In late December, just before the ‘Christmas Rush’ in our London hairdressing shop, Mummy and I walked the mile to
Liverpool Street Station in Bishopsgate.
Children clustered outside houses singing Christmas carols. All I knew about Christmas was the Christmas Rush in the
shop, the gentiles having their hair done for some kind of celebration, and everyone being in a cheerful mood, buying
food and calling out to everyone, ‘Hallo luv.’ Usually, Mrs. Lyons looked after me during the Christmas Rush, but she
was expecting her seventh baby.
“Bloody fool,” Mummy said. “At least your father always takes care of me,” whatever that meant.
Some, it seemed, were not so happy. Along Bishopsgate, hung a huge poster with a group of sad, white-faced children
all dressed in gray, pressed tightly together. Underneath it said, “Help Dr. Barnado’s Orphan Children.”
The lamplighters were lighting the yellow street gas lamps with their long tapers, spreading soft lights through the
foggy dusk. As we ran down the two flights of stone steps into the huge cave that was Liverpool Street Station, a flash
of lightning and a clap of thunder rent the air. Safe inside the dimly lit, smoky cavern, I craned my head back to look up
at the gigantic glass roof a mile above, held up by criss-crossed iron bars. A few birds taking shelter chirped among
A man at the gate took our tickets, as Mummy pushed me into a carriage. “Hurry,” she said.
Were we visiting or was I being sent away again? During the rush, and summers, Mummy usually sent me to Mrs. Lyons
or some ‘aunt’ I’d never met.
As the whistle blew, and the stationmaster solemnly waved his red flag up and down, a furious rain poured down,
lashing against the carriage windows. The train, rattling off, lumbered slowly, like an old woman, then gathered into a
rumbling speed. The wind moaned like a woman grieving.
In our dim carriage, lit by one yellow light, the only other person was a slender woman wearing a neat, beige, belted
Macintosh and black galoshes. Her brown leather gloves lay on the seat beside her on their backs, fingers curled up
like claws. The woman rested one pale hand with white, pointed fingernails on the circled sapphire glass handle of her
umbrella. This sapphire circle, a large wizard’s eye, winked at me tauntingly as it swayed to the rhythm of the rattling
train. Its deep, sapphire blue was Mummy's favorite color, but I feared the blue glass would shatter and tiny icy shards
would fly all over and bury themselves in Mummy’s heart. Small for five, feeling tiny, I shrank into the dark corner of
the brown velvet carriage seat. My little yellow face, with hair parted in the middle, looked back at me from the dark
window. The rain pouring down it looked like tears flowing down my face. My small suitcase, high on the net luggage
rack, rocked with the motion of the train. Mummy often sent me away. She’d said she hadn’t wanted to marry Daddy, but
her younger sister, Mitzi, wanted to marry, and the eldest had to marry first. Who wanted a child in the Depression?
"Did you hear about that train crash?" the woman said.
"Yes, wasn't it awful? So many dead and injured. They still haven't found them all. They found some heads and legs,
but not their bodies," Mummy said.
"Gruesome, wasn't it? Would your little girl like a piece of chocolate?" the woman said, smiling at Mummy. She leaned
forward, tore back the Cadbury chocolate’s blue cover, and then the silver foil, exposing the rich brown chocolate with
a white nut sticking out like a bone.
"No thank you," I said, shrinking back into my corner.
After a long, long time we drew into a dark station where a large sign in black on white said "Chingford." I had no idea
where Chingford was. It could have been Africa.
“Let’s exchange addresses,” Mummy said quickly, before the train drew to a halt. No one in the East End owned a
telephone, but the postman delivered letters twice a day. "Bye, bye, drop in soon," Mummy said, waving to the
woman as we left the train. The woman waved back, smiling cheerfully from inside the dark train as it rumbled off.
The rain turned to snow, which batted against our faces and laced Mummy’s mascarraed eyelashes with white as we
trudged up a black hill. Large, fat snow drops fell white against the huge bare brown tree trunks, clung to their
branches, and sat in the nooks of their twisted arms. Scarcely able to see through the falling snow, I thought the road
sign said, "Oak Hill." There were no shops as at home, no cheery pubs, music or prancing racer greyhounds leading
proud owners as in East London, just silent, empty and desolate streets lined with bare black trees and large, faceless
houses, curtains drawn. Mummy stopped at a huge house, peered up, and said, “Forrest Hall!"
We mounted snowy stone steps.
I wanted to ask where we were, and why, but no sooner had she pulled the bell than the door flew open as if it were
the Beast’s magic castle.
A thin young woman dressed in black, a white cap over her forehead, a white apron round her waist said, "This way,
Warden is expecting you."
She led us to another large oak door, knocked and pressed her ear to it. I wondered if my deaf Daddy knew we had
gone out. He wouldn’t have heard us leave. We hadn’t said goodbye. He'd now have his head in his library book,
standing, leaning his elbows on the mantelpiece over the bedroom fire, reading. He wouldn’t even hear us come back.
"Come," said a man's voice.
Mother pushed her finger-nail in my back so that I stumbled into a large, oriental red-carpeted room. A man in a brown
tweed suit with a matching waistcoat leaned comfortably in an armchair, a desk in front of him. Behind his back, a red
and blue coal fire roared. With his pink chubby cheeks and thin sandy hair, he certainly wasn’t Jewish.
"This is my child," mother said. She took off my wet coat, then the white angora beret. I stared around.
"Ah, yes, Mrs. Moss. We find short good-byes best."
Mummy kissed my cheek, and smiled. She always left me with a kiss, her mouth smelling of violet cashews against bad
breath, a brilliant smile, and if at a station, a wave of her white, lacy handkerchief.
"Be a good girl," she said, and left.
I stared after her, and then burst into tears.
A big fat nurse bustled into the room.
"I’m Nurse Harris. Come along, then," she said, pulling me by the hand. "How old are you, five? Don’t cry. You're not a
baby any more."
Nurse Harris, red-faced and panting, ran with me through a swinging baize-covered door with a diamond-shaped glass
in it, then down three stone stairs. I knew from rich Aunt Fanny's house that this swinging door covered with wool
except for the diamond glass showed where the master's part of the house ended and the servants' part began. We
were going downstairs into servants’ quarters of a large house. Nurse Harris ran with me through a long, stone-
flagged corridor, passing a huge, stone floored kitchen on the left. Opposite the kitchen, on our right, children's coats
hung on hooks in the wall, small galoshes underneath them on the floor. Ahead, I could see the end of the house and
the beginning of a courtyard like my grandparents,’ now lit by the moon, light and snow pouring through the open
door. We spilled out of the door into this cold courtyard, only I knew that there would be no kindly grandfather Zada at
the back of it, measuring pound bags of babylach, small beans, in his granary.
Snow in fat lumps hit our faces for a minute before we turned right, and then sharp left--an enormous long wooden
shed, lit by the moon and snow, loomed in the dark. By now the woods around the house and shed were smothered in
snow, which still fell, white, like my tears. I was crying snow.
The fat nurse, breathing heavily, climbed up three wooden steps into the shed.
