Memories of My First Home

By Katherine (Gita) Leben

We came to London after the war had already started.  We arrived in January. My father, Asher Yeshaye Bitterman, had arrived about nine months earlier.  We were a family of four – mother, father, baby girl and infant boy.  We had nowhere to stay, since we didn’t have any relatives living in the East End of London.  A family named Scher took pity on us, and gave us a bedroom in their home at Myrdle Court on Myrdle Street, off Whitechapel road. We stayed with them until an apartment became available for our family to move into. I don’t have too many memories of this apartment.

I remember when I was hospitalized with high fever. I had an ear infection, which I was prone to.  There was no sulfa or penicillin to combat the fever, so they put children in hospital. I was given cocoa as a treat, which I did not like. Every day when the nurse brought the cocoa, I started to cry. I couldn’t tell her why I was crying – I spoke no English, only Yiddish!

Every evening Hitler sent his bombers to London, to wreak havoc. My mother Pearl took us to a bomb shelter. Everyone was on tenterhooks to hear where the bombs fell. I wasn’t too interested, and quite bored. In order to entertain me, my mother told me a long tale of what would happen when I got married.  I listened intently, and when she finished I told her to tell me the story again.

The only relatives we had in London was my father’s first cousin, from his hometown of Spisske Podhradie. We went to visit with her family, and she told us about a lady who was landed gentry, who owned a lot of property in a village near Cambridge, the famous university.  This lady spoke fluent German. So did our cousin, she had been taught perfect German by the hometown friars. The village was named the Fields of Ugley.  She had told the cousin that if the bombings got worse she could come to her village, which was a lot safer than London. Our cousin told us that she was planning to move to Ugley with her family, and invited us to go there too.

The cousin moved before us, and was kind enough to share her home with us. She gave us a bedroom, my mother shared the kitchen with her, and each family cooked their own meals. Soon a cottage became available right near the cousins. We finally had our own home! it was a four-room cottage with morning room, scullery (kitchen), and two bedrooms one flight up a small winding staircase.  The master bedroom had a very low entrance; the grownups had to watch not to bang their heads. There was no indoor plumbing. All the water was brought into the house from a pump in the village square.  We did have electricity. There were electricity lines in the street, and my father had electricity brought into the house. We even had an electric stove, for cooking and baking.

Ugley was reachable by train, the name of the station was Elsenham. The village square consisted of the railroad, a general store, school, church, and a pump for fresh water. I was about 3 years old when my mother sent me to the village school.  I spoke hardly any English. My only companion was Chayele Honig, the youngest child of Frieda Neni, the name we called my fathers’ cousin. (Neni means aunt in Hungarian.) She was my best friend, a little older than me but we could easily communicate, since we spoke the same language. The bombings continued – not as intense as in London, but frightening. Frieda Neni’s  family and our family were the only ones in the shelter. It was located in a field a few steps down. The men didn’t join us. My father was in London running his factory.

 

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