London exhibition recalls history of first child refugees

London - In Britain, forces' sweetheart Vera Lynn is back on stage and the Imperial War Museum is devoting an entire exhibition to the outbreak of World War II 70 years ago.

On the face of it, one might be forgiven for thinking that both events are rooted in Britain's love of harping back to the past - and reliving the sacrifices as well as the glory.

But, on closer inspection, both events carry a relevance for today.

Lynn, best known for her heart-rendering rendition of The White Cliffs of Dover, told an audience in London's National Theatre that while she still understood the reasons for the sacrifices made in World War II, she could not fathom why British troops were fighting in Afghanistan.

"At one time, our soldiers would fight for the country they came from to stop the enemy invading, but now they are involved in other countries' problems," the 92-year-old said.

At the Imperial War Museum, the exhibition Outbreak 1939 is casting back an eye on the mass evacuation of 2 million children from London and other British cities days before the war started in early September, 1939.

The evacuation, often described as a "miracle of organization," was the first mass displacement of children in Europe, and later inspired post-war UN conventions on the protection of child refugees.

"The evacuation was a social revolution. Never before had people from the country and the cities, the rich and the poor, been thrown so closely together," explained Terry Charman, the historian responsible for the exhibition.

"It fostered a greater understanding between different social groups, which gave rise to the postwar development of a cradle-to-grave welfare system," he said.

While readjusting to "normal life" had often been difficult for the displaced children, it was wrong to "build an image of evacuation as a universally traumatic experience.

"This evacuation was a remarkably successful operation and people rose to the challenge it presented," said Charman.

One of the 600,000 children transported from London to the countryside was Celia Lee, a German refugee from Hamburg who found herself exiled and uprooted twice in less than a year.

In 1938, Cilly-Jutta Horwitz, as she was then known, was among the 10,000 Jewish children evacuated from Germany and other countries as part of the so-called Kindertransport to Britain.

Soon after settling in with a Jewish family in Hackney, east London, Celia was on the move again, to a farm in a tiny village in Norfolk, south-east Britain.

Lee spent her early teens never quite belonging anywhere, she recalled in the Times. "It was a complete blur. You no sooner seemed to have settled somewhere than you were off again."

"I wanted Germany to be taken off the map but not with my parents in it," she said. When her father stopped writing to her, in 1941, she "guessed" that he hd been taken away and shot by the Nazis.

Lee returned to Germany to see her mother, in 1949, an experience she found bewildering. "I was embarrassed by the big emotional show when I arrived," she recalls. I'd become pretty English by then."

Although she continued to visit her mother, she never went back to live in Germany. "I felt horrible the first time I went back. I looked at everyone and wondered what the hell they had been doing during the war."

Asked what she considered her nationality to be, Lee said emphatically, with a slight accent, "Oh, English." (dpa)