was, became the source of a love for America and a springboard to a life of Christian service.