During World War Two, parents with children in London sent their children to the countryside of Great Britain to live with strangers while not knowing with whom they’d be placed, nor whether they would, indeed, ever see them again.
They packed their children’s little suitcases with hairbrushes, toothbrushes, the favorite stuffed animals to comfortingly clutch at night, clothes, shoes, beloved books, any medicines needed and, then, turned them over to social workers at the London train station to be whisked away with a name tag roped around the neck of every child as a necklace of identity.
Then at each station stop out in the countryside, enough were let off to waiting adults willing to take them into their homes, tend to them at bath times, tuck them in bed night after night after making sure that their teeth were brushed, do their laundry, comfort and cuddle them since they’d be scared and severely miss their parents, feed them, take them to schools where there would, obviously be an overpopulation problem given the amount of space, teachers and basic supplies like paper and pencils, and so on with so many new youngsters on the school scene. … Obviously, though, they couldn’t stay in an increasingly bombed out London. … So each train ran on schedule, one after another, with ever smaller numbers of children on them as every load of youngsters were further dropped off at each town out in the countryside and ever farther away from London until the last child was dropped off.
Then the trains went back to London so that the process could start all over again. What other way forward was there given the extreme war conditions?
Of course, many of the Germans had the same problem as their towns and cities, too, were being bombed to smithereens, such as Dresden turned to utter rubble. So the Germans had to be creative, too, to protect their children.
I met one, a German Quaker from a pacifist family, and here’s her story:
Her parents, living in a major German city, decided that they needed to send their three children to the mother’s sister and her husband, who lived in Australia. So they booked passage for them, all three, in a tiny room with one bed on a small German merchant/cargo ship. Then they loaded food for the entire journey, formula powder for the baby, baby bottles, clothes, toothbrushes and other necessities.
Then they instructed their five year old daughter about care of her two year old sister and her six months old brother. They ran through and taught her again and again about what to do to change diapers and wash them by hand, prepare food and baby formula, sanitize baby bottles, wash clothes and so on.
Then the ship sailed away. My friend’s parents became nothing except for a distant memory since they became killed in the war.
Now the worst part on the ship were the mandatory drills. Everyone had to go up onto a slippery wet deck when the alarm horn and bells sounded even with rolling oceans, and she yelled at sister to hold on as tightly as she could to the shirt of herself since she, herself, had to carry the heavy baby in her two arms. So she couldn’t guard her two year old sister.
She yelled at her sister in German, “If you let go, I can’t help you and you’ll wash off of the deck and over into the ocean. So you’d better please keep your hands on me as strongly as you can manage.”
Upside on the slick deck with the rocking and rolling floor due to strong ocean waves where it was hard to keep one’s balance with all of the sliding water washing over the deck, she’d gently place the baby between her two ankles and lock him in place with her legs’ muscles quivering and shaking from the effort of holding him still in the position. Then she put a life vest on her sister afterwards.
Then she put one on herself and, since there were no life vests the right size for her brother, she roped him tightly to herself – to her own life vest and body. She literally tied him tightly to herself so that his face was as high as hers cheek to cheek.
These drills were held as a necessity since who knows? Maybe Americans, Japanese, western Europeans or others might try to sink the little German ship. Maybe the violent high seas, themselves, would sink the small commercial vessel.
My friend was so scared of her duty since she began to understand perils when she was such a young child. Yet she stood up to her tasks.
So at night after all of her daunting work was done, she’d deliberately and grimly place the baby against the wall where the berth was. Then she’d lie down to entrap him in his place with her own body. Then, she’d tell her sister to lie down in the opposite direction so that their feet intertwined since no way could the threesome fit in the tiny bed facing in the same direction.
Oh yeah, she and her sister both got seasick. So thank goodness that this girl’s parents had provided plenty of washcloths to clean the baby’s diaper area. They came in useful for the vomit that spewed forth across the floor of their room.
Yes, they all made it to Australia intact thanks to the brave determined efforts of this one little girl, but the trauma of her ordeal always was with her until the day that she died. Imagine such a tremendous, overwhelming burden for a five year old to live through day after day on the perilous journey half way across the globe! … However, you do whatever you have to do to serve life regardless of your age and she, clearly, did it in an exemplary fashion.
I’ve had hardships in life, but nothing quite with this degree of severity that she was forced to endure. Imagine being five years old and having that intensity of burden and responsibility placed on your tiny young frail shoulders!
All the same despite hardly comparable to her level of assistance, I do whatever I can to assist and protect. For example, Carolina, a woman I knew, got sick with a severe case of pneumonia for around a month. So she couldn’t work and, so, she couldn’t pay her bills and her rent for her apartment. … She was faced with having her belongings thrown out in the street — her furniture and everything that she had to be emptied out of her home for not paying rent. Eviction.
