LONDON– Tucked into the far north-west corner of the country, the Lake District is one of the most picturesque and secluded parts of England. An idyll of deep glacial lakes, rugged fell mountains and picturesque valleys and villages, it is one of the United Kingdom’s most popular holiday destinations.
In the summer of 1945, however, it was to provide a place of sanctuary, recuperation and rest for children and young people who, just weeks earlier, had experienced and witnessed scenes of unimaginable horror and suffering in the Nazi death camps of Europe.
The story of the 300 Holocaust survivors flown from Prague to the UK in August 1945 is the subject of a BBC dramatization, The Windermere Children, which will be shown this month to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The program, which is also due to air on Germany’s ZDF, draws on the first-person testimony of some of the real-life survivors.
One of their number, Jack Aizenberg, a teenager who had survived Buchenwald and a 200-mile death march, described their journey as “like going from hell to paradise” in a 2010 BBC documentary.
Others recalled similar feelings of their arrival in the Lake District. “When we got up in the morning, we saw where we are in Windermere. What a beautiful place,” recounted Minia Jay, who, unlike her parents and five of her six siblings, survived Auschwitz. “The surroundings and the hills and the lovely houses, they looked like they are all painted… After all this horror, after all that we went through to come to this place, we couldn’t believe that such a place exists.”
The children’s journey to Britain had been set in train in June 1945 when the Home Office agreed to a request from philanthropist Leonard Montefiore to grant up to 1,000 displaced children permission to come to the UK. Montefiore was a founder of the Central British Fund for German Jewry (CBF, now World Jewish Relief), which had rescued about 65,000 Jews from Nazi Europe prior to World War II.
On a visit to Europe at the end of the war, Montefiore had hit upon the idea of using RAF planes returning to the UK with empty cargo holds to fly back child survivors. Senior Home Office civil servants recommended the Home Secretary accept the proposal, stating that, they would have “liked to have avoided any scheme for bringing more refugees into Britain, but obviously this proposal with reference to children will receive [a lot] of public sympathy.”
The Home Office’s agreement had come, however, with the condition that the children would be supported by funding from the refugee organizations, and that they would also arrange logistics, such as health screening. An appeal for £1m (£81m in today’s money) was launched by the CBF. “IT IS YOUR DUTY,” adverts suggested, to help make the children “happy and healthy” again.
Thanks to the success of the appeal, 732 children aged between 8-16 year-olds (about 80 of them girls) were eventually brought to the country. Three hundred were designated to travel to the Lake District. The Home Office was, however, warned in advance that the children were unlikely to have any identity papers or proof of age.
The Windermere children fly to a temporary home
The 300 “Windermere children” had mostly been liberated from Theresienstadt in May 1945. Their story has been meticulously researched and documented by the Lake District Holocaust Project, which today hosts a permanent exhibition at the Windermere Library, and acted as advisers for this month’s BBC film. It has also collected invaluable oral testimony from the children, upon which this article extensively draws.
Two months after the British government had given the green light, 10 converted Stirling Bombers of 196 Squadron which were repatriating Czech Air Force personnel departed from the UK for Prague.
On the following day, August 14, 1945, they collected the children from the Czech capital and began their return journey. The children were accompanied on each plane by a small group of adults; numbering 35 in all, they included 11 who were Polish and German and had been brought to look after the youngsters once they arrived in Britain.
Minia Jay remembered the children sitting on the floor of the overcrowded bombers (bad weather heading towards Prague curtailed the original plan to use 22 planes) with many being sick due to the turbulence. To ease the overcrowding on her plane, the pilot brought her and another girl into the cockpit for the flight. During the journey, he handed the girls chocolate – the first time she had tasted it in six years. Although they spoke no English, Jay gathered his meaning as he told them they were flying over Germany.
At 5pm that afternoon, the first of the planes landed at the RAF base at Crosby-on-Eden in Cumbria (today the Carlisle Lake District Airport), with the final one touching down nearly four hours later. A small welcoming party included Montefiore and the chief executive of the CBF. “The behavior of the children was exceptionally good, all instructions being immediately obeyed,” UK immigration officers recorded in their report.
