Dad and the Jew-baiters
My dad was born in 1921. During the Second World War, which broke out just before his eighteenth birthday, he was a conscientious objector, one of a group of men who believed that killing others was wrong and that no one should take up arms against other human beings.
It was not an easy position to adopt; during the First World War there had been executions and imprisonment and, among the general population there was a deal of resentment, especially from families whose sons had joined the armed forces and were at risk. Cowardice and shirking one’s duty to king and country were widely and very publicly condemned.
Dad did not talk very much about the war, like his best friend, who was to become his brother-in-law after wartime service in the Parachute Regiment. What I did learn as a child was that Dad had joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and driven ambulances in East London during the blitz. Later he served with the Forestry Commission following the discovery that he was a carrier of diphtheria and had to keep away from hospitals.
It was my mother who told me about an incident involving him before he left school. It would probably have taken place in 1937 when numbers of Jewish refugee children were arriving in Britain from Germany. They were sent by their parents who were only too aware of the way things were going in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the beginning of what we now call The Holocaust. Some adults managed to get out of Germany, but for fathers and older brothers departure was increasingly difficult as tensions in Europe increased and the outbreak of war drew closer.
School places had to be found for the Jewish children who arrived from Germany and some had arrived at Dad’s school, in Wanstead, in an area where there was already a Jewish community. They spoke broken English with German accents and so they were easily picked out. In later years one of these children explained how he had travelled with his mother on London buses at this time. She had made it very clear to him that he was not to speak to her when other passengers might hear them, such was their fear of being picked out as Jewish refugees from Germany.
On this occasion, Dad would have been about sixteen at the time, he had arrived out on the school’s playing field to find four of his classmates surrounding a refugee boy. It was no coincidence that they were there, away from the classrooms, away from observation by the teachers. They were taunting this poor boy who had to flee from his home and his family, not knowing now what might happen to them. Now these boys were mocking him, whether because he was German, or because he was a Jew, I do not know. Dad said nothing: it was obvious what the four bullies were doing and in seconds my father had turned on them and flattened them. There had been no need to question what they were doing, or why they were doing it; Dad saw four bullies and dealt with them.
I don’t think I would have been a conscientious objector. It was nothing that I was ever able to discuss with my dad so I was pleased, after his death, to hear about this episode in his life from my mother. I never, ever thought of him as a coward, and, had we ever been able to discuss his refusal to join the armed services, one of my first questions would have been to do with bullies and how we protect others.
If you are interested you will find an excellent and amusing account of life in Britain for one Jewish refugee in “Wolfy and the Strudelbakers” by Zvi Jagendorf. pub Dewi Lewis 2001. ISBN 1-899235-38-8
What could make life difficult for conscientious objectors during the Second World War?
How does the writer indicate that the four bullies had intended to turn on the refugee?
Do you think that violence should be used against bullies? Can you explain why?