80 years ago a rural, Christian community welcomed nearly two thousand children from London’s East End.
It was the first time that many of them had ever met a Jew. For the Jewish children of the East End, it was the first time they had left London and lived outside of their community. What followed was a story of friendships forged across the barriers of religion and class.
Today, many members of the Ely community remember the children they knew, and a generation of students from London’s Jewish Free School have maintained a link to a rural community.
The evacuees included playwright Sir Arnold Wesker, who wrote a play on his evacuation experiences. They also included children who had arrived in England on the Kindertransport, and who found themselves, once again, being uprooted and taken to a new home.
For several years, the school functioned in a converted hall, with the children living amongst local families and the synagogue operating out of a local church hall. The community of Ely welcomed the children with open arms, even asking Jewish mothers from London to visit to teach them about preparing kosher food.
This year, the link between the communities has been rekindled to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war.
Last week students from JFS and Isleham Church of England Primary School participated in an interactive workshop set up by Ely Museum. Once again, the two communities came together to learn about each other. JFS students had the opportunity to meet children from the families who looked after JFS students, and to teach local children about Judaism.
The Mayor of Ely and local historian Mike Rouse, whose family hosted a young girl called Pearl, recalled his family’s experiences and spent time with our students (see Mike’s Tweet below).
It was touching to find passers by stopping the students wearing kippot to ask them if they were from the same school that came to Ely 80 years ago.
On May 7 2020, JFS will commemorate the 75th anniversary of D Day by hosting Isleham students, the Mayor of Ely, JFS alumni evacuees and members of AJEX (The Jewish Military Association) in our VE Day Commemorations.
Approximately 70,000 Jews served in the armed forces during the Second World War and the event will highlight their experiences and contribution.
The event will continue the tradition of building relationships between children of different faith communities, widening horizons and breaking down prejudice and misconceptions about different faiths.