“The Chestnuts”, at 46, Alexander Road, Hemel Hempstead was a large house used as a home for Jewish children, mostly from London. Two matrons were responsible for our upbringing: Mrs Blooman (whom we called Matie) and Mrs Unsworth (called Unsie). There was a large garden with terraced lawns sloping towards the vegetable patches and huge chestnut trees. The house had two storeys and five bedrooms, which were called the 1-room through to 5-room because of the number of children sleeping there. On my first day in summer 1956 I was greeted by a barking cocker spaniel. I cried.
Then I adapted and conformed to the environment accepting it as my new home. There were cats that were grateful to grab the awful pilchards which were served once a week and which we used to throw on the floor. There were budgerigars in a cage, shaped as a half crown, which spent the summer outside on the lawn. There was a large playground with swings and a climbing frame next to the house where we ran around screaming. In the garden there was a small beech tree, its slender branches growing downward to the ground. It was used as a “Suchott” during the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles and it was under this tree that we tasted our first red wine with apples and honey.
“The Chestnuts” had an old, broad, creaky wooden staircase which proved a valuable place for jumping down into the hall. The bedrooms were aligned around a landing in the middle of which there was a huge glass ceiling. I often wondered what would happen if one of us kids fell through it? In the attic there was a noisy cistern with rushing cold water, in summer it was the scene of creative plays. The cellar was used for keeping potatoes; one of us used to crawl down through a hatch to fill up a heavy basket to feed the 19 hungry children and staff.
In the playroom there was a black piano, or at least we thought it was. It was really a Pianola with which Matie used to trick listeners into thinking she could play. She only had to move the pedals whilst piano rolls did the work. When guests came she would sit at the piano and see people’s reactions to her “playing”. I was amazed at the sound that this piece of furniture created. On Wednesday evenings Mr Laughton, the local doctor, came round to coach our voices. He taught us typical songs of the 40s and 50s like “Volare”, “Bimbo” and “Diana”. We all liked Mr Laughton, he was great with kids and we looked forward to his coming.
At Christmas and in summer we were taken by bus to London to see a musical. In those days there were dozens of musicians like Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele and Bruce Forsythe who regularly performed at “The London Palladium”. We used to sit up in the gods from where we would wait full of expectation for the musical to start. I tried not to show my emotion but as soon as the singing started I had to gulp down the tears. To my child’s world this was an extraordinarily happy event for all us kids from the country sitting in expensive London seats, listening to musicals live in the City. It cost me some effort to stand up & walk back downstairs after such a wonderful and moving performance. Afterwards we walked through Oxford or Regent Street to the bus, in a busy, fascinating world of lights, red double-decker buses and danger. I longed just to walk on and on, getting lost and having to be found by someone. We would then all fall asleep in the bus and get back to the tiny, harmless village of Hemel Hempstead in the middle of the night.
Our parents were permitted to visit us once a month. To avoid instigating animosity they had to come on separate occasions. Our mother used to come on one Sunday, our father came two weeks later; the Sunday in between was for “letter writing”. Letters were short and dull, the only exception was when the heating broke down and the ceiling in the playroom caved in at the same time leaving us with nowhere to play for days. Our parents had separated in 1955 and got divorced in 1957: life in this children’s home might have been a salvation, compared to living with quarreling parents in poverty-stricken post-war East London.
Matie incorporated the corpulent, Jewish mother with an aura of warmth about her. She had heavy rings under her eyes and was always ready to tell us stories e.g. of the years she spent in South Africa. She had met another Jewish woman there, who also worked in child care and asked her to jump in whenever she and Unsie were on holidays. The poor lady was nice but had no control over us 19 kids who used to make life hell for her every evening. She would come into our 5-room after we had fetched “whiskey” from the bathroom and would sit at the end of my bed waiting with endless patience hoping we would fall asleep! On some evenings we would sit on our tiny chairs in the playroom and listen to Matie. When she had finished she always had the peculiar habit of observing us all to see who had liked the story and who not.
One day Matie asked me to come to her room. I had received the second prize for an essay after a visit to the airport She had asked me to read it aloud to her and another woman who happened to be visiting. I had made careful notes on the visit and they thought my essay was quite good except for my pronunciation of the word Viscount, the name of a plane. What I hadn’t written in the essay and what I secretly kept to myself was the fact that planes didn’t interest me in the slightest. What really made me shiver with delight were the Bentleys and Rolls-Royces parked next to each other at the airport. The feeling inside me when the bus drove slowly past these wonderful creations was indescribable; for me those imposing sedans were icons of another world. On the way to school, just on the corner of the hill adjoining Alexandra Road, there was a dark Jaguar, MK 2 or 3. As I softly walked past I always had the feeling that this car had a status of its own, passing by in reverence, as if there were some great secret hidden under its bonnet.
While I was waiting for Matie and the other lady to come I happened to catch a glimpse of a caption in a newspaper lying on a chair. The main headline was in bold type, approx. 7 cm. high, making it impossible to ignore. I sat there swinging my skinny legs, trying to work out what on earth such a vast figure could mean: it was the number 6,000,000. I was the oldest in the class, was good at maths and as I had never got a reliable answer from our reticent father, I was very hungry for facts and truths. I looked at it, almost hypnotised by the largeness of the numbers until Matie came. I asked her what the figure meant. She just looked at me, with her sad, Jewish eyes and gave me an evasive answer.
