by Mary Teresa Bitti
On her 80th birthday, Kitty Wintrob received a surprise that has taken her life in a new direction. Her family self-published the memoir she had painstakingly written over many years and presented her with it.
Shortly afterward, a Toronto-based publishing house, Now and Then Books, happened upon her story and approached her for the rights to commercially publish it. Now, at age 83, Ms. Wintrob is embarking on a new path as published author and guest speaker.
Born and raised in London’s hard-scrabble East End, Ms. Wintrob was one of the 1.5 million children evacuated to the countryside in 1939 at the start of the Second World War. Almost 30 years ago, Ms. Wintrob sat down to document her story as a 10-year-old evacuee for her two children.
“I had this old clunky typewriter and I decided that my children should know something about my childhood in England because I have found that very few people know much about the evacuation of the children in London,” says Ms. Wintrob, who suffered from macular degeneration and was starting to lose her sight when she began her memoir.
Still, she sat at her kitchen table and composed her story on that antique typewriter. In the evenings, her husband Ralph recorded her words and she listened, making corrections from the tape. Her daughter Suzanne encouraged her to take a creative writing course and, though she had her reservations – “I couldn’t see, how could I read each chapter to the class?” – like so many other times in her life, she pushed through her fears and did it. The result is I’m Not Going Back: Wartime Memoir of a Child Evacuee.
Since it was published last October, Ms. Wintrob and her husband of 51 years have developed an act of sorts, leading a series of book talks in churches, synagogues and seniors’ homes in Toronto, Sarasota, Fla. (where they winter) and, most recently, in Jerusalem (her favourite city in the world).
“We’re like Burns and Allen. I tell the story of the evacuation and he reads passages from the book – we egg each other on, it’s a great entertainment,” Ms. Wintrob says.
She recently took part in Author’s Day at Ryerson University’s Silver Screen Festival and in October she will speak at the 2010 Jewish Book Fair, one of the largest in North America.
“I’m just amazed,” Ms. Wintrob says of all the attention and new opportunities her little book is bringing. “It’s wonderful for me because I can’t see at all now and it’s brought something new and fun to my life.”
It is a life that has taken her from London to New York to Toronto, where she settled in 1959 after her beloved Ralph sent her a plane ticket and married her three days later. She has worked in music publishing and as a nursery school teacher and for a time when her children were young she was a member of the Toronto Guild of Puppetry.
It is also a life that has forced her to deal with the loss of her son, Phillip, in a car accident 20 years ago and the complete loss of her sight when she fell down 16 concrete steps 10 years ago.
At each stage in this full life, Ms. Wintrob has displayed the same spunk and spirit she did as a 10-year-old girl forced to leave her Jewish working-class home with no indication where she was going or when she would be back.
“In August, 1939, there was big talk of war. Parents were informed the children would be evacuated but they weren’t told where they were going. Every day before the war we would have a drill and one day the teacher said, ‘tomorrow, come to school, bring your gas mask, one change of clothing, your identity card, lunch if you want to.’ All the mothers came. That was the very beginning.”
Her memoir takes the reader through Ms. Wintrob’s experience living first with a childless family that made her earn her keep by cleaning and polishing the floors before school, and next in a wealthy home where the couple’s daughter would not speak to her because she was an evacuee and she was told to eat with the maid. In both cases, she ran away and fled home to her mother.
“My uncle talked my mother into letting me stay, and then the bombs began.”
Ms. Wintrob has already started work on the continuation of her story, picking up with the night the whole of London was bombed: May 10, 1941.
“I hope that will be my next book,” she says. “I see now how important my story is. People know so little about that time, particularly people here in North America. In Sarasota, one lady asked me, ‘How were you treated when the Germans occupied London?’ Of course, the Germans never occupied London.”
And so she is only too happy to share her story, and has given up the clunky typewriter in favour of a talking computer.
“I’m having a lot of trouble but I’m really trying to master it.”
In fact, as her grandson likes to point out, Ms. Wintrob can do everything – she just can’t see.
“I cook, bake – you have to do it; otherwise, if you sit at home and feel sorry for yourself, nobody is going to be interested in you. You have to get on with it. It’s hard work. You have to concentrate on everything you do.
“I fell down 16 concrete steps on my face, that’s how I completely lost my sight. Now I’m scared of stairs but I still go down them. I concentrate on every step.”
From The National Post
The original text of the article may be found here.