Friday, May 21, 2010

The following article appeared in Mature Times on 21 May 2005:

Many children found that evacuation to a safer place in the war meant travelling thousands of miles to another continent. Michael Henderson’s has written the moving story of British Evacuees who went to North America in World War II in his book “See you after the duration”.

In 1940 when it looked as if Britain was going to be invaded thousands of American families – and Canadian families too - offered refuge to British children for the duration of the war.

The staff at companies like Hoover and Kodak and universities like Yale and Swarthmore took in the children of their counterparts in Britain.

I have been in touch with nearly a hundred of those ‘children’. Most of my correspondents enjoyed their enforced years of exile but even those whose experience was less fortunate, who may even feel scarred for life by the family separations, speak highly of the generosity of their host countries.
My brother Gerald and I spent five years with a family in Boston. Our hosts would certainly not have envisaged that their offer would involve five years of care any more than our parents would have thought that they were saying goodbye to us for so long. ‘See you after the duration,’ this 8-year-old called out as we set off.

Indeed, for many it was more adventure than trauma. After all, what an excitement for an 8-year-old to travel in a liner in a convoy escorted by a battleship and destroyers and to return in an aircraft carrier. We also at a tender age thought we were ambassadors.

Indeed it was the return to Britain, often greetings parents we didn’t recognize, that caused the greater upheaval. My brother and I would often respond to our parents, ‘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, Baroness Williams, says she enjoyed what she calls “freedoms I had never enjoyed in England” and felt her years in the US gave her a sense of promise of a ‘new world where everything is possible’. Likewise Eric Hammond, who became General Secretary of the EEPTU, the electricians union, and spent the war in Canada was delighted to find you didn’t have to accept Britain’s supposedly insurmountable class barriers.

More than 200,000 children were signed up for overseas evacuation, not only to North America but also to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The evacuation ended abruptly with the death of 77 children in the sinking of The City of Benares.

Friendships formed during the “duration” have stood the test of time. We have just had staying with us the granddaughter of the family we lived with. She is in turn a grandmother.  So it is five generations of an American family, with whom we had no touch prior to 1940, who help us keep those trans-Atlantic links. A report by the committee that brought many of the children to the United States described the experience as “an applied lesson in international understanding”.

Read article online here