A fleet of buses and army trucks then set off from the airfield headed towards the Calgarth Estate, about a mile from Lake Windermere at Troutbeck Bridge. It had been constructed during the war to house workers at the nearby Short Sunderland “flying boat” factory, which had been moved there to avoid bombing elsewhere in the country. The village had a canteen, shops, and an entertainment hall.
“I’ll never forget the smell of the fresh linen I slept on that first night,” Ben Helfgott, who was 15 when he arrived, told the BBC 2010 documentary.
“It was the first time I had slept on a bed instead of a bunk for more than three years, and even longer since I had seen clean sheets. I can’t remember ever having a better night’s sleep than I enjoyed that first night in Windermere. It was only a hut I was sleeping in, but to me it was a palace,” said Helfgott.
Other children experienced similar feelings. “I had a little room with a single little bed and a toothbrush and toothpaste, which I had never seen in years,” said Hannah Smith. “I didn’t know what to do with it. You didn’t have luxuries like that… It made such an impression on me. I looked at it and it was so lovely, and a lovely piece of soap and a flannel.”
Mayer Hersh, who survived internment in a series of camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald, explained why their treatment meant so much to the children. “Each one of us got a little room, a little cubicle, with a little cabinet to put some belongings in,” he recalled. “Of course, we had nothing to put into the cabinet because all we had was only what we stood up in. But we felt really great. We had a wonderful clean bed here. White linen. One to each person. We felt we were human beings. We had been treated in the most humane way with dignity.”
Breakfast on the first morning also proved a treat for many of the children. “All the food,” recounted Icek Alterman, “Our eyes were popping out and… because we were not used to being able to get food, we were pinching and grabbing a lot of the stuff, stuffing them down your shirt or your trousers. Like wild animals, you might say.” It was, he remembered “a happy, happy time.”
Mayer Hersh also remembered how the children reacted to plentiful food after suffering years of hunger and privation. In the dining hall, he said, those quick enough stuffed their pockets with buttered bread that had been put out on the tables. “The people in charge of us took us into the kitchen and showed us how many stacks of loaves of bread they had got and [explained that] more is arriving tomorrow.” The children were told: “There’s no need for that.” “We soon learned,” he argued.
Life in paradise
The adjustment – from the brutality of the camps to the tranquillity of the Lake District – naturally took time. “It was completely a new world,” said Harry Spiro. “You thought to yourself: is this real life? It took a long time to accept that life is not what you were forced to do and what people can do – what people did do — to each other, and all of a sudden you see people around you, caring for you, accepting you for what you are. It was completely different.”
Berek Obuchowski put it more simply. “They looked after us so wonderfully well. The people were angels.”
Simon Block, the screenwriter of “The Windermere Children,” has noted just how challenging the task facing those caring for the children must have been. “As no children in history had been through what these children had been through, there was no precedent to draw upon for those men and women,” he wrote. “No textbooks. No research papers. They must have operated almost entirely in the dark.”
The children spent most of their time regaining their strength and health. They were encouraged to play football and volleyball, hike, and swim in, or boat on, the lakes.
“I went swimming in the cold water,” Helfgott, who would later represent Britain in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics as a multiple-medal winning weightlifter, remembered. “We were there from August to December and I’ll never forget the glory of the autumn leaves.”
Dr. Oscar Friedmann, a psychologist and a Jewish refugee from Germany, was placed in charge of the children’s care. His philosophy was a simple one: to aid their rehabilitation and bring them back into civilized society, the children should be given the maximum amount of freedom possible. Only rules that could be simply explained to the children should be imposed upon them.
To aid their rehabilitation and bring them back into civilized society, the children should be given the maximum amount of freedom
It wasn’t all play, however – the children were also taught basic English, although Maureen Livingston, a nursery nurse who helped looked after the children remembered that they had “no language, they spoke a few words of Russian, a few words of German, an odd Polish word and that was their language.”
The horrors they had experienced bound them together, though. They were, Livingston said, “like a group, they thought as a group, they acted as a group.”
The children’s arrival was not without incident. Some only had their underwear initially while waiting for delayed, correct-fitting clothing to arrive, as one local resident discovered when she encountered the boys for the first time.