The girls who looked after us, got us up and sent us to school were young trainees, between the ages of 16 -20. For us kids they were the people to whom we related most closely. I remember the names Ann and June. Amongst the dozens of jobs they had to do was cutting the nails of our feet. I had to laugh and always tried to chicken out because I was so ticklish so Ann got one of the older girls to hold my foot. They closed the buttons on our coats even if we didn’t want them to and took us to Gadebridge Park where we ran around. With the gramophone and the records these girls must have carried 12-15 kg with them, all the way there and back! We all loved winding the HMV contraption up with a handle and never imagined what an extreme burden the girls had undertaken to carry. Once I asked Ann, if she would race with me. She said yes, took off her shoes and won. It was good to run next to such a big girl, I was happy that she took my request so seriously.
One of the greatest experiences in my childhood were the long walks which we undertook on Saturdays. We discovered a bathtub in the woods behind the park. We sat inside it and tried to keep our balance on the water. Our leader, David White, was a soft-spoken kid whom I loved and admired so much that I stood up in bed on one evening and sang to him. When he left “The Chestnuts” I was the oldest and coerced the others to follow me on walks. We ran past the town centre towards Two Waters (past the station where our parents used to descend from the London trains before walking all the way up to Alexandra Road) and on to the steep hills in Boxmoor near Berkhamstead. We played hide-and-seek there and it was something short of a miracle that we always managed to get back home just in time for meals at that age when none of us had watches. It must have been five miles there and back. These walks were the fulfilment of my deepest yearning towards being free and able to go wherever we wanted without an adult. I also loved going down the road to buy a huge chunk of cheese for Welsh Rarebit. On the shelves they had chocolate biscuits that made my mouth water. I vowed, when I grew up, to eat a package per day. Two shops down was the musty “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” with its forbidding entrance.
Our first school was called Queen‘s Street reached via an alleyway which ran down to the main road with a tiny sweetshop on the corner. I liked most subjects, read a great deal and loved sports. On Sports Day we all competed in the playing field between Queen’s Street and King’s Street. I had set my heart on getting as many ribbons as possible. There were three colours, red for 1st, blue for 2nd and yellow for 3rd. After several events I already had a row of red ribbons. One of the last events was the “three-legged race”. My partner was Paul L. I told him to run like mad which he did. Shortly before we finished Paul fell to the ground, taking me with him. I picked both of us up and dragged him to the finishing line. We got a blue ribbon.
Later on we went to King‘s Street and used to walk through the playing fields of the old school to get there. Being Jewish we did not participate in morning prayers and waited in the tiny entrance hall while the others were singing. Sometimes when we were in the larger hall I joined in singing some of the hymns. To me this was real music; my favourite song was about Leonidas, who used to comb his long blonde hair before going to battle: “King of Persia beware, beware, Leonidas is combing his hair, his hair”. After hearing this I felt dazed and ready for combat.
In King‘s Street we played games according to each season. In winter the caretaker threw a bucket of water in the schoolyard and the next day we had a slide. In summer we played marbles and in autumn we played with baked chestnuts or “conkers” – we “Chestnut children” were at the very source! We had to make a hole in the hard chestnuts, push a string through and then we would play to see whose chestnut could take the most punishment. We hit each others’ chestnuts until the weaker one broke. The child who won added a number to the one he had already gained. There were tough fights at King‘s Street school. I once witnessed a fat pupil fighting a boy half his size, he sat on the other one’s head until his eye started to bleed. I was horrified and had no idea how I would react if that happened to me. All I knew was that I had to do sports and gain strength to be able to defend myself.
The years in the “Chestnuts” left us all with one thing in common; there were only two men in the whole surroundings; an old gardener whom I once got a glimpse of and a teacher by the name of Mr Robertson who had a pretty daughter called Priscilla. He was popular, slim, very tall and known for his sense of humour. We had a sneaky feeling that he was in love with another teacher, Miss Heather, with whom he often spoke when he interrupted her classes. My teacher was Mrs. Garson and we only ever had Mr Robertson when she was ill. As we only had young girls looking after us most of the time, whom we called by their first names like older sisters, the typical male role was missing entirely. In this impregnable matriarchy we spent six, formative years until we all moved back up to London.
Several older children had to travel 40 Km. every Sunday to Edgware Synagogue in North London where we were taught to read in Hebrew and listened to stories from the Old Testament. As I was always sick on the journey I had to take a small, white pill that tasted bitter. On the way we had to pass over a hump called Hampton Bridge which became a keyword: the moment I felt the Minibus sailing over the hump my stomach turned and I was sick, the only child to do so. The only part of the trip that I enjoyed was on the M1 when the driver would put his foot down and I could start to breathe again. I never enjoyed meals on Sundays.
At the age of eleven five of us sat the 11 plus exam after which I spent a day at the would-be grammar school. I was thrilled by the high ceilings and the large grounds that were obviously designed for sports. It was only one short day but I had already started adapting to life in this atmosphere. Although I passed the exam, I never set foot in that school again. In August 1962 Matie accompanied me from Hemel Hempstead to West Norwood, S.E. 27, London. I couldn’t remember if I had time to say goodbye to the others, if they were still there or had already left for London or elsewhere? That summer of 1962 made an incision in our child’s universe, leaving us unable to know where we would end up next. The car had to stop several times to let me out; the last time was at the green common near The Oval.