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The Children's Ark

May 9, 2009 | by Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

With the outbreak of WWII, two alien worlds came together as 500 Jewish children were hosted by Christian families in the British countryside.

Over 60 years ago, a sea of anti-Semitism engulfed Europe. Within this stormy sea, there was a little-known "ark" -- a place of refuge for some of the suffering Jewish children.

The story of this ark begins in London on August 31, 1939 -- three days before the outbreak of war with Germany. The British government had decided to evacuate all the schoolchildren of London to the safety of the countryside. According to the plan, each school in London would be relocated to a village where the children would be housed in the homes of the local residents. The exact arrangements for housing, food, and learning facilities, however, would be taken care of after the children arrived, for the government wanted to keep the destination of these schools a secret until the day of the emergency evacuation.

One of these schools was the Jewish Secondary School -- a Torah-observant school with 500 students. Some of the students were raised in England, and others were refugee children who had recently arrived from Germany and Austria. (In most cases, these refugee children arrived without their parents.) The children of this Jewish school, together with the staff, were sent to the village of Shefford and the surrounding area. Dr. Judith Grunfeld, the school's principal, describes the experience in her book, "Shefford":

"The Children of Israel" was for most of the villagers just a biblical term, evoking a picture of wandering caravans in the desert moving towards the Promised Land. One God-fearing woman, when told who had arrived, called excitedly out to her husband, "Tom, come quickly, the Children of Israel from the Bible are here." Others had associated the word "Jew" with mean merchants, or had acquired an imaginary picture of Jews sprouting horns on their foreheads. "But you have no horns," one woman actually remarked in genuine surprise to one of the boys whom she had taken into her house.

"But you have no horns," one woman remarked in genuine surprise.

Teachers and helpers told me of the great difficulties that our children had encountered when they arrived in the foster homes. Everywhere a welcoming meal with some especially nice things had been prepared for them. Foster parents and their own families had been eagerly watching the new additions to their household and had joyfully anticipated how they would relish the first meal, a ham omelette, that token of welcome that had been so lovingly prepared for them.

And everywhere it had been the same story. The children, shy and tired, had not touched the meal, had shaken their heads and hardly sipped a few drops of tea. They had showed signs of embarrassment. Some had been able to say a few words of 'thank you' that obviously came from their hearts, but they had all succeeded in creating in those village homes an atmosphere of disappointment and frustration...

We later explained that these children had been taught to observe the dietary laws according to the Bible, that some of them had just come over from Nazi persecution, could not speak English and consequently were unable to explain why they had to refuse the truly delicious meal which had been so thoughtfully, nay so lovingly, prepared for them, but that they were nevertheless, truly and sincerely grateful for all the kindness shown to them.

Religious Misunderstanding

The villagers tried to understand, but they found it difficult to accept these "strange" children. And the situation became worse with the arrival of Shabbat. As the sun began to set, the children and their teachers gathered together to chant the traditional prayers. They then ate the Shabbat meal that the school had prepared, and afterward returned to their hosts. Dr. Grunfeld describes what happened next:

"Johnny, switch the light on just here on your right while I hold the bucket" the farmer would call out from the stable to the evacuee whom he wanted to show his cows. "Sonny, I have to go over to the greenhouse, you can come with me and carry the torch for me." "Jackie, will you put the kettle on the fire, please, Granny fancies a cup of tea." "Here are two shillings, run over to the pub and get me a packet of cigarettes."

The children, however, could not fulfill these requests, for they did not want to violate the laws of Shabbat. The villagers did not fully understand that these children were keeping the laws of their Sabbath, and they decided that they were no longer willing to keep the children:

The children slept, but the villagers did not. In the Billeting Officer's house the telephone would not stop ringing. At the local pub there was arguing going on… The Vicar himself was disappointed. He had hoped to fill his Sunday school and find new members for his church choir. Neighbors called each other and early next morning, with the postman, the milkman, at the butcher's, at the baker's, there was one topic all through the village and they all agreed that they would not take this lying down. They had been cheated in the fulfillment of their national duty. They had wanted to take little evacuees to their houses, to their hearts, to their churches and Sunday schools. They had intended to make them a part of their own family.

They wanted to make these little evacuees part of their own family.