Inside, my eyes peered through the gloom. All I could see were flickering candles and many white-faced children
sitting at a long trestle table. The room was so long that I could not see the end of it, deep in shadows.
As my eyes became used to the darkness, I saw the low table near our entrance in the corner. Small, sad children my
age and younger, aged three or four, sat at this table. Cheap, sticky blobs of sweets like those Rosie, my London
school friend sucked, sat in front of each little child. I was used to fat, square, brown gold-striped humbugs, shiny and
hard outside, with delicious toffee or caramel inside, not these cheap sweets. I sat, scorning the lumps of sugar.
Besides the small low table for the little children, there stretched in the center of the room, a long trestle table at
which sat some forty older children, also white-faced, from about six to thirteen. These all stared at me silently,
reminding me of the Dr. Barnardo orphans on the London poster at Liverpool Street Station. Were we still in London?
I didn’t know.
I could not understand how the tall tree all the way up to the ceiling grew out of the middle of the floor. How could a
tree grow inside a room? Why did it have torn silver paper wound round it, little candles burning all over it and a
celluloid dolly with wings on her shoulders at its very top? I’d only seen trees in Shoreditch churchyard where we
played, summers, after school, and they had only leaves on them, not silver, candles and dolls. Perhaps this was a
magic tree. I was afraid to touch it, in case it turned me into a frog.
Sleepy from the long ride, I put my head down on the table. Nurse Harris woke me, and showed me a little iron bed
where small children aged three and four slept. I felt insulted at being given cheap sweets and put to bed with infants.
But I would wait quietly until Mummy came back. After Nurse Harris told me not to cry I was a big girl, I spoke to no one,
and, no one had spoken to me. The children didn’t talk to each other, either.
The next day in the cozy nursery, I felt a little better because of a toy stove that really lit when I put a match to it. I was
so enthralled with this stove that I almost forgot I was far away from home in a strange place. But when I looked out of
the window of the nursery, the sky was dull white and bleak; only bare trees and branches loomed outside in the open
country, with snow falling, falling on the leafless trees, now all white. Not even a sparrow flitting across the sky broke
the falling snow.
Nurse Harris stood, filling the door with her fat body, and shouted, “Everyone dress and march to the common room.”
She helped the real babies with their clothes, but I dressed myself. No fat old witch was going to touch me.
In the common room, where we’d sat last night, a tall, skinny nurse rushed in carrying a white metal bowl. “Be quiet
everyone, I have a terrible headache,” she shouted. All of us sat at the long table on benches with no backs to them.
Each child took a turn coming up to her. She ladled some white, slimy stuff I’d never seen into each bowl. None of the
children spoke to each other. I didn’t know if we were forbidden to speak, or they had nothing to say. A tin spoon lay
next to each bowl. Finally, I had to speak to someone. But would she answer?
“What’s this?” I asked the thin girl next to me.
“Porridge. Ain’t you never seen porridge before?”
I had never eaten porridge. I tried mine. It was almost cold, lumpy and had no taste.
“We don’t get no milk and sugar ‘ere,” she said.
As we sat eating, the skinny nurse walked along the table hitting us on the back with a stick. “Sit straight.”
“Who’s that?” I asked the girl.
“Sister. Don’t cross ‘er.”
Sister rushed round the tables, her starched apron crackling as she walked, whacking children’s backs. Her thin face
was cold, hair covered with a white nurse’s sheet that hung down her back in a “V” over the crossed-over straps of
her apron. There were two witches here, fat Nurse Harris and thin Sister. She didn’t have a name. Nor did we.
Through the large room-length windows of the common room, I watched stretched silent woods, and thick falling
"You there, go into the kitchen," Nurse Harris said. "You,” she pointed to the blonde girl next to me, “show her where
"Cum on stupid, foller me."
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Violet,” she said, running on bowlegs in front of me.
Violet’s blonde head was taller than mine, her face pale and thin, set with large, beautiful violet but tragic eyes. She
had bitten her nails down to the cuticle. Since Mummy manicured women’s nails, I knew what a cuticle was.
We ran out of the dining room, jumped down the wooden stairs, out into the snow-filled yard and came to the open-air,
stone-flagged courtyard I'd come through last night with Nurse Harris. I wished I were going to join my grandfather in
the warmth of the granary; I wished I were going into his strong arms instead of to this strange kitchen.
"This way," Violet said, turning right, grabbing my hand. It was the first time anyone here had touched me. I held her
bony hand in mine, and my other hand clutched Mumfie, my gray velvet elephant doll.
We ran into the long, stone flagged hallway I had come through last night. Far off, I could see the steps leading up to
the baize door with the diamond-shaped glass in it that I'd come through yesterday. Past the baize door was the
warden and then the front door. If only I could get to the front door and run away. But how would I get home? Like
Gretel, I had no idea where I was, or how to get home. Perhaps on the other side of the baize door still sat the Warden,
whom I imagined to be like a Wizard. He would surely stand in my way and shout, “Go back.”
"On the other side of that baize door is Warden's office and the front door where you cum in," Violet said. "You won't
see ‘im again unless you done somefink wrong or when you leaves. If you ever leaves."
I looked at Violet sharply. "How long have you been here?"
"Since I wos four."
"How old are you now?"
"When's your mother coming for you?"
"Don't 'ave no muvver. She died when I wos four."
"Is anyone coming for you? What about your father?"
"'Ain't got no farver. 'e's dead, too."
I began trembling. Questions crowded my mind until I was ready to burst. Violet had no mother or father. Violet was an
orphan. Every child’s face was white like those on Dr. Barnado’s poster. This must be an orphanage. I had a mother
and a father, grandparents, uncles, aunts. What was I doing in an orphanage? Did Daddy know I was gone? I
remembered how weak Hansel and Gretel’s father had been, giving in to whatever the mother did to the children. But
surely my mother wouldn't leave me here. Would she? Would she leave me here until I was eight? For three more
years? No. Of course she'd be back. She'd be back probably after the Christmas rush in the shop. All the gentiles got
their hair done for Christmas, then the shop would be 'dead.' Mrs. Lyons wasn’t taking care of me, as usual because
she was having another baby. Probably next week Mummy would come and I'd soon be back in my little cot next to
Mummy and Daddy's bed. I squeezed Mumfie hard. A few grains of sawdust fell out. If his sawdust all felt out he’d die.
Then I’d be all alone.
Violet pulled me by the hand into the huge stone-flagged kitchen, as clean and tidy as Booba’s, my grandmother’s, but
totally different. Booba’s kitchen was warm and elegant. Here, a long, bare, wooden table stood in the middle, a large
cold white china bowl on it, and two women in white aprons stood behind it, arms folded over chests. I thought that
the woman with the large bosom must be the cook. The other, who was thin and almost flat all over, was Sister, who
stared at us with cold, blue eyes.
"Do what she says," Violet whispered.
"Come and drop a sixpence in the Christmas pudding, and give it a stir," Sister said briskly, her starched apron
crackling each time she breathed.
Sister held out a shiny sixpence and a wooden spoon.
"Drop sixpence into the pudding?" I asked, doubtfully. I'd never heard of pudding let alone dropping money into food.
