You've got mail (from 1941)

You've got mail (from 1941)

Lilian Katz is known the world over for teaching parents and teachers about the minds of young children.

Check out our video here

She’s an early childhood education expert and an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois who’s published widely (including a longtime column in Parents Blog PhotoMagazine), has lectured in all 50 states and is about to speak in her 57th country, the Dominican Republic. At age 83.

I want to be her someday.

But she also has a fascinating story to tell about her own childhood in Britain during World War II.

I talked with her Saturday night as part of the “That’s What She Said” event at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Or maybe I should say I got to sit next to her while this British native charmed the audience.

Katz was just 7 when she and her twin sister were evacuated from London to the English countryside, along with hundreds of thousands of other children, to escape the expected Nazi bombing blitz. It was Sept. 1, 1939, just two days before war was declared.

The evacuation, known as Operation Pied Piper, had been planned for months as Blog PhotoHitler began his march across Europe. Almost 2 million children across Britain were sent away from their homes in three days to safety outside major cities, though some later returned.

Katz still remembers the day: taking a bus to Paddington Station in London, climbing aboard with hundreds of other children, being handed a box with a bit of chocolate, an orange (a rare treat in wartime) and her very own gas mask.

I think about my own kids at that age and cannot imagine sending them away to live with strangers. Children boarded trains not knowing where they’d end up or if they’d even be together.

But parents faced an impossible choice: live without their children or risk their lives in the bombing raids. Children accounted for one in 10 deaths during the Blitz of London of 1940-41, according to the British website History Learning Site.

Some of the evacuees only lasted a week and had to be sent back home. But Katz described it as “a wonderful adventure.”

“It was so exciting. I’d never been on a train before,” she said.

She doesn’t remember being homesick. After all, she was with her sister in the beautiful English countryside, a world away from their working-class London flat.

“And I got away from my mother,” Katz added.

Her mum was a bit of a disciplinarian who was fond of complaining that Lilian was “born with a question mark on my face.”

“I didn’t shed a tear,” Katz said.

(Her mother had been born in Ukraine but grew up in Paris and had “never really Blog Photoapproved of the English. After all, they didn’t know how to cook and they didn’t know how to drink wine,” Katz said. “But she greatly admired the English for standing up during the war.”)

Katz and her sister wound up in a small village called Beechingstoke and moved in with a couple who had three grown children. They weren’t particularly affectionate, she said. “They were doing their duty.”

She still remembers the schoolhouse with its big black coal stove, crowded with evacuees.

Her mother was only able to visit the girls once in their 2 1/2-year stay. But she sent weekly postcards to let the girls know she had survived the bombings. There were no telephones, Katz said, so she had no other way to communicate.

Just a few weeks ago, Katz received a package from a stamp collector who had picked up one of the old postcards, dated April 30, 1941. The note was addressed to Lilian and Anita Gonshaw (Katz’s maiden name). and the collector had easily Blog Phototracked down Katz, who included her maiden name in her publications.

The message reveals a crack in that stiff-upper-lip British resolve. “Still with a lot of love and kisses. Till next time. Cuddling both my Girlies, From Mum.” (I get a catch in my throat every time I read that last line.)

“I was so moved,” Katz said.

After Katz and her sister returned home to London, they endured the V1 and V2 rocket attacks from Nazi forces. They would hear the whine of the rocket, then silence as they waited for the blast, never knowing where it would land.

“My childhood was dominated by the war,” Katz said.

Katz and her family emigrated to the United States in 1947, settling in the Los Angeles area.

Her father died of a heart attack just before she graduated from high school. Three weeks later she got news that changed her life.

A teacher had forwarded Katz’s essays about her wartime experiences to Susan Harrison Johnson, an 88-year-old former professor in Whittier, Calif. She’d been in the first graduating class at Bryn Mawr College, a Quaker school, and she spoke like a Quaker.

“If thee is admitted to Whittier College, I will pay thy tuition,” she told Katz. Johnson had no children of her own and had helped 49 other girls through college.

Katz met her beloved husband, Boris Katz, while she was in college, and they raised three children together. She took them to a parent cooperative nursery school, laying the foundation for her career in early childhood education. After her youngest went to kindergarten she went back to school and earned her Ph.D. at Stanford University.

She was hired by the University of Illinois, where she became director of the Educational Resource Information Clearinghouse, a gold mine of resources in pre-internet days.

“It was a good move for our lives,” she said.

Katz trains teachers on the importance of “provocative” experiences for preschool Blog Photochildren — asking children “should we try this or that?” or “what would happen if we did this?” — crucial to healthy brain development.

“The evidence piles up: You’ve got to get it right by age 6,” she said.

She has some no-nonsense advice for parents, especially Americans, perhaps based on her own experiences:

“Don’t confuse ‘understanding’ with ‘indulgence,’ ” she said. “Children need to be loved by someone they can look up to.”


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at (217) 351-5226, or

Coming soon: Watch for the full video of Lilian Katz's interview and other speakers from "That's What She Said" at



1. Lilian Katz talks about her life during the "That's What She Said" event at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on July 19. Photo by Darrell Hoemann

2. Lilian Gonshaw Katz, right, and her twin sister Anita as toddlers in London. Courtesy Lilian Katz

3. Lilian, left, and Anita visit with their mother,  Eva Freidine Gonshaw, about halfway through their stay in the village of Beechingstoke. Courtesy Lilian Katz

4. The postcard sent to the Lilian and Anita by their mother.  Courtesy Lilian Katz

4. Lilian Katz talks with Julie Wurth at 'That's What She Said' with several other speakers from the event in the background: Jen Cochrane, left, Amy Armstrong, middle, and Leslie Marinelli, right. Photo by  Darrell Hoemann

More photos from Saturday's event:

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Co-hosts Jill Harlan, left, and Kerry Rossow draw an audience member's name for a  free trip on the 'Soul Journey' to Haiti next year, as trip coordinator Karyl Wackerlin holds the box.


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Tyra Browning talks about her trip to Haiti last spring on the 'Soul Journey' sponsored by "That's What She Said."


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Angie Hatfield Marker, left, embraces Rachel Bierman, the birth mother for her adopted son, in "And Then We Were Mothers."

Photos by Darrell Hoemann

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