As the nation prepares to mark 75 years since VE Day was declared on 8 May 1945, Jewish Care residents and volunteers recall celebratory scenes in Paris and Trafalgar Square – as well as memories of narrowly escaping bombing raids on London and enduring evacuations and rationing
Miriam Fugler, 95, was a volunteer for Jewish Care for 24 years and is now a member of its Brenner Centre at Stepney Jewish Community Centre at Raine House.
She recalls: “We lived in Shoreditch and I was a teenager when the siren went off on the first day of the war. I ran home, scared.
“I was one of four sisters and four brothers and had the happiest, but the poorest, home. I have no idea how but my mother had a piano. My brother Tony was fantastic with music and later wrote the winning Eurovision song, Save All Your Kisses For Me. My sister did impressions and I was shy, but I used to sing and tap dance. We had such a happy home.
“I started working when I was not quite 14 on Charterhouse Square making forest caps for the RAF and the Army. The bombing was terrible during the war, but on VE Day I remember we went up to Trafalgar Square and there were soldiers from every country.
“That was the best day of our lives, the war was over, people were singing and playing music. Everybody was singing, clapping and kissing.
“My mother made a VE Day party. We lived on the ground floor of Cookham Buildings. Everybody put tables out everywhere, people were singing We’ll Meet Again and the old cockney songs. They were so happy. VE Day was the most magical day.
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“Now I’m very lucky, because I live on the eighth floor of my building and I have the best view of the reservoir. My sons phone me all the time, and I have many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
Freda Ziff, who is 87 and lives in Whitechapel, is also a member of the Stepney Jewish Community Centre at Raine House.
She remembers: “During the war my mum worked in the cigarette factory and I looked after the kids. We’d go to the shelter in Whitechapel and you knew everyone. My dad was in the army serving in France and Belgium. He was wounded and taken to St Thomas’ Hospital in London. I remember taking a steamboat across the Thames to go and visit him.
“It was my mum’s birthday on May 8, VE Day, and I’ll never forget it. Shoes were flying off people’s feet, the gas lanterns were on all night and people tore down the blackout blinds. It was lunchtime and there were loudspeakers in the street with people shouting ‘War is over!’
“The celebrations carried on all weekend with parties in the streets, halls, churches and shuls. Mum had been a cook for weddings before the war and she’d always say: ‘When the war is over, I’ll make you a great big party for your birthday.’
“My birthday is on 28 May and as the war had ended, my mum did make me a big birthday party and somehow managed to find everything to bake a lovely cake, so we could celebrate with all our friends and family. All the people who had been evacuated came home.”
Clore Manor resident Harry Karker, who recently celebrated his third barmitzvah, recalls the sense of jubilation on 8 May, 1945.
He says: “VE Day was a happy occasion! I was in Paris, there were lots of drinks and chocolate and we went to a huge party in a hall. I was in the Royal Engineers but had stopped working. I spent a lot of time in Paris, waiting for my family and I had a job finding them. There was great rejoicing. When I did find my parents, they were dancing in the streets.”
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Naomi Harris is a volunteer specialist worker at Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors’ Centre Shalvata therapeutic service.
She recalls: “My strongest memory of VE Day is that we moved house on that day – my parents, my sister Judy and me – from a rented flat into a new home in north-west London. My parents’ house had been bombed in Stepney, so we had moved around a lot. When the car drove up the road, flags hung from every house and lamp post, and people were congregating in the street. Aged five, I thought the celebration was for us moving in!”
Volunteer Harry Nash, was just five when the war ended and like many, remembers “diving under the kitchen table when the Doodlebugs were falling, running to shelters in the night time and standing by the window in my parents’ bedroom looking out at the silent film shows with Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy”.
Maurice Bennett CBE, retail industry entrepreneur and befriending volunteer for Jewish Care and the Mayor of London, remembers the start of the war.
“After the announcement of Neville Chamberlin declaring war on Germany we had the ‘phoney war’ where nothing really happened for a year. We were living near Temple Fortune and I was six when a huge landmine dropped on Ashbourne Parade. I remember going to school picking my way through the rubble and debris, passing smashed up shops and collecting up bits of shrapnel to take to school as part of the war effort so they could reuse them.
“We had no shelters on Chessington Avenue, so I was put at the back of the shoe cupboard when there was an air raid and my brother and sister squeezed in behind me. It was no protection and houses that had hits from bombs in our street were destroyed and everyone was killed.
“An incendiary bomb landed in our garden and was tackled by local air raid wardens.
“I also remember the time we were having lunch at my grandma’s flat in Hackney when a V1 flying bomb landed in Victoria Park and killed many people.
“It was clear to my family when the war was coming to an end and we were all given a holiday for VE Day and had the day off school.
“I went to the Bohemia Cinema in Finchley Central to watch a film with Marlene Dietrich in it to celebrate.
“When the war in Europe ended, it was difficult to be too lavish because there was still rationing. People were just relieved it was over and it took a while to recover.
“Those fighting slowly started to return and be repatriated and war really ended with victory over the Japanese.
“VE Day celebrations the following year were huge and that’s when we really went to town.”
- Read more VE Day stories from Jewish Care residents and volunteers at www.jewishcare.org/news/ve-day-and-stories-from-world-war-ii