At home we ate fresh white rolls or black bread and butter, homemade gefilte or fried fish and chips, chicken soup,
roast chicken and roast potatoes, and Mummy often stuffed the skin of a chicken neck. When she sucked chicken legs
and feet, the claws stuck out of her mouth as if coming out instead of going in.
"Hurry up," Sister said, "we haven't got all day."
My chin barely up to the table, I stood on the stepstool underneath. I looked at the dark, sticky ball in the bowl. Was this
pudding? I dropped the shiny sixpence into the bowl (Mummy would have banked it), then tried to stir the hard black
ball with the wooden spoon. Although the ball barely moved, my sixpence disappeared. Violet in turn dropped her
sixpence into the pudding and stirred it.
"You two. Go back to the common room," Sister said, her voice cool. Nurse and Sister called us all “you.”
When Violet and I went back to the common room, the children were playing on the stage at its far end. Nurse Harris
called another two children to go to the kitchen.
We were eating the fruity plum pudding. My tongue searched for the sixpence, I feared swallowing it. Finally I found the
cold, flat metal, and pushed the sixpence out into my hand. I licked the brown pudding off of it.
"Cor blimey, sixpence," Violet said, with shining eyes. She still didn't smile. I'd never seen her, or anyone in the
orphanage smile. To Violet, sixpence was a lot. I was used to my grandparents, uncles, aunts and mother's friends all
shtipping me—secretly--with eight-sided gold threepences that stood up by themselves, shiny silver sixpences,
shillings and even half crowns on birthdays. "Don't tell your mother," they all whispered as they slipped me the coins. I
gave all to Mummy as she'd ordered me to, except I hid the pennies.
Violet gazed greedily at the sixpence in her skinny palm as if she had never seen or touched money at all. She licked
the black pudding off of it.
In the morning, Sister, in starched white apron and nurse's cap, came crackling like a cold fire into the dining room,
carrying the horrid bowl of porridge.
"Be quiet, you children, “I have a splitting headache."
When I grew up I would never eat porridge, eat or drink from metal plates or mugs. Their cold touch made me long for
fresh rolls and butter, for china cups and saucers. For London and home.
Sister passed behind our benches, hitting our backs with her long thin stick. “Sit straight.” I sat straight.
Fat Nurse Harris shouted, "Put on your coats and hats and line up in a crocodile."
"What's a crocodile? I don't see one," I hissed to Violet.
"It's two by twos, stupid," Violet whispered.
Each child silently dressed in the cloakroom. Violet shoved her hand into mine. I looked behind and saw a long,
winding double line of children. It was true; we did look like a crocodile’s tail, like the picture Daddy had shown me in
Kipling's Just So stories. The crocodile started off. As Nurse Harris marched ahead in her great flat-heeled shoes,
swinging her arms like a soldier, I watched her big bum joggling up and down. I thought of mother's tiny size five high-
heeled shoes with little bows on the front.
Our crocodile walked silently along the snowy streets. I had no idea where we were or where we were going. We
seemed to be in the country, since the streets were lined with gnarled trees, now all black and bare. The snow had
stopped briefly; a thin winter sun glimmered through the great black branches.
Snow began to fall again, great white flakes the wind driving the snow into our faces.
I wanted to be home in London in front of the roaring coal fire in the kitchen, toasting a great white slab of bread on a
long toasting fork, slathering on it thick butter and jam, munching it deliciously hot. Binkie the black kitten would be
curled up in front of the fire, Daddy reading the paper, Mummy reading TRUE CONFESSIONS, eating a box of Black
As wet snow smashed into my face, I came back to the present. Snow now etched the black branches with white. The
sky turned gray and bleak as if it were crying. There were no shops, no cars, no rumbling lorries or horses and carts,
no comforting train hoots nor the beautiful mournful cry of ships in the fog at the London docks. Except for Violet,
these streets and these people were all strange. No grownup had spoken to me except to tell me what to do. And
children certainly didn't talk to any grownups.
"Don't speak unless you're spoken to," Sister said.
“Stop,” Sister called out.
The crocodile came to a stop outside a huge red door.
“Go inside,” Nurse Harris ordered.
We entered an enormous room, like a huge cave, as high as Liverpool Street Station. At least it was warm. I craned my
neck to look at the glass ceiling. On one side of the great room I saw with amazement a gigantic red fire-truck. First a
tree, then a fire-truck inside a room. How did they get inside? Was this some magic country I’d fallen into?
"Hallo, Children, Merry Christmas," said a huge, fat man dressed all in red and white. I wished to snuggle in my
grandfather’s warm lap. Did Mummy tell them as usual, that I was in the country ‘for my health’? Had anyone missed me?
"Ho, ho, ho," the fat man in red shouted. This must be an evil wizard from a fairy tale come to eat us up, like the giant in
‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’ But no, he was laughing happily. Several more men dressed in black uniforms with two rows
of shiny brass buttons helped us off with our coats and led us to a long, long trestle table like the orphanage table,
only this one had a tablecloth on it, and plates of cakes and jellies. From the ceilings hung colored paper chains. Next
to each plate lay a fat red or blue roll of paper tied up near each end with colored string. What were they for?
There was that tree again, growing in the middle of the room. How had they got it to grow inside?
"Sit down, children. Eat as much as you like; there's jelly and blancmange and cakes and biscuits and lemonade. And
pull your crackers, too," the man in red shouted.
"Pull it wiv me," Violet said, holding out her red roll of paper in bony little hands.
"Pull it where?" I said. "What is it?"
"Oh, 'ere, take 'old of the other end and just pull," Violet said. "You don't know nuffink."
As I pulled, there was a loud 'crack,’ the roll of paper broke in two, a spark flashed, and I fell backward off of the bench.
Violet laughed for the first time, a cackling laugh like a chicken before its throat was cut in the Brick Lane Market. With
great dignity I climbed back on the bench. A red folded paper and a green ring had fallen out of the paper cracker onto
"Mine," Violet held, diving for them. She opened out the folded paper: a stupid paper hat, which she put on her head,
then she slid the green ring on her finger. "Look, I'm married," Violet said, turning her skinny finger this way and that.
The bright green stone didn't look anything like Mummy’s thin, gold wedding band.
"Let's pull yourn, now," Violet said. My cracker was green with a gold tassel on it, quite pretty for paper. Violet and I
pulled it. I hated the 'crack’ sound it made and was afraid of the little spark that flew out like the sparks from our fire at
home. Out popped a little folded piece of blue paper, which I now knew was a hat, and a tiny folded paper umbrella
with colored roses all over it.
"‘Ere’s your ’at, it’s a pointy one," Violet said, putting it on my head, but I snatched it off. "Look, this little paper
umbrella opens and shuts," she said.
"It's so tiny it fits into my hand," I said, cradling it.
"Let's eat the grub," Violet said, and she shoved red jelly into her mouth, then sang with her mouth full, swaying from
side to side,
"Jelly on the plate,
Jelly on the plate
Wibble wobble wibble wobble
Jelly on the plate."
“Don’t stuff your cheeks, you little pigs,” Sister said. The other children also gobbled food. I ate nothing.
