Bermuda has always had a soft spot in my heart since I with my mother and two brothers spent five happy years there from 1940-1945. I am a writer and I would like to send you the reminiscences of my time there.
In Europe, as WWII was being waged, I with my mother and two brothers was safe in Bermuda. With its semi-tropical vegetation and mile-long unbroken beaches of fine pink sand, that was where I would spend the next five years of my childhood. Looking back, it seems unreal to me now. Protected from the extremes by the Gulf stream, it enjoyed a mild climate, with warm winters and cool summers. Shaped like a banana, about twenty miles long and 1-mile-wide, it was the exposed rim of a now dormant volcanic caldera.
Why we left England to go to Bermuda is a question that still remains unanswered? Ostensibly we left because as Jews, my parents were of the opinion that we would have not survived the German occupation, that they were expected to invade and successfully conquer England.
I vividly recall being on board the passenger ship SS Orbita moored in Liverpool harbour waiting to depart. That night, the city had an air raid and I saw the plumes rising around our ship as the bombs landed in the sea around us. I was in a bath when the alarm went off and dressing hurriedly, joined my mother and my two brothers Geoffrey and Donald on the deck at our life boat station. Fortunately, all was well and after a short while we returned to our cabin on the lower deck.
My memories of the journey itself are vague. I remember standing on the deck and seeing other ships on the horizon accompanying us. All ships leaving Britain with families were accompanied by a convoy. Sadly, I learned later that several of our accompanying ships had been torpedoed.
Certain things stand out. Our impossibly cramped cabin into which we were all squashed. During the day the bunk beds on either side were raised and clipped to the walls of the room. At night when they were lowered, the space remaining meant that only one person at a time could reach the bathroom. The cabin had a small porthole almost at the water's edge. We boys used to sit watching the waves as they rose against the ship’s side sometimes swamping our vision.
The dining was communal and we sat where we wanted. This gave us the opportunity of meeting new people every day, families like ourselves, young people travelling on their own, elderly couples, all escaping from the maelstrom of Europe. The noise was thunderous, every one had to speak louder to be heard; the food was simple, basic but adequate.
We arrived in Bermuda about ten days later. By this time, my mother had met a divorced woman called Fay and her son David. Our two families decided to make a home together. The six of us lived in a cottage in Paget outside Hamilton the capital. Some time later Fay met an American serviceman called David Gussack and they married. They then went back to America. Meanwhile we three boys were enrolled at Warwick Academy and remained there for several years. The school was founded in the 17th Century and had gone through many changes.
There was only one car on the island and that was owned by the Governor. For us the main form of transport was our bicycles. Later, I don't know why, we changed schools to Saltus Grammar School. It was founded in 1888 by a descendent of Samuel Saltus who first surveyed the Islands in 1622. The headmaster at the time was R E Booker.
I recall Hugh Master, a teacher who was very supportive of us and invited us to sail on his one-design sail boat, wonderful memories of sunlit skies, deep blue water and fresh wind in out faces.
Mum became friendly with some local people who lived in Paget, a small village outside the city. They had two boys of our age so she arranged for us to stay with the family over Xmas. We five all slept in the same room so I don't think we got any sleep. During the night, someone I think it must have been the boy's father crept in with some bulging stocking and hung them at the ends of our beds. We all kept very quiet until he had gone out when we pounced upon the goodies. It was still dark so it must have been very early in the morning. There were a number of small toys but I particularly remember the tangerines, I can almost smell that strong citric aroma to this day.
A few years later we moved to Westmeath cottage, a small house set in a large private estate. An elderly couple called Mr and Mrs Conyers lived in a house nearby. In the evening after school we would go and visit them sitting on their outside steps in the cool evening. Mrs Conyers was very hospitable and regularly made ice cream which we three ate chatting about the day’s events.
The estate included a banana plantation and many fruit trees including loquats. One day I found a whole bunch of green bananas hanging in the small space under the stairs. I was puzzled and asked Mum where they came. She put her finger to her mouth and said ‘shush’. It was the first indication I had that my mother was human and not an angel.
One day my mother sent me to buy some bread at a bakery nearby. I set off on my bike waving the pound note in my hand but when I arrived, I realized that I had dropped it somewhere on the way. Mum was very understanding although very annoyed.
On another occasion I came home to find a number of my friends waiting for me. It was my birthday but I didn't know that Mum was making a surprise party so I thought they had all come by mistake. I rode into the drive very embarrassed and said to them that there must be a mistake not knowing what had been arranged. They all shouted out “Happy birthday”.
It was in Bermuda that I learned that I had a good pair of hands. I made things, the most successful were baskets to hang on cycle handle bars. That dexterity underpinned my subsequent career as an Orthopedic surgeon in Leeds in the North of England.
My older bother was thirteen on the 6th November 1943. It was the age when he would normally be bar mitzvah. Happily, my mother arranged for the Rabbi from the American Naval Base to conduct the service.
We three boys used to go to the Playhouse cinema in Hamilton every Saturday morning to watch the latest episode of Zorro. It was in April 1945 that I watched the Pathé News recording the liberation of Belsen concentration camp by the British army and learned what it was to be Jewish.
Bermuda was blessed with beautiful stretches of pale pink sand. When examined closely it was made up of millions of very small shells. After school we would walk down to the beach and explore the sand dunes that edged the beach. We found all sorts of washed up flotsam, exquisite shaped shells, beautifully carved piece of wood shaped by the sea, smooth and tactile. Those trips were always an adventure. Once I found a half full packet of Phillip Morris cigarettes and tried my first puff. Needless to say it made me feel very sick but sadly it didn't deter me from smoking when I got older, It was what people did . Both my parents did and to my regret so did I.
Our return journey in late 1945 was quite eventful. We flew to New York on a Catalina seaplane run by BOAC and carrying about 30 passengers. They were the original Sunderland seaplane converted into a Bermuda class working out of Bermuda. We had arrived in a rain storm and much of our luggage carried on the roof of a taxi was ruined. We stayed in New York with a family member for a few days before taking a passenger ship to England. I have little recollection of that journey but recall arriving at Southampton and taking the boat train to London.
Now so many years later, I am able to appreciate the difficulty facing my parents. How desperate they must have felt to take such drastic action? In hind sight, it was a wonderful start to our lives.
PS: My brother Geoffrey celebrated his 90th birthday this year.