But with these children this was simply unthinkable. They were so totally different from what they had expected them to be, and some of the little ones cried all the time. They could not communicate but had the look of hunted animals. The bigger ones, many of them charming and polite, spoke and laughed in a different language and did not eat anything but bread and drank only lemonade. They did not join in prayers, they had strange books in their luggage, had strange cotton squares with fringes under their shirts. It all seemed such a big mess. "We shall have to organize their exodus back to London in exchange for children of our own brand and faith…"

And while the villagers were angry, the little children, unaware of all the annoyance they had caused, slept peacefully in the various homes where the revolt was brewing. The siddurim (prayer books) were lying by their bedsides, tzitzit (the square garments with fringes) dangling from the chair, Yarmulkes were on their sleeping heads. They were blissfully ignorant of the plan that concerned them so much. "But the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers."

The next morning the sun rose and the children awoke. Some of them, being rested, had a captivating smile, some took a fancy to the little dog in the house or to the canary, some had a lovely way of saying 'Thank you very much' and looked so pathetic that one's heart could melt. They were all very clean, and surprisingly well-mannered... Although they were so young they had a way of looking after themselves and after their younger brothers and sisters. Their habits were immaculate; they never asked for anything. It was very strange.

One could not even say what caused it or how it came about, but it is a fact that soon enough Mrs. B. told Mrs. H. that her little evacuee had settled down so very well and Mrs. H. retaliated by praising her own little girl. The Rector and his wife, the Reverend and Mrs. A. McGhee, took their seven evacuees for a treat to Whipsnade Zoo and felt proud of themselves to own such well-mannered young men...

It is a fact too that not long afterwards freshly-washed tzitzit were seen dangling from the washing line in Mrs. K.'s pretty garden, and Moss, the village grocer, got in a supply of kosher margarine because so many customers asked for it "so that Jackie (or Freddie or Bernard) could have a piece of bread with margarine instead of eating the bread dry all the time"... And Mrs. F. went upstairs to switch the light off in Simon's bedroom, because "I know the boy will sleep all night with the light on if I don't do it for him as it is his Sabbath."

As the months went by, the villagers fell in love with their "Jewish children." They became familiar with Jewish traditions, and they began to respect the children for remaining loyal to their traditions and beliefs in a strange environment. After all, many of the children were refugees whose parents -- if they were still alive -- were in the hands of the Germans; yet, the children remained loyal to the religious education that they had received from their parents.

Lifelong Friendships

The children remained in the village for six years. These foster parents respected the religious faith of their guests, and did not attempt to "missionize." In addition, they began to encourage their evacuees to observe all the Jewish traditions, and boys were encouraged to wear their yarmulkes. One Yom Kippur, one of the village mothers noticed that her foster-daughter did not put on canvass shoes and instead wore leather shoes. This Christian woman had become familiar with Jewish traditions, and she knew that Jews do not wear leather shoes on this holy day. In a firm voice, she asked the young girl, "And why did you not wear your canvass shoes?"

The friendships that developed between the Jewish children and their Christian hosts lasted for many years, long after the children had left Shefford. As Dr. Grunfeld writes:

Many an old Sheffordian coming from America, from Australia or from Israel to visit England goes to Shefford to visit his old former family and to have a look around... parcels and cards with seasonal greetings, cards conveying the 'Compliments of the Season', still arrive in this little village from many places all over the globe. At various weddings in London in the years after the war the old landlady and the old landlord of Shefford were important and honored people among the wedding guests.

What were you doing while your people were thrown into the burning hell and I kept you alive?

While on the [European] continent children were starved to death and massacred throughout these last grim years, this village gave them sunshine and warm welcome... There was a driving force within us that strengthened us and kept us alert; and that force was engendered by the ghastly reports that reached us from the Continent. We knew that God who saved us alive would ask one day ask, "And where have you been and what have you been doing while your people were thrown into the burning hell and I kept you alive?" We tried to answer this challenge and we built up a community of children whom we taught to live the way of the Torah and to drink from its living waters... We have thus tried to build one little sanctuary whilst so many have been destroyed.

Dr. Grunfeld describes the Jewish Secondary School as a "Noah's Ark," riding the waves of a great flood of anti-Jewish hatred in Europe. The unique story of this ark serves as a reminder that just like Noah and his family, we are all the children of one God. And this story also serves as a reminder that when we, the Children of Israel, remain faithful to our own heritage and beliefs, there is no limit to our ability to gain the friendship and respect of others.

Excerpts from "Shefford" by Dr. Judith Grunfeld ( See also the biography of Dr. Grunfeld, entitled "Rebetzin Grunfeld" (


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