Sister and Nurse Harris talking to the men I now saw were firemen, were both actually laughing. I'd never before seen
them laugh. Sister had large, even teeth. Nurse’s small eyes glistened with merriment, and her brown, frizzy hair
stood on end like a golliwog doll. My mother should do her hair, I thought. She was laughing with a skinny fireman.
Finally, the firemen sat down, drank foaming beer with Sister and Nurse Harris, and the children finished their last bites
of food. I would not eat. If I ate with them, it would mean I was an orphan.
When Mummy came for me I’d show them I had a real mother.
The crocodile, heads down against the driving snow, wound its way back to the orphanage, stamping through the piles
that now lay on the ground and sloshed round our ankles. A few children were out sledding down hills with their
mothers and fathers. I was angry with them, too. Why should they be with their mothers and fathers and I left alone in
How I wished Mummy were here to give me a cozy hot water bottle for my chilled feet and to tuck me into bed, saying
the Shema prayer with me. Daddy might even read me a story. If only he’d come for me. Did he know I was gone?
"Everybody up, it's Christmas Day," Nurse Harris said.
Instead of the usual lumpy, dry porridge, a single pink, fat sausage sat across each white enamel plate. An enormous
knife and fork, for the first time, were placed on either side of the plate. All this cutlery for one sausage, I thought. I'd
seen pink sausages like this hanging in a string in the trefe, Christian butcher shops, but I'd never eaten one.
Sausages were non-Jewish foods, like their inch-thick bread smothered in dripping: ‘doorsteps’ that gentile kids ate
for lunch, also pigs’ feet and rabbits.
The other children cut their cold, pink sausages into pieces with their knives and forks and greedily ate them. I cut
mine slowly and tasted it. Although cold, it was the most delicious food I'd ever tasted. Perhaps it was pork. I didn't
know. Mummy never bought pork. Although not religious, we only ate kosher food, as far as I knew, because Booba
told Mummy to buy meat from her own kosher butcher, and Mummy always obeyed Booba.
After Christmas breakfast, Sister pushed us into a crocodile for church. I'd never been in a church before. I'd never
even been in a synagogue. Zada spoke some strange words I later found out were Hebrew blessings over food.
Mummy and Daddy were Jewish, but except for the fact that we ate different food and she lit candles on Friday night,
before going to work, she did nothing else Jewish.
Booba and Zada, and sometimes, even Mummy and Daddy spoke Yiddish, which I didn’t understand. “Stop,” cried
The soaring building they called church was almost as high as Liverpool Street Station. Inside, gigantic pipes towering
up to the high ceiling terrified me; they looked as if they would fall down on us all. The little holes in each long, pointed
pipe looked like sharks' snouts whose mouths would eat us. The thunderous sounds coming out of the pipes sounded
like a giant groaning in terrible pain as they rolled out over our heads without stopping for a breath. Mummy loved
opera, which she always played on the gramophone. “I’d run away with Gigli anytime,” she used to say. I longed for
Gigli’s soft voice. This music was sad, mournful, like someone tortured. Its low notes sounded like a growling giant; its
high notes squealed like our stepped-on cat.
Then I nearly jumped out of my seat. A big statue of a man hung high up on the wall, naked on top, some schmatte, a
rag, covered his hips. His arms stretched; someone had hammered horrible nails through his hands, going through the
wood behind them. His feet crossed over each other and nails through went through both his feet. Who could have
done such a terrible cruel thing to him? His head hung down as if he were ashamed or dying. It was a terrible,
frightening statue. It was almost worse than Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, where they showed how Poles hung a
woman from a steel hook stuck through her stomach. Who were the terrible people who had nailed this man to pieces
An organist high above us played the way they played music at the flicks before the Saturday morning film.
Nurse Harris opened her big mouth and sang in a man's voice, her red face and giant bosoms straining against her
apron. Sister sang in a high voice. Violet kicked me.
"Ouch," I whispered. "Why did you do that?"
"Why doncha sing like all of us?"
"Don't know the tune, don't know the words."
"No. I'm Jewish."
"Oh. A Jew girl. Well, I'll teach you the words."
She showed me the place in a book called a hymnbook. They were singing to God or to the British Empire.
"Land of hope and glory
Mother of the free,"
A lot more words followed that I didn't know, then they sang, in a tremendous chorus,
"God who made us mighty,
Make us mightier, yet."
I supposed we were asking God to give us a bigger Empire.
More than India.
Back in the common room Sister gave me some lined paper and a pencil.
"Write a letter home now, before lunch," Sister said to me. Don't forget to date your letter December 26, 1934."
None of the other children wrote letters or mentioned parents. For that matter, I'd never spoken of mine. I was too
ashamed that mine had left me here, unwanted, like Gretel. I hugged Mumfie and another tiny trickle of sawdust slid
from his leg. I must not hug him so hard.
"I'll write our address the first time,” Sister said.
She wrote swiftly:
Then I wrote:
Dear Mummy and Daddy,
How long will I be here? Violet says there are ghosts here. Today we had a sausage for breakfast and went to church.
Please send me some toffees.
"There are no ghosts here," Sister said, tearing up my letter. "Write another letter."
"There are ghosts. I seen them," Violet said.
"Be quiet you children, I have a splitting headache," Sister said, every morning. I wondered why she didn't take aspirin
I missed Mummy, my silent father, our lively hairdressing shop (when it was busy) and its mixed sharp and sweet smells
of ammonia for the perms, shaving lotion for the men. I missed seeing the giant, Medusa-like black perm machines,
Wednesday afternoon shopping with Mummy, Billingsgate, Houndsditch, Brick Lane, Petticoat Lane and the Wednesday
fights between Mummy and Daddy because he loved to buy beautiful jewelry at the wholesalers and she liked to save; I
missed Binkie, chicken soup and fried fish and chips, the fish and chip shops, my best friend Joycey Kennel, my gentle
Zada, my glamorous Aunty Mitzi; I even missed my flinty Booba and my two uncles, Max and Sam, even though they
always teased me. There were no grownup men here at all to talk to or even to tease me, no men customers smelling
wonderfully of tobacco and beer, only small, scared, gentile boys. I missed my London and the freedom to wander, all
the familiar Roman roads, the shops and Jews and hearing Yiddish even if I didn't understand it all, the nightly comfort
of the foghorn from the nearby docks and the hoot of the nearby passing trains. Here the nights were deathly still and
silent as if everyone were dead. Except for Violet, no child spoke to me. Adults only gave orders.
One day in the nursery, Nurse Harris called me over to my bed. Bending her vast bulk down, shoving her red face into
mine, she chanted, "Now we are six, we make our own bed," as if she'd said this to a hundred children. "This is how
you make a hospital corner."
That was how I knew that it was January 9, and I was six, and the New Year, 1935, must have begun.
Now that I was six I slept in a high, iron bed in the big dormitory with the other children, in the house, up the curved
wood balcony on the first floor, fifteen or twenty on each side of the large room.
"Everyone go to the cloakroom for hats and coats," Sister said, as we finished our porridge.
"Form a crocodile," Sister said.
"Quick march," Sister said, and with Nurse Harris at the head of the long crocodile, we marched off to our first day at
We passed children going to school with their mothers. I wanted to shout, "I'm not an orphan, really, and I really have
a mother and father." Only I couldn't find them.
