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Europe lay in ruins, with more struggles to come

Continued from Page 3

Still, the $20-billion of aid the United States provided through the Marshall Plan wasn't announced until the end of 1947, and didn't arrive until the 1950s. It really was not until the very late 1950s that its effects began to be felt by ordinary people anywhere in Europe.

Susan Goodman remembers the London of her young adulthood as a slow, strangely elegant work of tedious ruin. “The whole city was just pockmarked,” she said. “It had a strange kind of beauty about it — all the jagged walls, flowers growing out of ruins. I remember bits of wallpaper fluttering in the breeze.”

But this look, and this mood, continued deep into the 1950s. Her middle-class family found themselves living extremely constricted lives. Today, in her comfortable home in a London neighbourhood that has become very well-off indeed, she marvels at the awful European years of postwar malaise.

“Nobody had any money — it was all very drab and conformist. My father was a lawyer, we were supposedly well-off, and he had a very hard time making the most basic ends meet. Fuel was difficult, food was very difficult. We had nothing to show for all the struggle. I went to the States for a year for university, and the contrast was amazing — there was just abundance and plenty everywhere, you could simply buy what you wanted without thinking about it.”

When the European economies finally did get going in the late 1950s, it was just the right time for huge tracts of awful architecture to be built. The combination of utopian socialist modernism and cheap, poured-concrete building materials caused many of Hitler's and Churchill's craters to be filled with dreadful, high-rise public-housing units that contributed to the worst social ills of the past few decades. Urban blight and racial segregation were, in this strange, displaced way, also Hitler's fault.

The children who walked the streets that final week of the war often waited 15 or 20 years before they saw the kind of prosperity they had dreamed of. If they stayed in Britain, they often waited 20 more years, as the public-sector economy stagnated further, preventing any growth until the 1980s. Some became part of a downwardly mobile generation.

A surprising number, though, wound up like Mr. Wheal — a child of the slums whose experience with the war's violent mishmash of social classes led him to a successful literary career as a writer of thriller novels and a recent memoir of his war years, World's End: A Memoir of a Blitz Childhood.

Whether successful or not, the sensations of 1945 created a very different sort of individual, one whose childhood and young adulthood was shaped by a world without parents, without even basic goods, and without any sort of security.

“The simple fact of growing up in the war made us in a sense like Elizabethan children — you had to have a real cognizance of the adult world around you,” Mr. Wheal said as he surveyed a former bomb site turned into a pretty urban garden. “You had real duties, responsibilities, and the terrible consequences of avoiding them were there to be seen all around you. You became very serious very early in your childhood.”

That high seriousness is one of the great distinguishing marks of being a child at the time. “We had a different attitude to death from other children,” said Ms. Goodman, who recently edited an oral history titled Children of War: The Second World War through the Eyes of a Generation.

“For those years, death was all around us. You'd hear about how pilots and soldiers died every day, and they were your friends and neighbours. Even us little people, they couldn't keep it from us — young death was just a part of life.”

Death, and deprivation. For so many of the young people who walked the streets of European cities in that long, anxious, odd-smelling first week of May, 1945, what remains in their minds, and deeply ingrained in their characters, is a sense of deprivation that began some time before 1939 and ended many long years after the war. They are the people who still save bits of string and scraps of tin foil, and who launder their clothes until they are threadbare.

This life was the essence of their childhood.

“There was no fuel, no heat. I felt absolutely frozen, absolutely frozen all the time,” Ms. Goodman said, speaking not of the winter of 1947 but of the years of the 1950s, when things should have been better.

“That's why we're a tough old breed. I do save pieces of string.”

Doug Saunders is a member of The Globe and Mail's London bureau.

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