During the comb through multiple articles relating to children’s health, development, and welfare to share for today’s post, an interesting article came up. It was posted by the New York Herald Tribune, almost exactly seventy five years ago. It shows a picture of small, bundled children being escorted near a bus by solemn-faced adults. They hold bags and look a bit formal in their nice coats and caps. The picture is inevitably in black and white, a sign of the times, and the caption beneath it states that the picture is from the Imperial War Museum.
These children, now likely great grandparents, were part of Operation Pied Piper, the largest and one of the quickest population shifts in history. During Operation Pied Piper over three million people were moved from high risk for bomb drop areas to lower risk, rural areas or even overseas. Countries such as Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States accepted these transfers in order to keep children safe.
In describing the effect the Operation had on the community this article states, “One mother in London, after watching her own two children march off, saw two tots leave a line and rush up to a policemen standing in the middle of the intersection, holding traffic until the children had passed. “Bye-bye, Daddy,” they said. The policeman looked down, smiled, and said, “Now be good, kiddies.” The children then got back in line. As they did so, the mother saw tears rolling down the policeman’s cheeks.”
These children, being led by policemen, teachers, and nannies, not parents, were given a small box to wear about their necks that contained such things as a gas mask and also were pinned with a name tag. The article goes on to state that, “Finding homes was often traumatic for the children. As a rule, billeting officials would line the newly arrived children up against a wall or on a stage in the village hall, and invite potential hosts to take their pick. The phrase, “I’ll take that one” became a statement indelibly etched in countless children’s memories.” So why did parents allow this; the separation of their children to unknown people in unknown places? Because they were scared, truly scared, that their children would become one of the predicted four million causalities in Metropolitan London alone. It has even come to light that the British government had stockpiled coffins for those they presumed would perish in the wake of German bombers.
The evacuees share some of their memories here. The article goes on to highlight, “Rita Glenister, from North London, stayed with a working-class family in Somerset and was treated like a member of the family, given love and affection and secured friendships to last a lifetime. Norma Reeve, from a lowly background in the East End, was taken in by a titled lady with servants and a butler who served Norma her meals.
Little things, like going to the pictures, learning to bake bread, walks in the woods and the generosity of those who took evacuated children into their homes, have remained constant in the minds of evacuees. For many it was a life-enhancing, mind-broadening experience, leaving them with memories they treasure to this day.
Others, however, were beaten, mistreated and abused by families who didn’t want them and didn’t care about them. The painful experience of John Abbot, evacuated from Bristol, reflects the darker side. His rations were stolen by his host family, who enjoyed good food whilst John was given a diet of nothing more than mashed potatoes.”
What can we take from this event many, many years later? How can we incorporate it into advocacy and our greater knowledge of children, their development, and their burgeoning sense of well-being? The biggest takeaway is this; children are incredibly, almost shockingly resilient. The adapt. They learn from each new experience and these experiences lead them to develop and edit their definitions and expectations for family, fair treatment, and the world at large. There is no such thing as a broken child. Children may be abused and troubled, lonely and guarded, but never broken. The mind of a child and the human spirit is quite a resilient thing.