“I was walking home from school and I saw big white strip coming towards me on the street. I didn’t know what on earth it was,” Jennifer Jewell told Lancashire Life magazine.
“As it got closer I realized it was a long line of boys. They had arrived from Poland but their new clothes hadn’t. They didn’t let that stop them though so they were walking through the streets in their white vests and underwear.”
She went on: “There were lovely boys. Part of the lake was once cordoned off to make a swimming pool and the boys would often be down there. They were all so delighted and grateful to have been brought here. It was hard to believe the atrocities they had seen and lived through. They said coming to Windermere was like being in paradise.”
There were occasional hitches, such as the youngsters being unaware that, unlike in the US and Israel, Britons drive on the left-hand side of the road.
“We started to live as normally as we could,” Arek Hersh told the Observer newspaper earlier this month. “Some kids brought us bicycles and they said, ‘Go on, have a ride!’ We didn’t understand what they were saying, but they gave us a bicycle. So we went on the main road, and we were cycling on the right-hand side, so they tooted the horn like mad, shouting from the cars. We didn’t know what they were shouting at us. We couldn’t speak one word of English! But we caught on quite quickly, and we went to the cinemas, sixpence per seat, and it was very nice and we made our own life and things were OK.”
Some of the villagers, however, recalled the children taking local people’s bikes from outside their homes without asking. “They brought it back, though,” said a laughing Velma Smith. “‘I will give you sugar,’ they used to say.”
Spiro said he “never found any resentment” from local people. He also remembered that a lack of proficiency in English didn’t prevent some of the boys meeting local girls. “Nature as it is, body language goes a long way,” he said.
Scars from their time in hell
The joy that the children recounted about arriving in Lake Windermere contrasts with how they appeared to some local people.
“I’d never seen young people that age… who were so solemn, so sad,” a young trainee teacher, Colin Heighton, remembered. “They showed no sign of pleasure in any way.”
“They were in a terrible state. Still wounds on them from where they’d been shot or beaten up” said John Jones. “One just felt very, very sorry for them all.”
Kevin Coulter, a local teenager, was in a hospital near Windermere when Mendel Preter, one of the children brought to Windermere, was also admitted and placed in the adjoining bed.
“I assumed he was about 12-years-old but he was actually about 16, but that’s how he looked,” Coulter remembered. “He was very frail. Even at my young age I could that his eyes were like looking into space – glazed, as if he had no feelings. He was very, very gaunt and frightened, timid.” A rabbi introduced the two teenagers and asked Coulter to look after Preter, passing him a phrase book that enabled the pair to communicate.
Physical illness were easier to treat than the deep psychological scars the Nazis had inflicted on the children. All-too-rarely did the arrival of the post after breakfast bring news of the survival of lost relatives.
Nonetheless, Harry Spiro believed that it was “good that we were all together… I think looking back if we had been broken down in small groups right away, maybe we wouldn’t have come through it as well-adjusted as we were.”
The children’s spell in the Lake District inevitably had to come to an end and by early 1946 all had departed for hostels and new homes throughout the UK.
The BBC dramatization, however, reflects continuing interest in the story. Last summer, a National Lottery Heritage Fund award allowed an archaeological dig and survey to take place on the site of the former Calgarth Estate, which had been demolished by the mid-1960s. The BBC’s “Digging for Britain” program featured a story about the dig last month.
But as screenwriter Block has made clear, the story is not just about history. Instead, he argues, the events of 75 years ago have parallels with today’s migrant crisis in general, and the treatment of child refugees in particular.
That point was also made by one of the survivors’ best-known descendants. In 2018, Robert Rinder – the host of a popular daytime courtroom TV series which is Britain’s answer to “Judge Judy” – appeared in an episode of the BBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” In the genealogy program, he travelled to Windermere to see where his grandfather, Morris Malenicky, one of the 300 children, had arrived in Britain.
“These boys and young men arrived at Windermere and had enormously productive families infused with this brimming love of England,” he suggested when the show was broadcast.
“It’s not surprising – imagine the Lake District being your first view of England, and to be welcomed so warmly by this rural community. We all came to benefit from that.”