ARTS August 31st, 2011

By Omar Mosleh

Memoirs of a spunky evacuee

10-year-old kept returning to London under bombardment, author recounts 75 years later

Kitty Wintrob has seen a lot in her 85 years.

Today, she can’t see at all, but that didn’t stop her from writing a book about her experience as a child evacuee in 1939 in anticipation of the bombing of London, England by German forces.

However, Wintrob wouldn’t stay evacuated as she twice fled the countryside to return to her East-End London family in the midst of heavy bombing.

That’s the same spirit reflected in the title — and contents — of Wintrob’s book, I’m Not Going Back: Wartime Memoir of a Child Evacuee.

The book chronicles Wintrob’s experience as a 10-year-old being evacuated along with 1.5 million other children to the countryside and living with a foster family as she struggles to retain her Jewish identity.

Wintrob describes how she and her friend Sadie Davidovitch arrived to a foster family’s home in the countryside, only to have to explain that they couldn’t eat ham because it wasn’t kosher, and that Jews didn’t have horns.

“They were very kind to us, but once they found out we were Jews it was very difficult for them,” she said. “Their idea of Jews was the long hair and the moneylender and the long nose.”

Wintrob learned about more than ignorance in the countryside. She also learned how to wash clothes and scrub floors, which is how she earned her keep while living with the childless couple.

Coming from a working class family, she marveled at how the couple’s bathroom was indoors, and had real tissue paper, not newspaper. While living with a different family (she had to change towns to attend school) she was told to eat with the maid because the daughter refused to speak to an evacuee, as she perceived Wintrob to be of a lower class.

On two separate occasions, she ran away to seek out her mother in London.

“I’d had enough,” she said. “The hardest part about leaving home was leaving my mother, and I think it hit her harder than it hit me.”

After returning to London the second time she would stay at her mother’s side, and refused to leave the city even as it was heavily bombed.

But I’m Not Going Back has its lighter moments as well. Wintrob cheerfully remembers vivid moments from her childhood, such as going to buy herring from the fish saleswoman at London’s Petticoat Lane market.

“She would have a big apron around her, and she would put her hand in this great big barrel,” she recalled. “Her hands were full of blood, and she would bring out these wonderful herrings, and wrap them in newspaper.

“It was a wonderful place to be.”

Wintrob left England in the 1950s, first to live in Canada for two years while working for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. She was eventually convinced to settle in Canada permanently by Ralph Wintrob, a Canadian whom she met in England. They married in 1959.

Since then, she’s had her share of adversity. Her son, Phillip, died 20 years ago in a car accident, and while already having diminished vision in one eye due to a childhood accident, she went completely blind after falling down 16 concrete steps a decade ago.

But she still had a tale to tell.

With some help from her husband, who would record her words, Wintrob wrote her memoirs to give her children some insight on her upbringing.

“I wanted them to know how I grew up,” she said from her Bathurst Street and Lawrence Avenue West home. “I’m now in a very comfortable middle-class environment, and they don’t know the other side of it.”

Although Phillip never got a chance to read it, her daughter Suzanne helped her edit it and even convinced her to attend a creative writing class.

On her 80th birthday, her family surprised her with a self-published copy of her memoirs. Soon after, Bill Gladstone, publisher at Toronto-based Now and Then Books, asked Wintrob for the rights to publish her story.

Since then, she’s taken part in book talks such as the Toronto Jewish Book Fair at the Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue in North York. She has also spoken at seniors’ residences and synagogues in Florida and Jerusalem.

And while she acknowledges the important role her book may play in sharing the tale of London’s child evacuees, she says the greater benefit is that it’s allowed her to relive her own story.

“It was good for me because it gave me something to think about, to remember,” she said. “It made me feel good.”