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Jo'Burg Days: Memories Of A Very English South African Girls School

...Classes were held for the youngest children in two split pole huts with cement floors and miniature wooden desks. These huts were reasonably comfortable in the warmer months, but absolutely freezing in July and August when the cold winds of a Johannesburg winter blew through the gaps between the poles and froze our hands to the point where we could hardly hold the chalk sticks we used to make the usual infantile marks on our school slates...

Open Writing columnist Barbara Durlacher recalls her school days in Johannesburg at the outset of World War Two.

MY VERY PERSONAL
MEMORIES OF A VERY ENGLISH
SOUTH AFRICAN GIRLS SCHOOL
1939 – 1948

I began school at in Johannesburg in late January or February 1939, having just turned seven. As I was born on 2nd December 1932, and entry age for schools at that time was 7 yrs 6 months, there was some doubt whether I would be allowed in start at such a ‘young age’ but it seems an exception was made, and I was duly swept away into what for me, as it is for all small children, was the most momentous experience of my young life up to then.

Classes were held for the youngest children in two split pole huts with cement floors and miniature wooden desks. These huts were reasonably comfortable in the warmer months, but absolutely freezing in July and August when the cold winds of a Johannesburg winter blew through the gaps between the poles and froze our hands to the point where we could hardly hold the chalk sticks we used to make the usual infantile marks on our school slates.

I have no recollection of where the toilets for the kindergarten kids were situated, but presumably they must have been reasonably close as with the cold and the frequent need for littlies to go the toilet, this must have been an important factor considering the primitive conditions in which we began our education.

Soon after I had become a pupil at the kindergarten, there were widespread fears in South Africa that the country would be bombed, and every household was advised to dig an Anderson shelter as an elementary form of protection. A shelter, large enough to hold 20 or 30 small children, was dug in the ground not far from the two split pole huts, and when it was ready, we were given a drill in the exciting business of evacuating our classrooms and taking our places in the shelter. Lined up in an orderly crocodile, we marched valiantly the few steps to the shelter, the boys imitating their fathers whom they had recently seen clad in unfamiliar Army uniform marching away to war, which the kids found irresistibly attractive. The boldest saluted the teacher and sensibly she took no notice of this flagrant contravention of her instructions ‘be quiet’ and before long we were all inside and doing as she said, to ‘behave ourselves, settle down and don’t make a fuss.’

To those readers of the modern generation who have no idea what an Anderson shelter is, here’s a brief explanation.

1. It is the simplest and easiest form of protection against air-raids and gun-fire that can be made, being nothing more that a large square hole in the ground, with – if wished and if the builders are reasonably skilled – a reasonably wide earth bench seat or seats – depending on the width of the hole.

2. It can be constructed by a man and a boy or two strong men with a couple of picks and shovels in a few hours.

3. When the required depth is reached (usually about adult head height), the area is roofed over with corrugated sheeting or any other suitable material, and the excavated soil is piled on top and levelled out to the edges and tamped down to (hopefully) seal the shelter against rain and cold.

4. Again if possible, a door is added to keep out the elements, (in the case of the one at St Mary’s there was just a simple opening to the outside and no door) and a provident and careful owner will furnish the shelter with mattresses, lamps, candles, tinned provisions and water.

To return to the Anderson Shelter at school; the inside was dark and damp, with nothing but an earth bench to sit on, and within a few moments it became obvious to even the least perceptive child that we were wasting our time and achieving nothing. Then we were told to stand up and march back to our classrooms and ‘sit down nicely and no talking.’

Despite the very short time we spent in that dark and fearsome place (as it seemed to my overheated imagination) which cannot have been more than ten minutes at the most, I had nightmares for years about that damn Anderson shelter. In my childish imagination it became a tangle of memories of the White Rabbit chasing Alice down endless earthen corridors which ended in a fearsome whirlpool which spiralled down into the centre of the earth rather than the actual experience of sitting quietly for a few minutes in a make-shift Anderson shelter in quiet suburban Johannesburg. In my dreams I heard the sound of the White Rabbit’s great flat feet slapping the ground behind me, and no matter how fast I ran, he kept gaining on me as the sound of his feet came closer and closer. Just before he caught me, and with his hand raised to grab me by the shoulder, I would wake with a scream of terror which always brought my dear Mom rushing to my side to calm me down, give me a drink and send me back to sleep.

That such a simple and well-meant exercise could have had such an effect on an impressionable and imaginative child seems extraordinary. Also extraordinary is that to this day, I can recall every detail of that dream even though the actual events of that calm and ordinary suburban morning took place more than 70 years ago!

During the two years I spent in K.G. we had a surprisingly large number of teachers who came and went with metronomic regularity. The reason for these rapid changes was due to the war and the number of South African men who were joining up. The men were then sent to train at the several big camps in Bloemfontein and Pretoria before being shipped “Up North” to fight in the North African campaign against Rommel in the Western Desert. As many of the young women doing their first stint of teaching started off with the youngest kids, they were naturally anxious to follow their boyfriends or fiancés around the country and get married as soon as possible, before the men left for war and a very uncertain future.

I can even remember how our favourite teacher, a dear woman named Mrs A - who always referred to us as “Little People” rather than the more familiar and abrupt, “Be quiet you children” which was the address most adults used – had a husband who had already been sent “Up North.” She valiantly stayed teaching us until she was eight months pregnant, and seeing her pregnant belly swelling week by week in front of us, was the first close experience many of us youngsters in the class had ever had to watch the development of a new human being from the outside!

Seeing the growth of a new person inside a familiar but unrelated woman from a family not their own, was probably the first contact with the real world outside our homes that many of us children had ever experienced. Yet, for all that, as far as I am aware, Mrs Ahrens never had to find tactful explanations for what in those days might have been termed “impertinent questions” about what was happening to her body, and she sailed calmly through those months of her pregnancy with her usual dignity and charm to the last, when alas, one morning when we came to school, we were told that she had left.

It was certainly a revelation for me, as my mother was 42 when I was born, at that time considered to be an advanced age for a woman to attempt a safe pregnancy and delivery - and neither she nor my father had any intentions of increasing their family, despite my fervent pleas to them during my formative years to “please give me a little brother or sister to play with!” which was always met by their smiling refusal.

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