My new school was a large, light-colored one-story building completely different from the dark red brick of Wood Close
in London. The building was much newer. Instead of the cement playground, it had grass around it, most of it covered
with snow. A few tender white and purple crocuses with tiny yellow tongues peeped through the snow and grass
around the school. I wished I could pick one.
We were all in a large, dark room where we met for morning prayers.
"Would you sing us one of your Jewish songs?" Miss Lawson, the teacher asked. How did she know I was Jewish? I
couldn't see any difference in the way I looked from the other children. Well, perhaps my eyes slanted up a little more,
like Mummy’s and Booba’s. Nurse Harris, who daily walked us to school, must have told her. I wished she hadn't. I didn’t
want to be different. Also, there might be Fascists kids here as in East London who would hit me over the head with a
plank and say, “Take that, Jew girl.”
I had a good voice, like Mummy.
The gentile children all sat cross-legged on the polished boards of the floor, so low, while I stood, that I felt tall and
I sang a haunting, mournful Hebrew song Mummy had taught me: "Shuvi nafshi.” It meant,
"Be at rest, Oh my soul, for the Lord has dealt kindly
with you. You delivered my soul from death, my eyes
from tears and my feet from stumbling. I shall walk before the Lord in the world of life. I trust even when I cry out: ‘I am
greatly afflicted. I have faith even when I say in haste, "All men are deceitful.’"
Why had my mother with the beautiful voice led me, who trusted her, by the hand, and deceitfully abandoned me? Who
was going to rescue me from this witch-like place; who would stop the silent tears in my heart that I couldn't shed? I
was a stranger in a strange land where no one understood me. Like Mummy, the adults and children all heard me, but
except for Violet, didn’t listen to me. Like deaf Daddy, they listened but couldn’t hear.
The room was deadly quiet as all the children, sitting so still on the hard boards of the wooden floor, listened. I
knew the song sounded as sad as I felt. After I finished there was dead silence. No one clapped.
"Thank you," said the teacher politely. “Sit down.”
About a week later our class was again in the large, dark room, standing together in a clump.
“I’m going to pick children to act in our school play,” Miss Lawson said. I became excited. At home, in London, happy, I
had often acted in school plays. I loved acting. Perhaps she would pick me to be in the play.
"Now I don't want anyone to put up their hand and ask to go to the bathroom," Miss Lawson said.
I looked down and to my horror, saw directly under me, a puddle at my feet on the floor. I'd never ever wet my knickers.
The only Jew in the class had wet her knickers.
"Hurry up, I never did, a big girl of six wetting her bloomers, you're a disgrace," Nurse Harris scolded, rushing me from
school. I hung my head, not understanding how it had happened, and in front of everyone. Nurse Harris, puffing and
panting, dragged me, shamefaced, by the hand back to the orphanage. I staggered with my legs apart like a Saturday
night drunk because the long, wet bloomers rubbing my inside thighs were making them sore. It was hard to walk as
fast as an angry Nurse with wet legs apart.
As we came to a main road I saw a crowd of men and women standing in a circle staring at something on the ground.
Through a parting in the circle I saw a horse and cart. The horse's head hung down as if he were as ashamed as I was.
A woman lay flat on her back on the ground behind the cart, her arms and legs outstretched almost like the statue in
the church but without the wood behind her. Suddenly the pale skin on her face, neck, arms and legs parted into a
hundred seams and blood seeped out of all the seams.
I slowed, dragging my feet to look back over my shoulder. I felt like that woman, as if I'd been run over by a huge cart
and horse, all my seams opened, my life-blood seeping out, like the sawdust seeping out of Mumfie. Nurse Harris
jerked my arm. "Come on," she said roughly, "don't dawdle."
Two days later, we children were all in the common room where we ate and played. Nurse Harris had sent most of the
children to bed; only Mary, Violet and I were left in the dining-play room. Mary, about thirteen, was the biggest girl in
the orphanage. As fat as she was tall, her one claim to beauty was her long, dark thick hair and her mole. She was so
tall and fat, and I, so small and thin, I could stand under her, look up, and see the big brown mole underneath her chin.
The mole was as big as a sixpence and brown as a halfpenny.
"Who said you could stay up so late?" Mary demanded of Violet. "You're only eight, you should be in bed."
"Nurse Harris hasn't called me yet," Violet squeaked.
"I'm telling you to go to bed," Mary said.
"But I don't fink I'm supposed to go up until I'm called," Violet quavered.
Mary pushed Violet so hard that she fell, legs sprawled, showing her long, red orphanage bloomers.
The next thing I knew someone slapped Mary's fat face.
"I'm telling," she screamed, rushing out of the room.
I had no idea how I'd come to slap Mary's face. I felt no impact. It seemed to happen by itself. I’d never in my life
slapped anyone nor seen anyone slapped.
"Come to bed immediately. You'll be bathed with the nursery children," Nurse Harris shouted at me, filling the doorway
with her huge bulk and panting red face. "You certainly like to cause trouble, don't you?" she hissed through the big
gap between her front two teeth.
I’d never been in this bathroom with two baths in it, side-by-side, and an aisle between them. I examined the four claw
legs on the bottom of each bath. In each of the baths sat a tiny, helpless little nursery girl of two or three. I felt
humiliated being bathed with such babies, especially since I’d turned six in January, left the nursery and slept with the
big boys and girls.
Nurse Harris lifted a tiny girl out of the bath with one hand. The wet, slippery thing clung terrified to the fat nurse's arm
like a baby monkey to its mother, and Nurse Harris rubbed the baby down hard with the towel. Although rough, I could
see that Nurse Harris worked hard.
"Get in the bath," she told me. It was the same water that the nursery child had bathed in. Mummy, at the public baths,
would never bathe me in someone else's bath water.
Nurse Harris threw me a bar of stinking red carbolic soap that only the poorest gentiles used. I hated the smell so
much I wanted to vomit. Although far from rich, Mummy and Aunt Mitzi always used Yardley’s soap and Midnight in Paris
powder. I longed for the intimate times when Mummy and I bathed together at the marble Bethnal Green Baths.
Another nursery child sat in the other bath playing with the foul smelling carbolic soap. This bitter smell made me feel
lonely for our shop and home in the Jewish East End of London with the familiar sharp and sweet scents of ammonia
Mummy used for perms mixed with the smells of Daddy’s after-shave lotions. Even though I didn't understand most of
it, I missed the comforting sounds of my grandparents' Yiddish. I wished I could sit in my Zada’s lap where he would
cuddle me and murmur in my ear, bubbele, zeisele, fleigele, little doll, little sweetness, little wing. He was the only one
in the family who loved and wanted me. He didn’t know where I was imprisoned. Mummy told everyone I needed
country air, but I loved sooty London, and though naturally thin, was strong and healthy.
Nurse Harris bent low over me, roughly washing my back with the face cloth. She scrubbed my face, neck and body
hard. I felt her hot breath on my face. Although I didn’t like her, I almost felt sorry for her. She seemed so tired, almost
The next day Sister came crackling in her starched apron and cap into the dining room carrying the usual white, enamel
bowl of porridge and as usual she cried out, "Be quiet, you children, I have a splitting headache. It's worse today.
