Avis Saltsman - Artist

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Essay on my Origins - Version of May 1997 - Page Three

My Father & World War Two

When I was just four, in September 1939, war with Germany was declared, in May 1940 my brother Peter was born, and in August 1940 I was five and started primary school the next month. My father became an air-raid warden and one of my most vivid memories is sitting on his shoulder in our outer suburb, watching Manchester burning. It must have been one of the early raids on the docks. I cannot remember at what point my father went into the war. He was thirty-two when he entered the war and thirty-seven when he came out. At the initial medical the doctor accused him of 'running round the block' beforehand as his heart was racing. He had done no running in fact he already had a 'heart murmur'. Indeed he had the same reason to volunteer as his brother Fred had done for the First World War at sixteen, pretending to be eighteen. Fred had died slowly of the gassing and foot rot ('Trench Feet') finally at twenty-nine leaving a wife and two young daughters. In spite of that Cyril still felt obliged to volunteer and I will reveal why.

I know that at first my father was posted to Buxton, Derbyshire, to guard Italian prisoners, one of them being Charles Forte. Some of the prisoners made toys and jewellery from scrap materials which they gave their guards, including my father, who came home with a wooden horse on wheels and ingenious broaches made out of very tightly folded sweet papers.

At this stage my father could get leave to come home and he brought me story books from a Buxton bookshop. I remember another child calling across the road 'Your Dad's back' on one of his visits home. I loved my father. He was warm loving and concerned and paid attention to my welfare in spite of the difficulties. Also he had a spirit of adventurousness, which gave me a connection with the outside world, and in my teens, the holiday journeys we took broadened my horizons and fed my immense curiosity and 'need to find out'.

I suppose, like many, I was Daddy's Girl, because like my grandmother, he paid me attention, whereas my mother was always preoccupied with the baby, whom I felt she preferred. He did have the advantage of being a rare event rather than the day-to-day responsibilities of bringing up babies under the threat of air-raids. He was what now would be called 'quality time', But they were both under an extra dimension of pressure I only now understand.

I was an avid reader and the infant school headmistress, aunt of Jean Metcalf, the broadcaster said, years later, I used to 'write and write'. I can remember walking along the road home with her having a conversation about weights and measures. She was tiny, so more on my scale. At this time, though, and throughout my short lifetime, unspeakable atrocities were happening in countries surrounding Germany. I have always found it difficult to face information about the Holocaust. It is the worst series of events I feel has ever existed in the world. For a long time I thought my name might be Jewish, though there were no Jewish rituals in the family. My parents had Jewish friends whom they had met on holiday and kept in contact with for years. I always felt my mother was not prejudiced. She accepted an Indian friend of my sisters with the same equanimity.

Occasionally during the war, my mother and grandmother would take us to the Lancashire coast, to the 'posh' end of Blackpool called St. Annes. In a shop window there in the first year of the war was a beautiful doll to be raffled for Polish children I'd seen gazing out of a hostel window. The doll was made of felt with plaited blond hair and a wonderful traditional costume with layers of skirts, the upper ones trimmed with multi-coloured ribbons and long ribbons and beads hanging down at the back from a wreath of flowers round her head. The best part was the black velvet bolero intricately decorated with beads and sequins. My mother bought a ticket and then we went home. Some weeks later I opened the door for the postman on my fifth birthday and he had a large box as well as my cards. I had won the doll.

When he entered the army he left the business he'd built up in the hands of a man he'd taken pity on who had eight children. When my father was posted to Africa (one of the places was Benghazi) this man stole the money from the company and my father was given compassionate leave to come back and re-mortgage the house and make arrangements for his young family. After the Infant school, though, apart from the sirens I was not happy in a school with forty-five to fifty children in a class, screwed down desks and a harridan at the front yelling at us and sending us into the hall to chant times tables. My father said the headmaster was a complete incompetent. This is one of the reasons I became a humane educationalist. I'm sure I vowed it then I could do better than that.

On one of his visits home my father arranged for me to go to another school. It meant a bus journey to Ashton-under-Lyne, but was well worth it. My father had heard that the headmistress was good and I can remember her coming close and listening to me singing. I must have sung in tune though very quietly because she chose me for the choir. They discovered that I had not been taught handwriting rather than print and that I was 'absent-minded', spending time gazing out of the window. I result I feel now of shutting myself off because of my war experiences. Not only was the first school hopeless I now believe that the emotional paralysis I suffered due to experiences in the war lasted into my late twenties, although people experienced much more in the area where I live now, near the City of London.

