Cockney Girl

  • Gilda Haber
  • DB Publishing
  • 192 pp.
  • June 4, 2012

Focusing on the neglect and displacement the author experienced as an English Jewish girl during World War II and its aftermath, this memoir is a tribute to her younger self’s stubborn courage.

Reviewed by Susan Willens

As World War II fades into history, it is vital to keep and to understand actual lived memories of the 1940s and 50s. In Cockney Girl, Gilda Moss Haber tells an odd part of the story: her strange growing up as an English Jewish child, exiled from her family in London to schools in the countryside.

It is a vivid, sad, and brave tale of an only child whose unhappy parents in London’s East End sent her away for years, to foster homes and orphanages to escape the Blitz and to free her parents from responsibility for her care. As she puts it: “Now we were leaving for another unknown place, another strange, boring country village, and other strange gentile family, with strange accents, language, customs and food, all so different from my East End Jewish family.” She takes this journey again and again.

While Gilda longs for home — for her loving deaf father and even her bitter mother — she makes a life for herself far from home. She notices everything, learns quickly, and adjusts to her constant dormitory-style life. She adapts, even when a lonely, frightened child, and emerges from her ordeal a strong, confident young adult.

Gilda comes home to London briefly after the Blitz, passing “a still acrid hot smoking building, now a pile of rubble. … Bombs rained down with thumps, whines, explosions … crashes of glass exploding, rumblings of houses falling … ambulances screaming by.” Amid the destruction, her family goes on. Her father, a barber, and her mother, a hairdresser, manage to keep working in East London, while Gilda herself is always returned to her foster homes in the country. She is angry with her parents for “dropping me like a package back in the hated orphanage. ” Because she is Jewish, she is often isolated. But she adjusts to each new place, making friends, studying, singing, and exploring.

These homes, orphanages, and schools are the center of the action of the memoir. The child never understands where she is going or why. She must adapt to the discipline of each place, staying in each one sometimes for years. The memoir, which describes her passage from childhood to young womanhood, becomes a tribute to Gilda’s stubborn courage.

At the end of the war, Gilda comes home to London to a tense relation with her mother and a violent family life. She finishes school with honors and feels ready for the real world. “The time to break from Mummy was now,” she thinks. She makes that break and the memoir ends on the brink of a life of travel and success. The girl who had been exiled from home has the skills she needs to go out into the world.

An engaging reading experience, Cockney Girl recalls the courage of Gilda Haber, always far from home, a stranger in her own land.

Susan Willens is an emerita English professor at George Washington University and a teacher at American University’s Lifelong Learning Center and Politics and Prose Bookstore.

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