Nurse Harris and some children have come down with scarlet fever. I have to do all the work myself."
The following morning I had a high temperature and ached all over. A red rash spread over my body. Nurse Harris had
caught scarlet fever from the small child who clung to her arm, and I had caught scarlet fever from Nurse Harris. If I
hadn't slapped Big Mary and been sent to bed early . . .
"Sister," I cried, though I'd never spoken to her. Someone lifted me out of bed and then I knew nothing.
I woke up in a bed with many other children in a strange dormitory. Plump and pretty young nurses rustled up and down
the room importantly, carrying thermometers, food and chamber pots. Though I'd never been in a hospital, I guessed
this was one. I waited for Mummy to come, but she didn't. I don't know how long I was there, but weeks later, it seemed,
I was back in the orphanage.
Sister led me upstairs, her starched white apron rustling. Weakly, I followed her white headdress hanging down behind
her back in a "V" over her crossed-over apron straps. I trailed behind her as we climbed the steps. She didn't stop at
the first floor where all of us ‘big children’ slept in the long dormitory in iron beds. We came to another, smaller,
winding staircase. Two staircases in one house! Now I remembered, rich Aunt Fanny's house. The small ones led to the
I was slow from the scarlet fever and the time spent in bed, and panted up the narrowed, curving wood stairs behind
Sister's blue skirts and white apron. She never looked back, spoke to me or turned to help me. I thought of running
downstairs in the opposite direction and out the front door. But I didn't know where I was, in which direction to walk,
nor how to get to Liverpool Street Station. If I could get there, I’d know my way home.
At the top of the small staircase, we came to a plain wooden door. Sister pulled out a long iron key from a pocket in her
blue skirt underneath the crackling apron, unlocked the door and threw it open.
The room was small and made entirely of plain wood, wood walls, floors and ceiling. The wood ceilings sloped inward to
low walls and, like the walls and floor, were totally bare. The room was strangely warm, and full of light coming from two
windows set on opposite walls. One window looked out onto what I thought was the back of the house, since a long,
narrow fenced path like one I’d seen at Aunt Fanny’s house stretched below. In Aunt Fanny’s house, an arch over the
path said “Tradesmen’s Entrance.”
There was no furniture in the room save an iron bed with white sheets tucked in tightly, one white pillow, a bare
wooden table and a wooden chair in the middle of the room, and on one side a plain white jug of water in a white china
wash bowl. A chamber pot squatted under the bed. The walls were bare wood. There were no books, no toys, not even
Mumfie, my stuffed elephant. Before it became an orphanage, this must have once been an attic where maids lived.
But Aunt Fanny's attic was cheerful, with bright curtains, a huge soft bed full of her three plump chattering maids when
I slept snug between them, and they’d smelled deliciously of some fresh soap.
Alone in this other bare attic, from the height of the third story, I looked out onto the back of the house seeing only
crisp, white snow etched on the pointed tops of the narrow enclosed Tradesman’s path below. Nothing moved, there
were no footprints. No birds flew nor sang. Silence.
"Get into bed," Sister said, pointing to the iron bed. "You'll be quarantined here for six weeks."
I heard the rasping key turn in the lock, and the sound of her shoes dying away as she ran down the stairs.
I was alone. The attic was absolutely silent. No sound came from outside nor from inside the house, although many
children, Sister, Nurse, Cook and the Warden lived below. It was deadly quiet, like the two minutes of absolute silence
when Mummy and I knelt by the window on Armistice Day on November 11, at 11 in the morning, thinking of the World
War dead. Only this was not for two minutes, but hours and hours of silence. Darkness fell, shadows, it was still silent. I
In the morning I weakly crawled out of bed, walked barefoot in my white flannel nightie to the window and looked down
again at the long, snow-topped fence on either side of the glistening white walkway. There still were no footmarks, not
even the lines of a bird’s claw. No cat’s footprint. Nothing. I was totally alone, shut up in the room at the top of the
house. I could see nor hear no one and no one could see nor hear me. There were no books to read, no one to talk to,
no sound to listen to. I wondered if they'd forgotten I was there altogether. Mummy, if she ever came, would never find
me unless Sister told her where I was. I pressed my nose to the window and waited for hours to see her, anyone, come
up that empty path.
Only Maisie, the scullery maid, brought food three times a day, unlocked the door, pushed the tray inside on the floor,
and afraid of catching scarlet fever, and left.
In my mind I cried out, "Stay, stay with me, don't go away," but I said nothing. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth
from not talking. I yearned for a bird to alight on the fence or for someone to come down the empty path between the
two fences, leave a footprint, let me know I was not totally deserted. I watched that path intensely as the white winter
sun rose above the roofs, then sank down, and the moon peeped out, hoping to see a butcher, baker, grocery man,
mother, even father, but no one came down that fenced path. Nothing made a mark in the snow. It lay, pristine,
untouched on the ground. Where were they all?
The days and nights passed in total silence and isolation, agonizingly tedious, long and lonely. Locked up, I lost count
of time. I pressed my face to the cold window; my breath made a little steam circle on it. I wrote my name in the steam to
see if I were alive. No one came. I was deserted on a mountain, forgotten. I had no way of knowing how long I'd been
there nor how much time had passed. More white snow fell, blanketing the house and path, deepening the silence.
Was this how it felt to be deaf? Was this how Daddy felt? Did he know where I was, and did he, my grandparents, aunts,
uncles and friends miss me? Did they notice I had gone?
The trees were too bare and icy even for the birds. Why hadn't anyone come to see me? I walked around the room,
licked my finger, etching my name on the frosty window, along the bare wall and chanted:
Nobody loves me
Nobody wants me
I'm going to the garden to eat worms.
Big fat slimy worms
Long thin skinny worms
I'm going to make a samwich out of worms.
Weeks later, it seemed, Maisie threw on the table some Rupert the Bear books, some blank paper, a pencil, some
scissors and some dead leaves, then ran out. I fell on the gift joyously, immediately drew round the brown leaves on
the green paper and cut out the shapes of the leaves. I read the books each in ten minutes, grateful to see the joyous
brilliant red, blue and yellow colors in the Rupert the Bear books, Rupert, as sweet and adventurous as my Mumfie in
the elephant books. I liked the golliwog pictures of a black cloth doll with wild hair sticking out all over its head like a
mop, with big, round, saucer eyes. After the monotone brown of the attic and the endless white snow outside, my eyes
hungrily drank in the brilliance of the colors. Sitting alone at the bare table with scissors and the blank paper to cut
out, and the vividly colored books to read, I was almost happy. The sun peeped out of the white sky a tiny spot of time,
then disappeared again. The next day it stayed longer. The snow on the tall fence along the tradesmen’s entrance
slowly began to melt. I'd been in the orphanage about four months, I guessed, since December 25th, but it felt like a
year. It must be February or March.
I could understand the Beast waiting so long, so long for Beauty to come back, finally lying down to die of loneliness.
