Evelyn Chenkin’s own incredulity, she was walking out of a convent in France holding the hand of a 15-year-old Jewish girl. This had been a tough one, as the mother superior had insisted that the child was now a Catholic.
The 15-year-old girl had been placed there by a peasant who was entrusted with the child by her desperate mother who was taken to her death. An aunt who had survived emerged from the Holocaust sickly ill and could not send for her sooner; her son had come to the offices of WIZO begging for their help. The girl had been placed there by a peasant who had been entrusted with her care when the girl’s mother was taken away. Her only surviving relative, an aunt, had emerged from the Holocaust too ill to send for her sooner, so her son had come to the offices of WIZO begging for their help. They agreed to take on the case.
Certified legal documents in hand, Evelyn had left for the city of Poitiers, where the convent was located, with a social worker. Fortunately, her argument on the doorstep of the convent prevailed, and her heart was filled with joy when she thought of the healing that the girl’s reunion with her ailing aunt would bring for both of them.
Except that a new obstacle arose. The trains out of the sleepy whistle-stop station in Poitiers stopped sporadically, and the next one was due in six hours.
The priest then suggested that they could wait in his house. But while sitting around, his Catholic housekeeper talked the impressionable young girl out of leaving, intimating that a baptized person who returned to Judaism was destined to burn in hell. Alas, her words had the desired effect. The girl panicked and refused to go. No amount of persuading could change her mind.
Evelyn left Poitiers empty-handed. She returned two days later with several top French lawyers, a doctor and the same legal papers, but by then the priest had returned the girl to the convent.
Those forbidding doors, which had only recently served as a gateway to freedom, were never opened for them again. “When those double-doors close, they close,” Evelyn notes. “All you see is black iron, and maybe the shutter will shift slightly before it slides closed again. You can knock forever.”
If only the train had been scheduled sooner…
Evelyn’s saga of rescuing children after the Holocaust is full of “if onlys,” primarily if only she could have done more, but to her merit she accomplished plenty. She plucked 60 Jewish children from their hiding places and foster homes in Europe, 12 of them with her own two hands. This is her story.
TOUGHENED BY HER CHILDHOOD
You would expect that the childhood of British-born Evelyn Chenkin (née Freedman) was as whimsical as the board game Candyland, given the fact that her parents were proprietors of a confectionery store. If that alone isn’t the stuff of a child’s dream, the family relocated right upstairs from the North London shop when the rumblings of war came to England.
But while Evelyn admits to being wide-eyed at the vast varieties of chocolate, it wasn’t all fun and games.
With her parents working long hours, she was mostly cared for by a volunteer military nurse who had served in World War I. The austere woman happened to be the daughter of a lord, and she was intent on raising Evelyn as such.
“In other words,” recounts the sprightly nonagenarian in a phone conversation from her home in Kibbutz Tzora, just outside Jerusalem, “children are to be seen and not heard. If you don’t eat something, you will eat it for the next ten meals. If you do anything bad, you get slapped very hard.”
The strictness only stirred the rebel in Evelyn, and when she was later evacuated to safety outside of London, the cheeky, strong-willed girl would have none of it and hitchhiked right back home to her parents, despite the falling bombs. There she joined a group of young people studying agriculture and preparing to make aliyah to Israel, but after 18 months she decided that kibbutz life was absolutely not for her. (Today, living on a kibbutz, the irony isn’t lost on her.) She dreamed of a career in medicine—one of the only fields one was allowed to study during the war—and even won a scholarship, but the college soon closed for the duration of the war. Finally, she landed a plum job as deputy to the chief inspector of the Hawker Aircraft factory in Kingston. Since it entailed long 12-hour days starting with a two-hour train commute at 5:00 a.m., it eventually took a toll on her health and she was forced to quit.
AN ORDER IN THE COURT
In 1945, in order to subsidize a Russian language night class she was taking to pursue her other dream of becoming a foreign correspondent, Evelyn took a day job as a secretary at the London Beth Din, a seemingly innocuous desk job.
“People would come in begging us to help them locate child relatives in Europe who they knew were alive but whom other agencies such as the Red Cross had failed to track down, like an English lady whose niece had been fostered somewhere in France.”