On 13 June 1940, around 100 children from Jews’ Free School in the East End of London, and five of their teachers, together with thousands of other London evacuees, embarked on the lengthy and exhausting train journey from Paddington to Penzance. The JFS group was bussed to Mousehole, where the children were billeted with the villagers, and Jews’ Free School, Mousehole, was established in the premises of Mousehole School. Arrangements were made for synagogue services to be held in Paul church hall, while many of the evacuees also attended chapel with their foster families, most of whom were strong Methodists. Remarkably, most of the evacuees quickly integrated into village life, and were accepted by the villagers as their own. They were introduced to swimming, sailing, sculling, fishing and mending nets, and spent hours playing on the beach or walking along the spectacular coastal paths. The extraordinary coming together of these two vastly different communities was a life-changing experience for many involved on both sides.
The evacuees interviewed 70 years later had very clear memories of that day. Here Frances Fromovitch remembers the train journey from Paddington to Penzance:
"The journey must have been very tiring. But I remember seeing St Michael’s Mount, and I thought, “It’s a fairyland.” … And that’s how it struck me. We all hopped off the train and there were buses there, green buses that picked us up and then we went all along the coastal road. We were looking at the sea, couldn’t believe it. Wonderful coloured sea."
The arrival of the children at Penzance station was recorded in a remarkable full-page article in the Cornishman:
Long, long before the train from London bearing the evacuee children was due to arrive every available vantage point overlooking the station was crowded with spectators. One section, composed in the main of children, lined the Cliff, overlooking the arrival platform, waiting to give their visitors a welcome. Outside, in the station approaches, great crowds had to be controlled by the police and traffic wardens. There was an air of expectancy about, a feeling of curiosity mingled with sympathy for these children sent so far from their own firesides.
In Mousehole, the villagers were waiting for the arrival of their visitors. Here, Jeanne Harris records her impressions:
"They got off the buses down on The Cliff, above the harbour, which would have been totally alien for them, to see boats in the harbour, and the sea. And they looked so lost and tired and as grubby as can be, poor little souls. They were probably scared to death. They looked in need of love and attention."
This was indeed a frightening experience for many of the evacuees, especially the younger ones, as Betty Posner here recalls:
"I remember vividly we went into a hall and people came in and chose the children, and I held onto my sister’s hand."
Another young evacuee, Shirley Spillman remembers that she was one of the first to be picked:
"It was dark and we went into what appeared to be a village hall. We were grouped round the hall in a circle, standing against the wall with our little suitcases, waiting to be chosen by the people who would be our family and would be looking after us.… I was chosen fairly early on by Mr and Mrs Ladner, who lived at Vanguard House, right on the front. They had a little shop in the front, with a library, and sold newspapers and cigarettes, and at the back Mr Ladner had a men’s barber’s shop…. The views that they had, in the centre of the harbour actually, you looked straight out on to the harbour."
By contrast, one of the older girls, Mildred Fromovitch, was one of the last, after her two sisters had been chosen. She remembers standing forlornly in the school playground:
"We were standing in the school and lots of people came in and took the children home with them. Two came and took Frances and Irene. I just remember standing in the playground … with one other child, and we were the last two and I stood there crying, “I’m being left here and Frances and Irene have gone.” And then this lovely, smiling man came over to me, and said, “Come on love, I’ll take you, come home with me.” His name was Mr Warren. Mr and Mrs Warren, they were lovely people."
70 years after this momentous event a reunion was held, when several evacuees revisited the village they had come to know so well in their childhood. During a visit to Mousehole school, Mildred Fromovitch suddenly stopped frozen in her tracks, and said:
"This is the exact spot where I was picked 70 years ago!"
This remarkable story has been told in a book by Susan Soyinka called From East End to Land’s End: The Evacuation of Jews Free School, London, to Mousehole in Cornwall during World War Two. (Eliora Books, 2013)