Had I been punished by a witch and shut up in a castle turret? Perhaps a prince would ride by and rescue me. No
The sun came out more strongly, more snow melted. The sun shone warmly through the window onto my bed. I felt
Suddenly one day with no warning, mother and Aunt Mitzi both appeared in the attic together. I was so astonished I
didn't know what to do or say. I'd waited so long and vainly for Mummy to come and she'd not only come, she'd come
with my favorite aunt, my glamorous Aunt Mitzi. Mummy stood in the doorway of my attic prison, petite and dark haired,
dark eyed, her sister, Aunt Mitzi tall and slender, blue-eyed, beautiful and blonde. I'd rarely even seen them together
before. They were total opposites. Mummy was almost plain next to my tall, cool and beautiful Aunt, and shy except
with Daddy. With him, she showed her temper.
I flung myself, speechless, into Mummy's arms and buried my face in the two little mink furs at her neck; their beady
little glass eyes stared at me. Silently I begged her to take me home.
The two sisters sat there chatting to each other, as mother had done with the strange woman, when she'd brought me
on the train to the Chingford orphanage.
"Not such a bad trip, here, was it?" Mummy said to Aunt Mitzi.
"If I'd known it was such a short journey I wouldn't have bothered bringing something to read," my aunt said. She
nodded to her book on the table. It had a picture of King George the Fifth and Queen Mary on it. So I wasn't as far from
home as I'd thought. I could see they planned to have a nice chat between themselves and leave me here.
If I didn't get out now, I never would.
My heart suddenly lost all feeling, as if it had been left in the freezing path outside and had turned to an ice snowball. I
felt only a cold determination to get out of this deathly lonely room. Quickly, I plotted how I could do it. The only weapon
I knew might move the hearts of the two sisters who sat there, smiling and chatting to each other, was tears. I didn't
feel like crying; I hadn't cried since the night Mummy dropped me at the orphanage. Now, I had to cry. I squeezed my
face up, whimpered, pretended to wipe tears away, and by thinking hard about crying finally squeezed out two tears.
"I want to go home," I sniffled. "Take me home." I wasn't miserable, I was furious, but I hid it. Who wanted an angry
child? I had to make them pity me. I watched their faces between my fingers over my eyes.
The two sisters, the dark and the blonde, looked at each other over my small head. My mother sat completely still. Only
her eyes watched those of my aunt. After a long, long moment Aunt Mitzi gave Mummy the barest nod. The fact that
Aunty and not Mummy decided to take me home infuriated me. But I hid it.
"I have to get Mumfie."
It was a terrible risk. They might leave without me. But I couldn't leave without Mumfie. Nor without showing the other
children that I had parents. I had to show them I had a mother and an aunt. A real dark-haired mother and a beautiful
blonde aunty I was proud of. And they had both come for me. I was not an orphan like them.
I burst out of the hateful prison, ran wildly free out of the attic, clattering down the narrow stairs, now full of strength,
passed the second floor dormitory, then ran down the graceful wide main stairs with the mahogany banister and across
the stone yard to the dining and common room.
All the children sat at the table eating from their tin plates, backs upright like my number 5, Sister standing behind them
with her stick. I ran past all their straight backs, past an astonished Sister to the stage at the end where Mumfie lay in a
cubbyhole. All the children’s heads turned silently, curiously, to watch me. I watched them eating from the hateful white
tin plates and horrid tin mugs edged with a navy band I would never, ever eat from again. I flashed Fat Mary, I am sure,
a look of sheer joy and triumph. Someone had come for me. I wasn't an orphan like her. I belonged to someone. I had a
family. They had even come for me. The two sisters, one dark and small, the other, blonde and tall, stood framed like a
photograph in the dining room doorway, waiting for me. “See?” I wanted to shout.
I ran up to the platform, snatched Mumfie, hugging him to me, ran out again, past the silent children all staring at me
with wide eyes; Mary's face held her usual sneer, this time mixed with tears. I was brimming with joy to know that I had
not one, but two relatives who had come to take me home and even better, that all the children could see I had a
mother and an aunt waiting for me. I enjoyed making Mummy and Aunty Mitzi wait for me, the way they'd made me wait
I stopped only to hug Violet and kiss her cheek.
She burst into tears. "Don't leave me!"
I ran the length of the common room and threw myself into the arms of my waiting mother and aunt, smothered in their
warm bodies, scents and furs. I looked back at the children. Their faces were twisted with longing, wistfulness,
jealousy and pain. Violet wept, face resting on her skinny arm on the table. I felt sorry for Violet but bursting with joy at
leaving the orphanage.
Sister, for once, said nothing.
I was away and free, riding the train toward home in mute ecstasy, while Mummy and Aunty Mitzi chatted and ate,
between them, an entire box of Black Magic chocolates they'd bought at the Chingford station. I didn’t care that they
didn’t offer me one. I stared out of the window afraid to let them see the silent, terrible victory on my face. This time,
unlike the train ride to the orphanage, which had been in the middle of a raging storm, the sun shone into the train, on
to my attic-white face reflected in the train window. I closed my eyes and raised my face to the sun, which warmed my
eyelids, my cold eyes but not my cold heart.
The journey was short. I realized Chingford was quite near London, perhaps a half-hour’s journey. It had just seemed
endlessly far away when we were going there in the dark storm when I was young last year.
That night, tucked up in my little white crib next to Mummy and Daddy, I slept peacefully with Mumfie under my cheek.
I'd had my way. Justice had been done. I was home.
I dreamed that there were two sisters, twins. They looked exactly alike, like golliwogs, only with white instead of black
faces. Both had enormous round black eyes glittering like the tinsel around the orphanage Christmas tree. Although
much taller than me, they had children’s faces. Their eyes stared straight ahead. They were blind. They didn't seem to
care that they were blind; they were laughing and talking excitedly to each other over my head without seeing or
hearing me. It seemed they couldn't see me standing small, between them. They didn't even know I was there.
Sometime in the summer, I didn’t know the month, Mummy dropped me back at the orphanage. I had first entered the
orphanage last December when it was cold, snowing and dark. Now it was summer or autumn. To my surprise, on
entering, I found the great shed flooded with light. All the windows in the long building had been taken out of their
frames. Outside, like a forest, loomed the ragged garden, like The Secret Garden, full of huge leafy green trees.
Big Mary, fatter than ever, dressed in green, sat crouched on the empty windowsill like a big frog, her fat legs dangling
inside, her huge bum hung out into the garden. She still had that great, beautiful brown mole under her chin. As soon
as she saw me at the door, a smirk spread over her wide face. Her brown eyes lit up with joyous triumph. I thought she
would burst with joy and bits of her would fly all over the shed.
"Thought you were going home for good, but they tricked you, just took you back to shut you up 'til they could get rid of
you again. They don't want you.” she crowed. The other kids grinned.
I rushed at her and seizing her by the ankles pushed her feet up with all my strength, shoving her backward out of the
window. She screamed as she went down, her shoes appearing upended in the empty window as she fell into the
stinging nettles below.
"I'm telling," Mary screamed, from somewhere under the window. She climbed back up over the window, panting, red
faced, and heaved her froggy bulk over the windowsill.
"You little kike, I'm going to get you for this."
I was astonished that I'd attacked her again; she was twice my size, and astonished that she didn't hit me. I wouldn't
have cared, I was so angry.
