Voices of the Second World War: A Child’s Perspective by Sheila A Renshaw
Voices of the Second World War: A Child’s Perspective is a collection of firsthand accounts from people who experienced the Second World War from all over Europe: stretching from Russia to the Channel Islands, and Norway to Malta.
While some children appear to have been hardly aware of the war, for those who lived through bombing, occupation, deprivation, starvation and fear, the memories remain with them even today.
The accounts have been relayed according to their perspective at the time and the contributors were happy to share their experiences and memories, keen in the knowledge that they were being documented as personal chroniclers of one of the twentieth century’s most catastrophic events.
About the author:
Sheila Renshaw grew up in an RAF family and the joined the WRAF after leaving school, later receiving a commission and marrying an RAF pilot. She travelled extensively with the services and brought up a family of two daughters.
She was inspired to write this book having talked to a neighbour who lived in the U.S.S.R. during the Second World War and who had never told her story to anyone before as she didn’t feel anyone would be interested. Amazed at what she’d heard, Sheila began to wonder how many other stories were out there waiting to be told…
Thanks to Rosie Croft of Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review. (Note that it is also available in ebook format).
I have talked before about the importance of remembering the past, especially the experiences of individuals who never make it into official history books. The movement to record the memories of the everyday lives of anonymous people, including mass archives, has helped bring history closer to everybody and has also helped us understand what the war was like for the general population.
This book goes a step further and collects the memories of people who were children during WWII, in many European countries (and also one in Egypt), in a variety of circumstances: some from countries that were invaded (the Netherlands, Poland, Norway, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia…), neutral countries (like Sweden), there are also several accounts from the Isle of Man, the Isle of Wight, and the Channel Islands (the only part of the British Isles occupied during the war), quite a few from the UK, and also from Germany and Italy. There are some common threads and themes throughout the different chapters, most of them dedicated to only one child’s memories, although there are some chapters which collect several shorter accounts. In occupied countries there are horrific accounts of the cruelty of the invading army, particularly reprisals against anything perceived as resistance or disobedience, and, after the allied victory, the repercussions for those who were seen as having collaborated with the invading forces (especially women who became “friendly” with German soldiers), some truly harrowing accounts of survivors of incredible hardship (Sara’s account of her and her sister’s survival in Auschwitz is heart-breaking, especially because they lost all of their immediate family; Nadia, from Ukraine, experienced plenty of hardship but she recounts how it could have been even worse, if not for the kindness of some of the people she met along the way)… There are plenty of stories of children being evacuated (mostly in the UK), and also of the families who received those evacuees. Inventive mothers creating delicious recipes out of little food, schools that kept going no matter what, rationing books, joining the war effort by collecting newspapers, scrap metal, glass…, growing vegetables, going to the shelter, experiencing bombings first-hand, memories of the Barrage balloons, the sounds of the anti-air-raid guns, the all clear… In Germany and in many of the occupied countries, children remember the worry of not knowing what might happen, the need to be careful as you never knew who might overhear what you said, who was a friend or an enemy, and the terrible consequences if the wrong word reached the wrong ear. German children also mention the shock and utter disbelief when they and their families learned what had been happening in the concentration camps, although the older children were aware that Jews and dissidents were arrested or disappeared with little explanation. One of the children pointedly says that nobody admitted knowing anything about it, but it is clear from the experiences of some of the children in occupied countries that, at least to them, it was not such a big surprise.
There are also light moments, accounts of friendly German and Italian soldiers (especially at the beginning of the war), a German surgeon who saved the life of the father of one of the narrators (who was 2 y.o. at the time), children fascinated by the planes, looking for souvenirs among the debris, joining groups like the Cubs or the Brownies, meeting new people and experiencing a different kind of life in the countryside, the victory parties… I particularly enjoyed the account by Anne, from York, that reads at times like Huckleberry Finn (she saw life as an adventure, no matter what, and I hope she still does). I was moved by first-hand accounts of the Coventry bombings, and happy to read about what had happened to all those children and where they were now.
The book also includes photographs. These are not photographs of the children whose stories we are told, but they are black and white photos of the era, mostly of children, relate directly to some of the stories we read about, and help us recreate the atmosphere of the time as we read the book.
As the author explains in the introduction, which sets up the scene and provides a brief but useful background to the stories, during the war, the main consideration was the physical wellbeing of the children rather than the emotional impact some of the decisions the adults took on their behalf (like evacuating them) could have. Now, in hindsight, it is easy to see what an influence these events had on the lives of all those children. And, as a society, we should never forget what the long-term consequences of a war are on all those involved.
I recommend this book to everybody. Although some of the accounts are tough to read, I think books such as this one should be read to (and by) children, with their parents supervision if they are very young, as a way to help them connect to history, and by adults, because we must remember what happened (and what is still happening in many places) and work hard to avoid it in the future.