A new film, to be broadcast on Holocaust Memorial Day, tells the little-known story of a group of children taken from the death camps to the Lake District. JASON SOLOMONS talks to the team behind this moving story.
In August 1945, Britain did an extraordinary thing. Using RAF bombers that had completed their last missions, 732 Jewish refugee children, newly rescued from concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, were flown from Poland to England and given a new life.
Under pressure from Leonard Montefiore’s newly-created Committee for the Care of Children from Concentration Camps, the government was persuaded to open up rehabilitation camps, such as one on the bucolic shores of Lake Windermere. And so, in the unlikely village of Troutbeck Bridge, on the Calgarth estate in a prefab scheme that had housed workers at the Short Sunderland aeroplane factory during the war, a remarkable story of redemption and renewal began.
The story is now told in dramatic form in the film The Windermere Children, which airs in the UK on BBC Two and on German channel ZDF at the very same time (a simulcast first in European broadcasting) to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and 75 years since the end of the Second World War.
I must confess that as a British Jew, I’m amazed I’d never heard of the story of the Windermere children. The story of the Kindertransport is better known, a scheme that saved 10,000 Jewish children by bringing them to Britain before the war. But the Windermere story is one of the aftermath, of coping with the reverberations of deep trauma and suffering in children, some as young as three, all of them under the age of 16, all of them finding themselves alone in the world. And many of the survivors took years ever to speak about their experiences.
“I hadn’t heard of the story either,” admits The Windermere Children scriptwriter Simon Block. “Not many people had. I was brought the story by the production company, Wall to Wall, but from then on it was about trying to get as much information about what had happened as possible and find the dramatic arc inside it.
“Fortunately, the characters involved are so strong and the emotions and trauma so powerful, the facts did not need bending to make a compelling human story. It told itself.”
Block is right, if a touch modest. The Windermere Children is an amazing story, beautifully and movingly told, but never sliding into sentimentality. There is too much truth and too much toughness for that to happen, the script being based on the testimony of survivors, the young boys and girls who were Windermere children and who went on to build new lives – and have prosperous families – here in Britain. They all consider themselves absolutely British.
Many of them were at the preview screening I attended. Harry (Chaim), Ben, Arek, Ike, Harry and Bela sit in the audience, behind the young Polish actors who play them in the film, most of them making their screen debuts. The film’s more recognisable talents are there, too: Romola Garai, Iain Glen and Tim McInnerny, fine actors who all acknowledge with humility that the real stars present are the survivors.
Directed by Michael Samuels, the film captures in its early stages the awkwardness of these children being transported from their concentration camps to another camp, in the middle of nowhere in a country and a language they don’t understand. To them, it must have seemed just like another chapter of the years of dislocation they’d been suffering, being issued new clothes on arrival, undergoing medical inspections, being separated from friends, disconnected further from their past with every step.
The Windermere staff, led by German analyst and social worker Oscar Friedmann (played by Thomas Kretschmann), clothed, lodged and fed the children and embarked on a tailored four-month programme of rehabilitation involving what we now call therapy, through both art and physical exercise.
There’s a striking scene at the first dinner when the children see the bread placed in front of them and they all rush off, before the traditional blessing can be said, snatching the bread, hiding it in their rooms and wolfing down small scraps they’ve torn off.
“We were like little savages, I suppose,” says survivor Harry (Chaim) Olmer. “The film shows what happened and it got it spot on. It was like we were being born into human beings again. We had to learn to live together, to talk with each other, to trust each other and have friends. That was very difficult for us.
“But we were never forced into doing anything. That was so important to us after what we had been through. All we did was talk about what we would all do with our future, how we would chase our dreams. We never talked of the past, even though that was all we had in common.”
In fact Windermere was pioneering treatments in trauma recovery. Romola Garai plays a real-life art therapist, Marie Paneth, who worked at the camp having previously specialised in treating children recovering from the Blitz in London. Garai believes that the children of the concentration camps presented her character with a unique challenge.
