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Jacqueline Toff - Some Thoughts on Living in Brackley As A Child

Jacqueline Toff

Jacqueline Toff recalls her childhood as a Jewish child evacuated to Brackley with her family.

I was about 6 when my family (originally from Willesden) left Goring by Sea because of the invasion threat in 1940 and went to live in the village of Brackley, Northamptonshire. Our journey was interesting in that my mother took my brother and me, with the family dog, on the train, because we were all inclined to car-sickness. My father and sister, together with a box of chocolates, went in the family Buick.

I loved Brackley. I went from being a little girl in pretty, starched frocks to a horrid tomboy in shorts and my brother's old windcheater. I learned to climb trees, walls and anywhere I could hide. We lived in a big Edwardian house with enormous garden, an orchard and stables. No horses in the stables, they were full of stored furniture and the Buick, now on blocks - it couldn't be used because of petrol rationing. No one took much notice of me.

My mother was coming to terms with running a big house with little help. Her parents (my grandfather was very sick) lived with us and there was a constant flow of family coming to stay. The schools in Brackley were excellent, one of the reasons my parents had chosen to live there. My sister went to the girls' High School where I later joined her and my brother to Magdalen College School. To start with I went to a "Dame School" run by a Mr and Mrs McCarthy, who were most excellent teachers, and where I rapidly acquired a real love of learning. All the children there had to wear French style blue overalls.

There were 5 or 6 other Jewish families in the area - they were our social life. On the High Holydays Services were held in houses - mainly ours, I think. They made little impact on me, I was mainly aware of a lot of big people and I didn't really know what was going on. At Passover there was a Seder, I stayed up late which was exciting. A Hebrew teacher came every so often and I went to the Froomberg's house with a few other children - and learned nothing! I think my brother taught me to read and write a little Hebrew. We used to get the Jewish Chronicle and I read "Junior Chronicle " and once went in for a competition to paint a Sefer Torah - I won a prize! It was a "Book of Jewish Thoughts" - 66 years later it is still somewhere in my family!

I think the people in the village were bemused by all these strange families who had appeared in their midst. I was not aware of any anti-Semitism, although once I was followed home by some children chanting, "you're a Jew!" - I was scared although they did not seem threatening, I didn't really know what they meant. When I went to the High School, I had to stand outside the hall door during Assembly and prayers, with my sister and one other Jewish girl - I hated that. Kosher meat was sent from London on the train - apparently it sometimes took on a life of its own and went elsewhere, or back to London. My sister recalls having to go and collect it and standing on a freezing platform for hours. My best friend in school's family kept pigs. I remember going there once when they were killing one and I can still hear the screeching and smell the horrid smell. Another friend's Dad was a farmer. I went there at Harvest time and had a wonderful time riding in the hay cart.

Mostly I played with the Froomberg boys, John, Derek and Richard. When my grandfather died, my mother went to London for the funeral and shiva and I stayed with them. Not being used to little girls they didn't quite know what to make of me. I had never stayed with anyone and was very tearful. All this time we had a Polish boy living with us. Max was part of the family and because I was so young I didn't really understand why he was there - it was talked about, but mostly went over my head. As I grew older, I learned that he had come on the Kindertransport and that his family had perished [in the Holocaust].

I felt as children do, that Brackley was my life. I remembered little of my life before and had no thought for the future. I knew about the war of course, my father was in the RAF and there were always Jewish servicemen stationed nearby coming for meals. There was rationing. Once there was a Wellington bomber in the High Street and we could go inside and look around. I was aware all the time that adults were anxious - that often scared me but I accepted it all. My years in Brackley gave me an abiding love of the countryside, of gardens and of growing things. It was a time that had a great effect on the person I became.
30 January 2007

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