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Foster parent no. 200: Eleanor Roosevelt
During WWII Eleanor Roosevelt joined the Foster Parent Plan, becoming “foster parent” no. 200, and supported 10-year-old Paulette Le Mescam who fled Guernsey to England.
In the period leading up to the invasion, every one of the islands tried to find a way to tackle the question of a potential evacuation to England. This was the case on the island of Guernsey as well, where the available ships and resources were ultimately able to carry 17 thousand residents to safety – prioritizing schoolchildren, mothers with young children, and men of military age. Of the 6 thousand schoolchildren, 5 thousand were successfully evacuated to Southern England. To keep them from getting frightened, the youngest of them were told they were going on a field trip.
Once they received word that the Germans had arrived on their island, the Guernsey residents who had been evacuated understood that they would probably have to live in England for quite a while. By this point most of them had been transported to the large industrial centers of Northern England, where they received help finding employment. Children and adults alike were surprised by many aspects of their new environment, as many of them had never seen a smokestack or steamboats making their way up a channel tens of kilometers from the sea.
The initially uninviting environment was made more livable by the kindness of the locals, who provided clothes, kitchen equipment, and even furniture to the newly-arrived mothers with young children, who had arrived with no more than a suitcase packed with personal belongings (or completely empty-handed) and often had to move into completely empty apartments. Several evacuees found a job in the arms industry and helped manufacture aircraft and ammunition, while the teachers who had accompanied the children from Guernsey tried to keep their classes together and set up their former schools in England. They faced constant financial difficulties, but the local communities would help them out to the best of their abilities even amid the increasingly difficult wartime conditions.
Such was the case with La Chaumière Catholic School, which was headed by Father Patrick Bleach. The children from the school were placed in Knutsford, Cheshire, where they lived with local families until a local country house, Moseley Hall, was rented out to them free of charge by its owner. The empty building stood on a beautiful piece of land, which provided a magical environment for the evacuated children and their teachers, who received help from a few young mothers who had volunteered in exchange for food and accommodation – the fact that they were among their fellow people from Guernsey helped them feel more at home in a foreign place.
Father Bleach spent most of his time ensuring that the donations and financial aid would keep coming. He worked to acquire beds, bedding, toys, and classroom materials, which brought him to the local Red Cross quite often – moreover, the organization was the only means of communication through which the evacuees were able to maintain (minimal) correspondence with those who remained on the island. The postal service no longer served the occupied Channel Islands, but the Red Cross was able to deliver very short messages of no more than 25 words behind the enemy lines. It could take as much as six months for an answer to arrive, but the survivors were always happy to receive a “letter” from the Red Cross, as it meant that their loved ones were still alive.
It was through the local Red Cross office that Father Bleach learned about an initiative called Foster Parents Plan for War Children, which had been founded in 1937 with the original intent of providing aid to children during the Spanish Civil War, and which had refocused its efforts in 1939 after the outbreak of World War II. Its founders were British journalist John Langdon-Davies and Eric Muggeridge, a social worker and the brother of writer Malcolm Muggeridge. Their new, more grandiose plan involved registering their aid organization in New York, which allowed them to recruit supporters in the United States.
The Foster Parents Plan asked people to provide financial support to one specific child and to thereby become a “foster parent” to them. Supporters were also asked to begin exchanging letters with the child they were “raising” so that they would know that there were people out there who cared for them personally. In the 1940s the list of the organization’s supporters was nothing short of a who’s who of celebrities: Bing Crosby, Julie Andrews, Ira Gershwin, and many others had joined the initiative. When La Chaumière began cooperating with Foster Parents Plan, some of the children from Guernsey were put into the care of American senators and military officers.
Soon the list of sponsors for La Chaumière children would include an even more illustrious name. When in November 1942 United States First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was visiting London, her itinerary included a stop at Foster Parent Plan’s local office to learn more about the organization’s work – and she ended up being the 200th “foster parent”, responsible for child no. 306: 10-year-old Paulette Le Mescam. A few weeks later the First Lady received a picture of the girl, along with a short description, which mentioned, among other things, how well she was doing in school and how well she spoke French.
