From the January 2016 issue of The Rotarian. In this issue, we kick off 2016 with first-person accounts of Rotary members' most harrowing and heartfelt personal experiences. Pick up the issue to explore more stories.
Linda Le Vine
Rotary Club of Westlake Village, Calif.
When I was a child, my mother and I lived in an apartment near the center of London. This was during World War II, and our neighborhood was constantly under assault by the Luftwaffe. Most nights and many days, monstrous bombs, sometimes from hundreds of bombers at a time, attempted to destroy our city and demoralize or murder its citizens. This nearly unceasing attack on our civilian population completely terrorized us and left lasting scars. None of us were certain we would survive. We lived in constant fear that Germany would win this horrific war and our country would be brutally occupied.
England’s capital at the time was mainly inhabited by women, children, and elderly men. Most of the younger men, including my father, were in the British armed forces. One evening when I was six, after we had eaten our usual rations of a sausage, cabbage, and a boiled potato, my mother tucked me into bed, forgetting to close the blackout curtains. She kissed me goodnight and went to visit with neighbors in an upstairs apartment.
A short time later, the piercing shriek of an air raid warning jolted me awake. Within seconds, thousands of tons of exploding bombs shattered almost every window in our apartment. Because the curtains weren’t drawn, broken glass and shrapnel flew into my room, grazing my arms and legs. Then the walls imploded, entombing me under the mangled wreckage of what had been my bedroom. I was trapped and unable to move.
The raid seemed endless. One plane after another dropped its sinister cargo. I was more scared than I’d ever been in my young life. Between bombing runs, I could hear the frantic cries of my neighbors.
Eventually, my mother found her way to my burial site. She screamed hysterically as she tried to reach me under the pile of rubble. She couldn’t do it alone, and I was too little and too trapped to move. It required the help of several neighbors to pull me to safety.
When I was finally free, my mother kissed me all over, wetting my face with her tears. She wiped a little blood from my arms and legs but decided my wounds were superficial and could be attended to later. As the bombing continued, we grabbed our gas masks and my doll and raced to the bomb shelter.
I hated that shelter: a small, crowded, putrid hole in the ground. Rats often burrowed through the crumbling brick walls and hid within the flimsy bedding that gave us only a little relief from the cold. Rodent droppings covered the filthy floor. Many people became ill with hepatitis A because our food and water were often contaminated, and it was not uncommon to see skin and eyes yellowed by the disease. In one particularly horrific incident, a two-year-old boy was bitten by a large black rat. The child was taken to a hospital, howling in pain.
That night, we couldn’t sleep. The cries of babies crammed together on dirty cots along the walls echoed throughout the night. I huddled in a corner, fearing that the shelter would be destroyed and that I would again be buried alive.
The next morning, my mother and I joined the hordes of other dazed and injured refugees who were suddenly homeless, wandering the streets of London. We shouted with rage at our enemies when we saw the ugly black craters that had once been the homes of our neighbors. It was impossible to believe that so much evil existed in the world and that people of another country would want to slaughter us like we were simply cockroaches to be extinguished. Fires still smoldered from the previous night, and acrid smoke filled our nostrils. The dead and injured were scattered everywhere. Rescue workers solemnly unearthed body parts in an attempt to recover victims for proper burial. My mother removed her apron and placed it over my head so that I wouldn’t see the charred, lifeless bodies.
The government arranged our evacuation to a pretty town outside London. Two elderly sisters received money from the war authorities to take us in. After several months, the sisters discovered that our religion was different from theirs and demanded that we leave immediately. Having no money, my mother had no choice but to move us back to London to stay with relatives. Their apartment, crowded and small, was several miles away from our previous one. It was, however, still within the target range of the enemy’s bombs.
I enrolled in a new school. A few weeks after school began, I became best friends with a lovely blond girl who kindly welcomed me into her “girlfriends group.” Later that year, she and her family were killed during an aerial attack at her home. I was devastated. At school, our teacher solemnly told the class to put our heads down on our desks to pray for her. We lowered our heads, folded our hands, and quietly wept.
One morning during recess, our games were halted by the shrieking siren of an air raid warning. Within seconds, we heard the roar of massive groups of planes approaching. Thunderous blasts rolled through the neighborhood as incendiary bombs exploded nearby. The air filled with the bright orange of explosives and the choking smoke from burning buildings. I closed my eyes to erase the unbearable reality of it. Most of the students cried or screamed, while others held their fear deep inside as the teachers led us to the basement shelter. My teacher, Mrs. Clark, looked to the skies and shouted at the butchery and wickedness of it all.
After that, it was almost impossible to keep our minds on our studies. How to survive the next onslaught dominated our thoughts.
Toward the end of the war, my kind and gentle grandmother Esther was cooking dinner in her tiny apartment in East London when a buzz bomb speeding over 300 miles an hour incinerated her neighborhood. For a long time after she was killed, I would lie in bed at night and imagine the panic she must have felt when she heard the sickening buzzing sound of Hitler’s latest weapon. She knew, as we all did, that when the buzz bomb became silent, it was falling to earth to erase the lives of all of those within its path.
I couldn’t believe Grandma Esther and I would no longer laugh together or share fish and chips (with extra vinegar) in her cozy kitchen. I feared I would never again smell the golden daffodils she nurtured in small window boxes around her apartment, or hear the beautiful symphony music she loved to listen to on her radio.
During the night, I slept cocooned within my mother’s comforting arms, afraid that she would die as so many other mothers had and that I would be alone in the world. I became obsessed with the thought of losing her as I’d lost my grandmother.
Even after these many years, memories of the bombings haunt my dreams. Often at night, when I hear friendly airplanes flying over my home in California, I shudder with long-ago memories of other planes.
Violence is still a daily occurrence for many children. The wars are different, but the cruelties that are inflicted upon innocent children remain the same. Hardly a day goes by without the media showing us the confused and terrified faces of children who are the victims of war. These images of suffering play out like a recording without end. When I look into the eyes of these children, I automatically think back to the atrocities that I experienced in my youth.
How can we stop subjecting generations of children to death and destruction, to the loss of home and family? These experiences will haunt them forever. To paraphrase Golda Meir, the former prime minister of Israel, “War will only cease when we love our children more than we hate our enemies.”
The Rotarian Action Group for Peace provides resources for Rotary members and clubs to work together for tolerance and understanding. Learn more at www.rotarianactiongroupforpeace.org.