Veterans: The saviour

Evelyn Chenkin helped find Jewish children after the war and, years later, helped Anglos in Israel settle in more easily.

Evelyn Chenkin (photo credit: Courtesy)
Evelyn Chenkin
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Evelyn Chenkin, 91 London to Kibbutz Mishmar David to Kibbutz Tzora, 1983
‘I think I was born with a Zionist spoon in my mouth,” jokes Evelyn Freedman Chenkin, an author and social organizer who recently celebrated her 91st birthday.
At age 10, London-born Evelyn tried to join a local chapter of Habonim, the socialist-Zionist cultural youth movement founded in Great Britain a few years before. She wasn’t old enough and had to wait another year.
As it happened, the circumstances of life intervened and she did not fulfill her Zionist dream until 1983.
But she did dedicate herself to Jewish and Israeli causes. Today, scooting around Kibbutz Tzora in a motorized golf cart and leading an active life, she has the satisfaction of knowing she played a role in helping Anglos repatriate to their ancestral homeland.
Her most daring assignment cropped up while she was working for the London beit din (religious court), which asked her to go to France after World War II to clandestinely track down Jewish children hidden with non-Jewish families and in convents. She later wrote a book about this experience, Gathering the Remnants.
“It was unbelievable,” she relates. “I did not know French, and I had never been abroad, but chief rabbi [Isaac] Herzog from Palestine had come to the Jewish community in London to ask for funds to find these children. So they decided to send little me.”
From 1946 to 1948, she made 26 crossings to and from France because she could not get a long-term visa. “I still have my passport with all the stamps on it,” she says.
Her assignment involved locating children from a list of names given her by various rescue organizations.
“Some of the children I recovered myself, and others were recovered with the money raised in England,” she says.
“I thought about moving to Israel from the time I was in France, and I would have come on the Exodus with a group of children from Toulouse. But I had a very sick mother, and I wouldn’t leave England until she passed away.”Children’s writer
The product of a traditional Jewish upbringing, Evelyn was evacuated from war-torn London at the age of 16, with her younger brother, to a country town in Bedfordshire “where they thought Jews had horns.”
She spent 18 months in a Habonim hachshara (aliya preparation) program, returning to London in 1942 to continue her studies in Russian. “I planned to be a correspondent, and in those times Russia was an important part of young people’s lives,” she explains.
She also worked as an aircraft factory inspector until the 12-hour days, six days a week, began taking a toll on her health. She spent the rest of the war years working in an office and studying at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, becoming active in the Jewish student movement.
When Evelyn returned to London from France, she met Eric Chenkin, her brother’s Habonim leader who had served with the British army in India for six years.
They married in September 1948 and settled in the Southgate district of London. Here she taught Jewish studies for 25 years.
She and Eric had three children: Judi, Jeremy and Gillian. In the 1960s, while assisting her husband in his jewelry business, she started writing stories for the children’s page of London’s Jewish Chronicle, based on her experiences in France.
“But I didn’t speak about it for 30 years, at first because I couldn’t,” she says. “What I’d done was illegal, and I had to wait for the statute of limitations to expire.”
Eventually she began a children’s insert, the Junior Review, for the newspaper of the Women’s International Zionist Organization, of which she is a longtime member. “One of my objectives was to educate the parents of that generation, because many of them had been evacuated during the war and had no Jewish education.”
Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund commissioned her to write a children’s book in 1975, which she titled Dina and Dov’s Adventures in Israel Through the Jewish Year. “It was sold in all the Englishspeaking countries but it’s now out of print,” she says.
Someone sent a copy of this book to Queen Elizabeth as a gift for Prince Edward, and later Chenkin sent a copy of her post-war memoir to the queen. Both gifts were formally accepted at the palace, which is a rare gesture.Making a place for Anglos in Israel
The grown Chenkin daughters made aliya (Jeremy lives in Toronto), and Evelyn traveled to Israel many times to visit them and to attend conferences. She served as education commission chairman for the 1982 World Zionist Congress.
The Chenkins had been supporters of Kibbutz Mishmar David, near Rehovot, where Gillian had gone to live with her Habonim garin (seed group). When the couple made arrangements to move to Israel in 1983 after the death of Evelyn’s mother, the kibbutz offered them a flat for a year. They ended up staying for eight.
Chenkin did not remain idle for long. “I found that many of my WIZO colleagues from the UK couldn’t find a place for themselves in Israel, so I decided to make a place for them,” she says.
In coordination with WIZO Tel Aviv, she eventually founded 13 English-speaking WIZO groups across the country. “On the kibbutz, there was one bus at 6 a.m. and no telephones, but I did it,” she recalls.
The groups provided a vital social network, and she established one for herself in Rehovot. “We had two joint functions with all the groups every year,” she says.
The Rehovot group no longer meets regularly, yet members still bring holiday gifts to underprivileged preschoolers in a local day-care center that they “adopted.”
In 1991, the Chenkins left Mishmar David to take advantage of an offer to build a house at Kibbutz Tzora, where daughter Judi and her husband, Lynn Lewis, live and run a folk music club.
“Tzora is half South African, so it was much easier for my husband, because we had been the only Englishspeakers at Mishmar David,” Chenkin explains.
When she was 89, she published a book of poetry, Just for You (Gefen Books). One section is romantic, another reflects on topics ranging from Israel to the Holocaust to chocolate, and the last one deals with the nature of different types of people.
“I’ve been writing poetry since I was a kid, when I used to lampoon all the teachers,” she reveals. “When I came to Israel, I really started writing – and I still do.
Since the book came out, I’ve written about another 30 poems.”
Eric died five years ago, but Evelyn continues their activities. “We have a very good English-speaking social group for pensioners here, which attracts people from outside Tzora as well – a very lively group on Sunday mornings, and I’m the coordinator.” Though she is not a kibbutz member, she also takes pottery classes there.
“I would hate to live in a senior complex because I like having young children around. That way, you don’t feel old. I think I’m a very lucky girl,” says Chenkin, who has eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.