Outside the windowless frames was a garden I’d never seen; children played on a seesaw and among trees with pink
and green powder dotted over the tree trunks. I didn’t see Violet anywhere. Mary rushed out of the room to tell on me.
I’d just arrived, and I was already in trouble. What to do?
For some reason, no one punished me. After exciting London, I would die of boredom and loneliness here; the same
old Sister rushing in every morning, stiff white apron and skirts crackling, the same bowl of lumpy porridge, Sister
screaming, "Be quiet you children I've got a splitting headache." No wireless, no news, no music, no pictures.
Children who didn’t speak to each other and adults who called all of us “you.” No parks, no pleasant teachers, no
library, no Booba and Zada, our two shops, barber and grocery with exciting people coming and going, no pubs or
museums. Only dead, colorless silence and boredom. Endless days.
There were many Jewish orphanages; why didn't she send me to one of those? I thought. Crafty, now, I guessed that if I
were in a Jewish orphanage, someone might visit and recognize me. Mummy would have been embarrassed had
anyone known she had put her only child in an orphanage. How often she had said to me in front of visitors and
relatives, “You’re so pale and skinny, you need country air.” In fact, I was the best skipper in the class, played for
hours on the Shoreditch Church steps and walked three or more miles with Joycey on Saturdays. Here, there was no
Joycey, not even Violet. Perhaps like Beauty leaving the Beast, Violet had died of loneliness. She had sobbed, “Don’t
And I had left her. I had let her die of loneliness.
One day, though it was daytime, Sister shouted, “All of you undress and put on nightgowns.”
We followed her to a large room I’d never seen before and stood barefoot on a cold, black, shiny floor, single file in a
long line. In front of us stood a long narrow table on metal wheels, covered in a white sheet. Sister, a doctor and
nurses wearing white circled the table.
“You, come here,” Sister said to the first child in the line. "Lie down on the table."
Sister, Nurse Harris and the doctor leaned over him. Their bodies blocked all view of the boy. What was happening?
Since he didn’t scream, they weren’t hurting him. In a few minutes the boy disappeared, I imagined, behind the black
“You, next,” Sister called the next in line. A girl climbed onto the narrow table and the grownups stood all around her.
There was silence for a few minutes, then this girl disappeared, too. Was it magic? Where did they go? Six, five, four,
three, then two children stood in front of me. I climbed onto the table and lay down. Now I would find out the mystery.
Sister put a black, rubber thing over my nose and mouth.
I awoke in bed in a long, children’s hospital ward.
All around me stretched white-sheeted beds with pajama-striped children sitting up in them. White light filled the long
room. Nurses bustled back and forth. The children chatted happily with each other, read comics or just stared into
space. A nurse brought me some red jelly. Jelly was a special treat, given to children only on Christmas or after their
tonsils were pulled out. My throat hurt a little. Later they gave me ice cream, a big treat. Now the mystery was solved.
We'd all had our tonsils out. Licking my spoon, almost enjoying myself, I suddenly noticed all the other children pointing
at me. They all had short hair, even shorter than mine. Looking down, I saw that I wore, not striped pajamas like them,
but a girl’s white nightie. To my horror, I suddenly realized that I was the only girl in a huge boys' ward. I desperately
wished I could disappear. The boys giggled or smiled mischievously to each other. How could I get out of this ward?
Worse was to come. I suddenly had to have a bowel movement. "Nurse," I hissed, to a pretty passing young woman, "I
have to go."
She returned shortly with a chamber pot, placed it on the floor and left me. I had to get out of bed and go on the pot in
front of all these boys. I slid out of the bed, pulling the flannel nightgown down over my behind and trying to push the
pot and myself under the bed, but it was so low, even the pot wouldn’t go under it. The boys almost fell out of their
beds, staring at my behind with a kind of nasty curiosity, the way a cat looks at a mouse, waiting for it to make a move.
How did a girl “go”? I frantically tried to hurry my bowel movement.
I squirmed and squiggled, wondering desperately how to wipe my behind, pull down my nightie and get back into bed
without them seeing my tush. If only I could vanish.
The nurse hadn't given me any toilet paper. I was not going to wipe my bum in front of all them. I scrambled off of the
pot, wrenched my nightgown down, and leaped into bed. To my distress, brown streaked the bottom white sheet.
"Tut, tut," the nurse said, but mercifully didn't say to my interested audience out loud what I'd done. But I had to stand
barefoot on the cold floor while she changed the sheet. I threw myself in, pulled the blanket over my head and stayed
there until lights out, wishing I were dead.
No one came to visit me in the hospital. Within a few days, it seemed, I was back at the orphanage.
On my return, I saw that about six, new, older boys, orphans, had arrived, perhaps aged twelve, thirteen or fourteen,
faces lean, tough and bitter. They slouched around the edges of the common room, bony hands in their pockets.
One day in the common-room, Ernie, one of these big boys, dragged Peter, a small boy of six, and stood him against the
wall. Ernie raised Peter’s hands up against the wall, laced his long, bony fingers into Peter's, then bent Peter's fingers
all the way back. I heard a crack, a scream from Peter, then saw blood spurt under the Peter’s skin between his joints. I
didn’t know you could bleed inside.
"If you tell, I'll break yours, too," Ernie yelled, as I ran fast. His feet behind me pounded on the flagstone courtyard. My
heart hammering, I rushed into the kitchen.
"What are you doing in the kitchen...?" Cook began.
"Ernie broke Peter's fingers," I gasped.
"Wait here," Cook said, and rushed out of the room, colliding with Ernie. She took hold of Ernie by one ear and dragged
him out, and rushed him kicking and screaming curses through the baize door to the warden.
The warden dragged Ernie into the common room and threw him on the floor. Warden’s pink face was dark red with
fury; he carried a big stick with a long, rusty pointed nail, about two inches long sticking out of it.
"Come here," he said to Ernie.
Ernie sauntered over to the warden cockily, his strong muscled legs showing under his short trousers.
"Face the wall, hands on the wall above your head."
Ernie sneered but obeyed. The warden slammed the stick, nail first, down hard on Ernie’s rump ten times.
"Here’s one for each finger you broke," the Warden shouted. Each time he struck, Ernie screamed.
On the tenth, Ernie ran out of the room screaming hoarsely.
In the next days, I noticed that each day a few more children disappeared until only I was left. Finally, Mummy
came. I followed Mummy to the train. She sat in a corner of the carriage, and ignored me. If she didn't want me back, I
This year had been the longest year of my life. I would never again feel love, fear or shame. I’d left all my feelings at the
orphanage. I would never again trust grownups, especially the ones I loved. They were the ones who hurt you the most.
But it was impossible not to love Mummy.
I was seven.
I was born and grew up in the rough and tumble East End slums
of London and its environs. My elementary education took
place in London, attending on scholarships The London School
of Economics and Political Science. I came as an immigrant to
America in 1950, and while working in factories, then research
and teaching, I earned degrees at Columbia University and a
PhD at NYU. I have published about 30 scholarly, essay,
memoir and fiction works besides articles on travel and theater
in Israel. Currently, I teach at Montgomery College in Maryland,
write, and have a small business.