In the early hours of 1 September 1939, German troops crossed the border into Poland. At the same time in Britain, thousands of children, in cities all over the country crocodile-marched to the nearest railway station to board trains that would take them to the safety of the countryside.
Two days later, war was declared. Operation Pied Piper was the secret code name given to the mass evacuation of over 3 million children.
Given the large numbers and different social classes involved, individual experiences ran the gamut from excellent to terrible.
On 6th December, 1941, Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud, reported the results of a 12-month study she had authorised. Its conclusion was that “separation from their parents was a worse shock for children than a bombing.” In the 2003 BBC Radio 4 documentary, “Evacuation: The True Story,” Steve Davis, a clinical psychologist specialising in the study of war trauma, stated that in the worst cases, “It was little more than a pedophile’s charter.”
When, lo! as they reached the mountain-side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Child’s Story
Many are familiar with the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Few realise however, that the story is based on real events, which evolved over the years into a fairy tale made to scare children.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, it is set in 1284 in the town of Hamelin, Lower Saxony, Germany. This town was facing a rat infestation, and a piper, dressed in a coat of many coloured, bright cloth, appeared. This piper promised to get rid of the rats in return for a payment, to which the townspeople agreed too. Although the piper got rid of the rats by leading them away with his music, the people of Hamelin reneged on their promise. The furious piper left, vowing revenge. On the 26th of July of that same year, the piper returned and led the children away, never to be seen again, just as he did the rats. Nevertheless, one or three children were left behind, depending on which version is being told. One of these children was lame, and could not keep up, another was deaf and could not hear the music, while the third one was blind and could not see where he was going.
If the children’s disappearance was not an act of revenge, then what was its cause? There have been numerous theories trying to explain what happened to the children of Hamelin. For instance, one theory suggests that the children died of some natural causes, and that the Pied Piper was the personification of Death. By associating the rats with the Black Death, it has been suggested that the children were victims of this plague. Yet, the Black Death was most severe in Europe between 1348 and 1350, more than half a century after the event in Hamelin. Another theory suggests that the children were actually sent away by their parents, due to the extreme poverty that they were living in. Yet another theory speculates that the children were participants of a doomed ‘Children’s Crusade’, and might have ended up in modern day Romania, or that the departure of Hamelin’s children is tied to the Ostsiedlung, in which a number of Germans left their homes to colonize Eastern Europe. One of the darker theories even proposes that the Pied Piper was actually a paedophile who crept into the town of Hamelin to abduct children during their sleep.
Being born in the 70s I was unaware of the name of the secret operation Pied Piper until 9th September, a special day here in England as Queen, Elizabeth Windsor became the longest ruling monarch of the United Kingdom.
The papers and media were full of accolades and celebrations, stories of the Queen and her achievements. One, which caught my eye in the Huffington Post.
In the last couple of weeks millions of people are migrating across the Middle East, some making treacherous journeys across the Meditteranan, children drowning, loss of life and now upon the shires of Europe, this migration is stirring much discontent.
So zooming back in time, Queen Elizabeth’s first ever public speech and address reveals a compassionate message of solidarity to child migrants. When she was just 14 – and still a princess as her father was on the throne – Elizabeth addressed the UK’s children who left their homes to escape the dangers of Word War II, on the BBC’s Children’s Hour radio slot in 1940.
Teenage Elizabeth tells the thousands of homesick children who travelled abroad to Commonwealth countries to escape the threat of German invasion and bombings that she was “not forgetting” them.
Why, was this operation named Pied Piper ? We now know from historical sources and documented evidence available in the Public Domain that this operation was planned a year before – a contingency plan. For some reason, this just does not sit right with me and I cannot put my finger on it. There are many stories about these turbulent times, some happy stories and too some very tragic. I just can not comprehend being whisked away from my parents and being sent to live with strangers who would pick you – like cattle.
I then think again of the Pied Piper and one character springs to my mind, not the fairy tale character but Russell Brand.
“More than anything else I’m the trickster” Russell Brand
Brand’s status as a pied piper of the champagne anarchist is even more ridiculous when one considers his past. The man now putting himself forward as a Shoreditch Che Guevara, a crusader against bigotry and the capitalist system, shot to fame as a presenter on Big Brother, a programme that has been blighted by racism and relies on sponsorship from firms such as TalkTalk and the Carphone Warehouse. It has also been alleged (though never proven) that his film company is bankrolled by a group of City financiers, the very people he purports to despise.
Brand claims to represent the young people of this country, those under the age of 45. Well I belong to that generation (just about) and I can categorically say this man does not represent me. Nor would I swap his tricky dicky story for the original version.
When you think about it’s weird what he/they did, taking those children away and it makes you ask questions. Why did he/they do it? Is that okay? Why did it happen? What’s the story trying to tell us? The Pied Pieper makes you think.
There’s something about it. You have your basic story: there’s a tow/country, the town has a rat problem, the town calls the Pied Piper, the Pied Piper gets rid of the rats, the town doesn’t pay the the Pied Piper and the Pied Piper takes the children. But everything else is up for grabs, you can change it, you can set it anywhere in the world, you can say it means anything you like.
I wonder what the children thought was going to happen? Being led away with music. The pipe is really significant because music is something that has a powerful effect that we can’t really understand. In itself it’s a metaphor for the other things that have an effect on us that we can’t see or even really understand.
Today, we tell the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin to our children to teach them a lesson in morality, that lesson being don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep and don’t back out on a deal. And today we usually tack on a happy ending with the children of Hamelin all being released from the cave they were being held in when their parents finally decided to keep their part of the bargain.
However, as with most fairy tales, the Pied Piper has some basis in fact, and those facts are, indeed, pretty gruesome.
Anderson, D., 2012. The Pied Piper of Hamelin: The facts behind the fairy tale. [Online] Available at: http://www.examiner.com/article/the-pied-piper-of-hamelin-the-facts-behind-the-fairy-tale
Ashliman, D. L., 2013. The Pied Piper of Hameln and related legends from other towns. [Online] Available at: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/hameln.html
Cuervo, M. J. P., 2010. The Lost Children of Hamelin. [Online] Available at: http://www.forteantimes.com/features/articles/3805/the_lost_children_of_hamelin.html
Ridley, L., Huffington Post [Online] Available at: The Queen’s First Ever Speech In 1940 Was About Child Migrants
Wikipedia, 2014. Pied Piper of Hamelin. [Online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pied_Piper_of_Hamelin