(This is a story based on the fragmented memories of my childhood immediately after WWII and is more or less centred my experiences at age five. Mixed in are memories of a retrospective nature as information about the Holocaust, the Atomic bombs and the Japanese POW camps became common knowledge. I was allowed to read newspapers from when I was a small child and if the tale seems to exclude my father that is because he was a working all hours he could and was often away until he worked locally.)
We won the War, didn't we?
The first time I realised what had happened was when my parents and my uncles and aunts answered my questions. At my primary school we played a game of Us against the Nasties, in which only the rotten kids got to play the part of the Nasties and the rest played Us. The rotten kids ran away and hid so it was more of Us pretending and running around like five and six years olds do, full of energy and excitement, chanting “we won the war” and me wondering what on earth it was all about. I knew there was bombs and airplanes, and I had seen the tanks and armoured cars in Rochester being driven across the bridge. I had spoken shyly with the men who had marched in a column up the hill past our place and listened to the strange language, and seen the soldiers with shouldered rifles looking on disapprovingly when one of the men handed me a small bar of dar chocolate and ruffled my hair.
I was there at the party when the soldiers led the singing of Ten Green Bottles, and gave us tea-cakes and strange sweet tasting concoctions to drink and eat with real spoons. It was a magic time when all the grown-ups were happy and there was grown-up things going on and lights on so I was told. It was later when my aunts and uncles came back in uniforms that I had the idea something big was happening. It, the war was over, the sirens were silent and I remember magic things happening. We had bananas, half of one each and at first I wondered what they were but the delicious smell was so nice and eating my share was a treat almost as good as having an egg for breakfast, a real one that is, with the shell, runny in the centre and buttered soldiers to dip in the centre. The runny yellow yolk was too nice to miss and with a little salt and pepper, egg on Sunday morning was a breakfast to look forward to.
But, back to the school and the chanting children. I had an idea what was happening but no real idea of what had happened. I had to ask the questions. I wanted to know who We were and who were the Nasties we didn't like and had obviously beaten.
Mum explained that it was Hitler and his 'mob' the Nazi's and told me that We were the British and the Americans and explained about how Canada, and Australia and New Zealand had helped out and how Nanny and us had been saved by all of them, which was sweet of her. She was patient and answered more of my questions and told me about what had happened and how Hitler, and not a Charlie Chaplin lookalike had invaded Europe, attacked Russia and wanted to take over England. She told me about Winston Churchill, ignoring Stalin and for the Americans only told me about Eisenhower. She didn't mention the Japanese, or India, or anything about China. She told me about my uncle Sid who came back off the beaches in one of the so-called little boats arriving at Sheerness, half dead from exhaustion, his lungs contaminated by fumes and oil who years later had a large and second family, but at the time was unfit for combat although later he went off again.
I listened, I heard stories and always I recall our house was full of service uniforms as the war ended and relatives found their own homes. My uncle Sid and my cousin David lived with us for a while which was fun and at that time my two brothers were toddling around as well. What with me, my Mum and Dad and our Grandmother the house was crowded.
But we had won the war.
We had rationing.
Some parts of our town were rubble filled craters.
The Army and the Navy were there in numbers and most things we bought were what my Mum described as 'utility'. School was magic, the smell of pencils, the books and blackboards, sitting at desks, and Christmas when we gave a present and got one in return. The gift of packs of dried fruit from Australia, the singing and the fun of the Jungle Jim in the playground. It was idyllic for a small boy trying to make sense of things.
Slowly I heard about the atrocities carried out by the Japanese, the Italians in North Africa, the battles in Italy, and of course the two Atomic bombs. I began to read the newspapers not understanding much of it at first but the more I read the more I understood. One day I saw a picture that shocked me. It was in a paper my uncle had left laying on the table.
Men in pyjamas, men so thin and wasted they looked like the stick people we drew in our pictures, men and women and then further in I saw there were children, skinny, hollow eyed, staring and all wearing little more than rags. I saw a name. Belsen. I read about these stick people and learned the name Jews and thought then of Jesus, he was a Jew but in the pictures in our bible and at the church he didn't look like that. I was so absorbed that when a noise behind me was loud enough to startle me I turned away from the awful pictures and the writing to see my uncle standing looking at me.
“I'm sorry Jimmy, you should not have seen that,” he said and began to gather up the paper.
“Why not? Those people, are they real? And what happened to them? Who did that to them?” I asked and stood waiting, as a determined child does, for an answer.
He shrugged his shoulders and as if coming to a difficult decision he said: “All right, I'll tell you but let's go outside in the sunshine.”
And outside sitting on a scullery chair each he told me about the Nazis and Hitler, and the men, and women, who had allowed such a thing to happen. He told me how nasty our playground Nasties really were and showed me some of the pictures and explained what they meant. We fell silent for a while and watched the chickens scratching in the dirt of the shed and our ginger cat stretch in the sun, yawn and go back to his snoozing. Those people, those Jews, were like the chickens; all the time they were useful they lived but, as soon as they were too weak to work they were killed off. I shudder at the comparison. They too were consigned to the ovens. The difference was that we fed our chickens properly and when we had one for dinner it had been looked after before we – well, murdered it.
These people were not even fed properly.
“How many?” I asked.
“We don't know.” He said.
And then of course I asked the difficult question: “Why would people want to do such a dreadful thing?”
Again he shrugged his shoulders and fell silent staring bleakly into the distance and it was a long time before he spoke.
“I have no idea why,” he said.
My uncle wept.
I looked up at the house, the slate roof on top of the yellow and red brick and, knowing that, like my uncle had said those poor people had nowhere to go, I was glad of the roof over our heads; glad also that now my questions were in part answered.
Yes, We had won the war.