I stepped up for her when I learned of this happening from her. I paid her rent and some other bills, such as for electricity, water and heat.
What else was I to do since I had the money to cover her most pressing expenses? Let her, still weak from a major life-threatening illness, be thrown homeless in the street with all of her belongings strewn around her?… I asked only that she pay me back if she could and add to the money given so that I could use it for others in need.
Indeed, she caught up financially, paid me back, added a modest amount to my initial sum and started lavishing verbal praise on me, which was very embarrassing and even distressing to me.
So I cut off her praise since it was so bad to me to subsume, and said that I am just as I am — nothing special. I said, further, that I can’t change the fact of being my identity out of which I do whatever I do. It is just normal, just as my blue eyes are normal for me or the yellow in a daffodil flower is normal. Nothing special — just is as is — so stop with the adulation that seemed intolerable. (I was rejecting her view and her stance towards me formed from her own view.)
Looking me straight into my eyes, she confronted me head-on and responded, with dedicated fervency: She told me that I had no right to tell her that she couldn’t appreciate the look of a daffodil since it enriched her life. How dare I limit her! … Oh yeah, I got her message strongly and clearly, and it humbled me and forced me to accept her praise of me despite my discomfort over it since I’m just being my average self, a way that I cannot be otherwise in being. … Thus, I had to accept her lavish appreciation for being like a daffodil, something beautiful and supportive in her life. Forced into her view, I was!
Well, the fact is that even if not called to save the lives of yourself and two siblings or asked to take into your homes the children of strangers, we can all do more to serve our common betterment. (I know, I know. I don’t do enough.)
… I know that I can do more. Can you, too, figure out ways to do more?
Maybe someone can’t put up children, who are strangers, in his home to keep them safe. Maybe when as a little child, she can’t salvage the lives of siblings. Maybe she or he doesn’t have the financial resources to serve others. … Still there must be something that can be done by each and every one of us, done for betterment.
In that vein, I feel sorry for a Kurd father, who stole a loaf of bread from an elderly woman in an attempt during Bush senior’s Gulf War, to keep his eleven children and wife alive.
It was thrown from an overhead US military craft and the woman had snatched it from the air a few seconds faster than the father could lay hands on it. He, then, wrestled it from her with the ultimate result that both the old woman and her husband died of malnourishment. So did some of the father’s children since a loaf of bread can only go far to help such a big family.
Meanwhile, he now has to live with his painful choice for the rest of his life. He has to remember the vision of the aged couple and some of his children full of suffering, panic and the drawn out process of their dying since he had to select which ones got enough bread to still live.
He has to continually face his feelings of regret, helplessness and rage over what he could not change. Awful!
While I pity him to the depth of my heart, I am deeply grateful that I do not have to bear the burden of subsuming his role. Likewise, I am utterly thankful that I was not one of the women in a particular broiling hot cattle car parked for days on end on the track leading up to a Nazi concentration camp.
After having run out of food and water and with no one responding to their plea for provisions, the women slowly came to the recognition that they were not going to be given any. They also realized that they were not being brought to a new settlement.
So, rather than prolong the agony of water and food deprivation, they quietly murdered their children and each other one by one during the night while the children slept. Accordingly, their only satisfaction was in the thought that the bloody mess that they left behind would render the car unusable ever again to transport other Jews to the camp as the blood stains could not ever be able to be fully removed from the wood. So it would serve as a warning.
Most of us are fortunate that we are not forced by circumstances outside of our control to make such difficult decisions as had the Kurd father and these Jewish mothers. We are lucky that we do not have to choose whether to battle others over desperately sought out resources in conflicts, nor be in a condition to possibly commit other heinous acts that lead to deaths.
Another Quaker friend of mine, besides the one who saved the younger lives of her brother and sister, an old associate of mine, carries out a tremendous amount of social service volunteer work. On account of her not having had to make awful decisions, she is in a position in which she could state the opinion that her “sin” (a term that she used for a lack of a better word devoid of religious connotation) was not so much a “sin” of commission (the deeds that she carried out), but concerned omission (the massive number of undertakings that she neglected to accomplish). In other words, she felt that she simply was not doing enough to provide uplift, care and compassion towards others in less fortunate situations than hers.
Just how much can we each provide in assistance to better our fellow humans and the rest of life existing in our increasingly fragile, complexly interconnected world? Only each individual facing the turmoil of the conditions around us knows his or her own limits to serve and I’m still learning mine – my personal ones.
These are, I’m starting to become aware, the ones that I can supersede and surpass as I grow more resourceful and change to be more forceful and inventive over time. I have no choice to become that way in rising up any more than my friend did as a youngster on the ship. She HAD to rise to the needs! Can you?
Sally Dugman is a writer in MA, USA.