As the war gathered momentum, we began to have the possibility of air-raids. Even now I dread the sound of an air-raid siren and all the memorial programmes last year (1995) were torture. (I could not turn on the radio without hearing a siren and it contributed to a gradual thawing of the suppressed memories. I had a gas mask to put over my head, a terrifying experience in itself as it was so enclosed, airless and heavy. My tiny brother was in what looked like a little coffin and you could see his face through a window. My mother told two stories, one about her finding me behind the sofa 'breast-feeding' my doll as she did my brother and saying, 'now's the time for the other side' and the fact that soon, when there was an air-raid at night, I would be at her bedside before the siren had woken her up. She was very tired, having a young baby, although I now realise she had even deeper worries than most young mothers at that time and I think I unconsciously picked that up. My writing this has only been sparked off by some new information throwing an amazing light on my experiences, although the full realisation has come gradually, helped by the reading of the history of Lancashire and Cheshire.

Our local shelter was in the basement of the vicarage, a huge house on some open land at the end of the road, near the allotments where my Uncle Leonard had taken me to feed the ducks, my earliest memory at two or three. As I write this now, it seems like the screenplay for a horror film. I never liked such films and now I realise it was probably because I had my own inbuilt one, not helped by my receptiveness and vivid imagination.

Later we had a Morrison shelter in the living room, a little steel house with rivets and stable-type divided doors containing deck chairs which we used to retreat to on the sound of the siren. A recurring memory must have been in 1944 after, to a nine-year-old, an interminable four years, when the Germans were throwing everything at us, the time of the doodlebugs. My mother told me that after the doodlebugs, I had a nervous facial twitch. By that time the war had taken up more than half my life. I was old enough to suffer but not old enough to remotely understand. There was one funny incident where an 'auntie', really a name for a parent's friend, who lived next door was sharing the shelter. Let us say she was somewhat overweight and a deck chair collapsed under her.

One night we heard a sound not like a plane propeller but a more mechanical whine or buzz. The adults knew it was a doodlebug and it stopped above us. That memory often comes back to me because in those few seconds I really believed I was going to die. What we did not know at the time was that the missiles fell diagonally and this one fell about two miles away in Oldham. The persistence and total immersion I have shown in many activities in my life, I believe stem from that experience, because when it didn't fall I had been given my life back and valued more what I could do with it. When I became a Teachers Union president in 1984, a voluntary position, whilst bringing up two sons alone and teaching full-time, my mother asked 'why do you do these things?'

When nothing is explained, children attempt to fill in the gap. How does a five to ten-year-old attempt to explain these events to herself? Who could be doing this to us and why? A friend of mine who suffers from having been abused as a child by a 'friend of the family' hates her mother because she blamed her for letting it happen. At that age, one's parents are the only possible protectors. You do not know then that they are probably greater victims than you. The family was in fear and under threat and desperately trying to protect the children, without knowing the outcome of the war and there was reason to worry about how we would be regarded. This was the story of my father's life and I'm sure led to his illness and early death. Nowadays there is counselling for people who have experienced disasters, but there were so many victims then and no such help. All children received a message from King George VI in 1945 and I recently came across mine. It said 'To-day, as we celebrate victory, I send this personal message to you and all other boys and girls at school. For you have shared in the hardships and dangers of a total war and you have shared no less in the triumph of the Allied Nations'. I wept at this.

'I know you will always feel proud to belong to a country which is capable of such supreme effort; proud, too, of parents and elder brothers and sisters who by their courage, endurance and enterprise brought victory. May these qualities be yours as you grow up and join in the common effort to establish among the nations of the world unity and peace.' Although today this looks a little jingoistic, I took much of it to heart, the supreme effort became, not the country's but mine.

Contact: Avis Saltsman (or Saltzmann), 17 Gerrard Road, Islington, London N1 8AY
+44(0)20 7359 6294 or e-mail her

Last revised 21/5/2002
URL: http://www.art-science.com/Avis/Avis_family/Origins3.html

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