Judith Sie’s Story

Children responded in different ways to their stay in Switzerland. Returners’ memories are mixed. Not all are positive and some remain painful, in sharp contrast with the gloss of official accounts.

‘Happy memories of Swiss holiday’

Judith Sie, 1948

Judith Sie was one of three children from Wythenshawe in south Manchester who went to Switzerland in 1948. ‘Brown-eyed nine year old’ Judy featured prominently in the local newspaper account of the children’s return to Manchester, which also wrote about Maureen Fishwick, whose story is told elsewhere on these web pages. 

The article, headlined ‘Wythenshawe children have happy memories of Swiss holiday’, described Judy as ‘too excited to be tired after her long journey’, as she ‘tumbled’ off the train, ‘loaded with presents for all her family – a drum for baby brother Barry and surprise gifts for mother, father and Sister Winifred’. Clasping her mother’s hand, she ‘chattered incessantly about her life with ‘Aunty and ‘Uncle’, Dr. and Mrs Fullermann Durand with whom she had lived while in Switzerland’, her ‘most treasured possession’ a ‘sleeping doll and pram which ‘Uncle’ bought her soon after she arrived’. 

The upbeat story jars with what Judy remembers of her ‘Swiss holiday’: It was all so frightening.

A wartime childhood

Judy had had an unsettled wartime childhood. Her father was away in the army for most of the war and she hardly knew him when he returned. She and her  older sister had been evacuated twice from the Manchester suburb of Whaley Range to the safer surroundings of Poynton and Wilmslow, in rural Cheshire, to escape the heavy bombing of the Trafford Park industrial district. After the war, the family moved to the healthier surroundings of the new suburban housing estate of Wythenshawe, by which time Judy had attended three different schools. 

New houses, Wythenshawe, 1948. Courtesy Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives

A July baby, Judy was always one of the youngest in her class. She was small for her age and must have found fitting in difficult. She didn’t like school and was often off, much to her dad’s annoyance, and recalls ‘clinging’ to her big sister, two years older, ‘strong and sturdy’ and much taller. 

Judy, unlike many children who went to Switzerland, didn’t have respiratory problems, but was undernourished and a ‘fussy eater’, possibly due to her wartime upheavals. She was below weight, which was probably why the school nurse picked her out as a candidate for Switzerland, sending her for a medical examination in Manchester, where she was chosen to go. 

A frightening journey

The local newspaper’s jolly headline hid what had been a ‘terrifying’ experience for a shy child like Judy, who felt frightened from the very outset, when she was separated from her mother at the station and was taken with all the other children to Platform 13, to be allocated in groups to the ‘lady’ who would look after them on the journey. It all happened so quickly that she forgot her suitcase and had to race back down the platform to retrieve it from her mother as the train was about to leave. Forever after, she was anxious about trains going without her.

Judy had had the comfort of being with her sister during their wartime evacuation. On this journey, she was alone. She didn’t know any of the other children and everything passed by in a blur. The only memories to stick out are of riding on a double decker bus around London, seeing Buckingham Palace, and being taken down into the Underground to sleep overnight in wartime bunks; dark, confined and quite frightening

Arriving  in France, she had to undress for the showers, another disquieting experience for children unused to seeing themselves, or each other, naked. Again, everything was very frightening, made worse by hearing  a group of Dutch girls, also on their way to Switzerland, who were screaming at having to take off their lace-up bodices.

Fears and anxieties

Judy’s final destination was St Gallen, where she stayed with a middle-aged doctor and his wife in a ‘grand house’ overlooking the town.  The doctor was out working most of the time and his wife was also out a great deal. Their own children had grown up and they seemed very distant to young Judy, whose only fond memories are of the couple’s housekeeper, ‘Auntie Soda’, who didn’t speak English but with whom Judy spent most of her time. She went out very little, other than to go shopping with ‘Auntie Soda’. The newspaper article about her return drew attention to the interesting places she’d visited – Lake Constance, St. Ursanne and local beauty spots, but these seem to have been a rare high point. Judy has just one photo of a trip, sent back to her parents, taken when she went out with the doctor’s wife and her older daughter, so unusual that it sticks with me, looking across lake and saying that’s Germany. 

On an outing in the mountains

Another occasion for childish pursuits was being taken to the park after the doctor and his wife were away one weekend and she went to stay with ‘Auntie Soda’ and her husband. This kind couple was most likely the ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’ about whom the local newspaper said she ‘chattered incessantly’.

Judy took her breakfast and lunch with ‘Auntie Soda’, but dreaded the evening meal, when she was expected to eat with the doctor and his wife. Sitting with them, having to finish the evening meal, was ‘terrifying’:

The people I stayed with were very cold . I saw very little of the Doctor, only for the evening meals which were a nightmare to me as I was a very fussy eater and I was not allowed to leave the table until I’d finished my food then I had to wash the dishes.

Judy had always slept in the same bed as her sister and had ‘never’ in her life slept alone until Switzerland, when she was put in an attic bedroom with just a little window. It was scary and lonely and she really missed her sister. I probably cried a lot. The only happy thing about bedroom was birds on the roof, singing.

Judy’s mother had followed the official advice to send her daughter off with three lots of clothes, which had to be washed frequently because, unlike some of the other children, she didn’t receive any new ones from her Swiss hosts. The exception was a pair of knickers, which ‘Auntie Soda’ bought her after she wetted herself. It could have been much worse. Judy recalls that fortunately she never wet the bed, which would have been truly terrible.

Judy recalls no attempt being made to bring together the other British children who were staying in St. Gallen. She had an occasional visit next door to play with the neighbour’s three year old son, the only other child she met, who had a bike. This family also had a baby boy, who made her think of how much she was missing her baby brother, Barry.

The Red Cross had requested that the children’s visit take place over Easter, so they could enjoy how the Swiss celebrated the festival. Judy describes shopping with ‘Auntie Soda’, I can still see the shop windows with all those chocolate Easter eggs. Sadly, there were no special chocolate treats in Judy’s house and it was left to Auntie Soda’s husband to buy her a chocolate Easter egg. 

The newspaper’s description of the presents Judy brought back with her to Manchester left a lot to be desired: 

There was a doll’s pram in the cellar (where I spent a lot of my time helping the housekeeper Auntie Soda, who I did form an attachment with) but this was an old one belonging to the grownup children of the household, I certainly didn’t bring it home with me. I can still remember my Mother’s disappointment that her present was a handkerchief, some of the mums got nylons, they were very special at that time. I do still have an elaborate  gold embroidered nightdress case that I brought back with me. 

Judy dressed in ‘Swiss costume’ in the garden of her Swiss family. The last photo sent to her parents

Unlike other returners who have taken part in Returning Home, Judy didn’t talk much about Switzerland when her own children were growing up. Her memories were largely negative. The only reason she went to the anniversary event in 2018 was because her son had read about it in the newspaper and encouraged her to go along, on the ‘spur of the moment’, with her daughter. The ‘only good things’ about her stay were that she gained weight, ‘the before and after photos do show that’. She returned a lot healthier and went to school more on her return, but the ‘cold’ doctor and his wife cast a long shadow. Speculating why they had taken her in, she wonders, was it out of duty? Perhaps they wanted extra help in the house, as she assisted ‘Auntie Soda’ with the washing in the cellar and with dusting the ‘posh lounge and dining room’. Looking back on childhood, she reflects on how much is forgotten.

I realise how much we the children of wartime must have shut away to get on with life, like a lot of other people including those who went to fight, like my father. Can’t think how we turned out to be such balanced people after our experiences, but maybe we aren’t.

Judy Sie, 2018

© Judy Sie