Adolf Hitler came to power in January of 1933 and I was born in April of the same year.
In England, where my family lived, there was a group called the British Union of Fascists or ‘Blackshirts’ who wore black uniforms and were led by a man named Sir Oswald Mosley. Sir Oswald Mosley blamed the depression on the Jews and his platform was to deport all of the Jews from England. He had a lot of followers because of the depression gripping the country. When people are out of work, they look for somebody to blame and Mosley said the English Jews wanted to start another World War. He held military-like marches in Jewish neighborhoods of England. I was a young Jewish girl at the time so it was incredibly scary.
When the war broke out I was six. Everyone was prepared for air warfare: there were government issued pamphlets delivered to every house telling us how to prepare for air raids, they issued us gas masks, they told us how to build bomb shelters. My parents sent me from Croydon (a town 11 miles south of London) to Wales to stay with my father’s family and out of harm’s way. But nothing happened in England so everyone started calling it the ‘the phony war.’
But the war was happening elsewhere. There were battles at sea and merchant ships were being sunk. The only impact we felt was with food rationing – Britain never produced their own foods so the Germans sunk lots of merchant ships in an attempt to starve us.
After a few months of the ‘phony war’ my parents brought me back to Croydon. There were no bombings until late in 1940, but when it happened it happened in Croydon because there was a large airport there. On the night of the first raid, my parents came into my room at 7:00 PM and told me we all had to go under the stairs. (We were told the safest place in the house was under the stairs and my mother had fitted the space with chairs and blankets). But my father was claustrophobic and refused to go in there.
He said, “I am going up to look at the fireworks.”
He watched the Luftwaffe bomb the Croydon airport that night. Several people were killed and the bombs did a lot of damage.
On September 7th 1940 the Luftwaffe started bombing East London. After that the air raids became a nightly occurrence. The Luftwaffe dropped thousands of bombs and incendiary devices.
In Croydon my parents had sent me to the closest school to the house – a Catholic school called the Corona Convent for Girls. In England there was no separation of church and state, so my parents didn’t think anything of sending their Jewish daughter to a Catholic school. My parents asked the nuns to educate me, but that I not participate in daily prayers or learn about catechism. The nuns were very nice and pleasant, but when I wanted to sing Christmas carols they said, “No Cynthia you can’t sing them because you’re Jewish.” But I really wanted to sing them, so learned all the tunes and sang them on my way home.
After a few months of bombing in earnest my parents decided to send me to Godstone, which is a rural town 20 miles outside of London. When I moved to Godstone there were lots of London evacuees and local kids who weren’t the gentle kind of private school people I had gone to school with at the Corona Convent. There was a lot of anti-Semitism. Boys chased me home from school and felt my head to see if there were really horns growing out of my skull. When my mother complained to the head mistress she said, “Well what do you expect? They’ve never seen a Jew before…”