Paulette was practically a double refugee at this point: Born in 1932 in Paris, the girl was just 18 months old when she lost her mother, and her father’s job as a sailor left him with not enough time to raise her and her sister, Monique. As a result, the girls were sent to Guernsey to live with their grandmother. After she was evacuated to England she lived with three different families before ending up in Moseley Hall, at which point it had been five years since she had heard from her father.
When Paulette first began writing letters to “Auntie Eleanor” she had no idea who she was corresponding with, only that she lived in a certain White House in the United States. Roosevelt donated 10 shillings a week to help look after Paulette, and would also send her clothes and other presents through Foster Parents Plan. Paulette later recounted how overjoyed she had been every time she had received a package with the organization’s familiar logo, which would always reveal fine clothes or scented products.
Muggeridge recognized that the Eleanor Roosevelt connection could bring in even more supporters for the children, and asked Paulette to talk to the BBC radio channel about her situation. It was then that she realized who Auntie Eleanor really was. Paulette and Muggeridge traveled to London in May 1943 to record the broadcast, in which she spoke in both English and French about the organization’s work and her own “foster parent”, who was listening from the other side of the Atlantic.
The broadcast had the desired effect: Over the next few weeks journalists and photographers flooded Moseley Hall to interview Paulette and the other children. Paulette, humbled by all the attention, would then begin referring to the First Lady as “Mrs. Roosevelt” in her letters. Even though Roosevelt had enough on her table during the war, she actually paid close attention to Paulette’s well-being: One time when she found out from one of Paulette’s letters that Plan had given her ill-fitting clothes she made a complaint and had the issue sorted out.
Guernsey and the rest of the Channel Islands did not have much strategic use for Germany either, but it was still a major propaganda victory to have Nazi troops on a British territory. As they began building the so-called Atlantic Wall along the French coast, concrete fortifications on the Channel Islands also began to be put up by Germans and various kinds of workers – from paid laborers from the Islands and the Netherlands, France, and Belgium, to European Jews and Soviet POWs who were made to work as slaves. At Hitler’s personal orders, one twelfth of the resources dedicated to the Atlantic Wall were reallocated to shaping the Channel Islands into “impenetrable fortresses”.
In 1944 the Allies made the same decision regarding the islands that they had at the beginning of the war: They were not worth sacrificing people for. After D-Day the supply chains to the island were cut, and life became increasingly difficult for both the locals and the occupiers. There were no widespread revolts, but crime began to increase and tension began to build up.
The only relief for the civilians was the packages of food delivered by the Red Cross during the harsh winter of 1944-45. In December 1944 a German commando made its way to Ally-occupied Granville in France and stole supplies in a surprise raid – just six months earlier the place had been General Eisenhower’s headquarters.
The anxious and starving populace continued to live like this until the German surrender on May 8-9, 1945. In a May 8 radio broadcast, Prime Minister Winston Churchill informed the people of the islands of the enemy’s capitulation, and the next morning a British warship, the HMS Bulldog, arrived in the capital of Guernsey, St. Peter Port, to accept the surrender of German troops. The occupying forces of Alderney, an island closer to France, laid down their arms on May 16. Everywhere, the British troops were welcomed by happy but clearly starving locals.
Paulette and her schoolmates returned to Guernsey in July, where she was greeted with sad news: Her grandmother had passed away. She came to live with an uncle she had never met before, and never saw her father or sister again. In one of her letters, Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to the White House, but the trip never materialized. In 2010 she returned to Moseley Hall for a documentary and talked about her memories of England, as well as how much the letters she had exchanged with Eleanor Roosevelt meant to her.
In late June of 1940 the German forces occupying France marched into the oldest of the British Crown dependencies, the Channel Islands. British leaders decided to demilitarize the area, as they had no strategic significance, and thus an armed resistance would have only brought suffering on the locals and would have likely been futile anyway. The islands remained in the hands of Germany all the way until May 9, 1945, the surrender of the Third Reich.
Did you know?
There was a shortage of money during the German occupation of the Channel Islands, as German soldiers kept oceans of British coins as souvenirs.
The five-year stay of school-age children in England was a culture shock for the locals of Guernsey. They often remarked that the kids had completely changed and returned to the island as English.
Regarding the residents' attitude of the Channel Islands towards the invaders, collaboration is still a sensitive issue as islanders had to rely on the Germans to maintain their livelihood.