“The growth in the therapy movements, both art and physical, faced something unprecedented in front of the greatest tragedy in human history,” she says. “I don’t think they were prepared for the tsunami of suffering that was testing out these new sciences – this was very new work that encouraged children to seek happiness whereas all these refugee boys and girls had previously known was suffering and survival. I found that very moving to play as an actor, the courage it took for all of them at the camp to persist in the face of the horror of the Holocaust.”
Garai’s own family fled Hungary for the UK well before the war, but the Windermere children story clearly struck a deep chord. “My father’s generation of Anglo-Jews had to acclimatise to the information that suddenly came through about the camps and it left deep psychological and spiritual scars as they faced up to what the world now meant.
“All humanity was changed, but for the British Jewish community it was particularly acute, wondering: how did we let this happen? Could we have done more to prevent it?”
Although the British government backed the project, it was entirely funded through donations from British Jews, led by Leonard Montefiore (played by Tim McInnerny in the film).
“Bringing the children here had something to do with that aching feeling of not doing more, coupled with guilt that it was allowed to happen,” adds Garai. “Everyone had to assume a new responsibility in reacting to what atrocities the world was capable of and they were determined to make sure it could never happen again.
“My family very much lived through that experience, of being the first generation realising that the world was different now and that human existence had been totally reframed by events.”
At the screening, Iain Glen was greeted by the young Polish actors with hugs and high fives, like a favourite coach or even relative being welcomed after a long gap. He plays a gruff Scottish PE teacher based on the real-life Jock Lawrence, enlisted to give the kids some physical therapy through exercise, football and swimming in the lake. “Jock was enlisted for physical therapy even though I don’t think he knew too much about the science of it all and he certainly was not prepared for the level of trauma he encountered,” he says. “But he could see the positive effect of getting them outdoors in the fresh air.”
One of the children under Jock’s charge was Ben Helfgott, who went on to become an weightlifter for Great Britain at two Olympic games. “It’s a redemptive story in the end,” remarks Glen. “These survivors are testament to the programme there and show that life may not forget but it can recover and rebuild.”
According to the director Michael Samuels, the story of the Windermere children is one of hope. “But not hope in the traditional sense you see in Holocaust films sometimes. This is a tale of aftermath, and I hadn’t seen many of those stories in film. But these people, coming from the most unimaginable horrors, slowly recovered something like hope at Windermere where it didn’t exist before.”
Samuels’ direction has to juggle many themes and he resisted the overused tricks of flashback. “I wanted the awfulness of their experience at the concentration camps to only be seen in how they behaved in the present,” he says. “What I always questioned was: how does anyone who’s had that experience ever communicate what it felt like and how does anyone who hasn’t been through it connect with someone who has, especially in ones so young? For me, it was the story not just of the children adapting, but of a new country adapting to them, too.”
There are a few scenes of local enmity to the project and, of course, latent anti-Semitism. Such scenes obviously chime with current politics and indeed with many immigrant experiences in the UK over the years. Even more timely is the legislation just blocked by Boris Johnson’s new government that now prevents child refugees reuniting with their families in the UK.
Given one of The Windermere Children’s most moving scenes involves a family reunion, it’s a poignancy not lost on the film’s creators. Says writer Simon Block: “That storyline is absolutely true – you couldn’t possibly make something like that up – but sadly something like that is now impossible according to UK law.
“It shows this isn’t just a historical drama but very much part of our present. It’s a picture of when Britain did something great and was enriched because of it, and hopefully it can be a reminder that we can still do the right thing again.”
The last word on The Windermere Children practically speaks for itself. At the screening, survivor Harry Spiro stood up carefully, shaking slightly on his feet but his voice was strong and clear. “I was the only one from my family who survived the Holocaust. I lost everyone, I had nothing. I had no home, no family.
“But I was a Windermere boy and now 70 years later I have a wife, three children, nine grandchildren and great grandchildren. I never, ever thought back then I would have a family, but I got a whole new life here and lots of other lives came from that. So I say: no, Hitler you did not win but look at me, I got my life and my family…”
The Windermere Children airs on BBC Two on January 27, Holocaust Memorial Day