Windermere - The Boys
by Mala Tribich and David Zuck
After the end of World War Two the Home Office gave permission for one thousand child survivors from concentration camps to be brought to the U.K. for rehabilitation, provided that they were no expense to the Government, and did not stay permanently. The responsibility and the administrative arrangements were undertaken by the Jewish Refugee Committee of the Central British Fund. In the event only 732 children could be found, 80 of them girls. Groups of them were taken to several centres in the British Isles, and detailed information can be found in the book of their experiences, ‘The Boys,’ edited by Sir Martin Gilbert. The report is concerned only with the children who were taken to Windermere.
As we were to attend a medical history meeting in Kendal at the beginning of July 2013 we did a Web search for other events of interest, and were delighted to find that an exhibition about ‘The Boys,’ was about to open in the Windermere Library. Even better, we were introduced to the organizer, Trevor Avery, at the annual reunion of the adult version of the boys, the 45 Aid Society, where he and his wife were among the guests, and were promised a personally conducted tour. So at 9.30 a.m. on Thursday 4th July Trevor called for us at our hotel and drove us through the confusing one-way system in Kendal to Windermere.
The exhibition, ‘From Auschwitz to Ambleside,’ is mounted by ‘Another Space,’ a registered charity of which Trevor is the Director, which has produced a number of exhibitions, static and travelling, concerned with education about topics of communal interest. These are listed on its web site. For the current project it has received support from the Arts Council, the Big Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Cumbria County Council, the Imperial War Museum, the Getty Library, HET, and a number of local organizations. It is an extension of the Lake District Holocaust Project, a travelling educational exhibition which started in 2005, and now runs education workshops and study days. We were greatly impressed by Trevor’s travels to Thereisinstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and other extermination centres, and his detailed knowledge of the Holocaust and of the individual survivors, and greatly surprised to find that a region about as far as one can get from the main Jewish communities in this country is an active thriving centre of Holocaust education.
The exhibition occupies two spacious upstairs rooms in the very attractive Windermere Library. Large posters with contemporary photographs and newspaper reports illustrate the stages of the project. ‘The Journey’ shows how by 11th August the children, liberated from Thereisinstadt, were assembled in Prague. The following day ten modified Stirling bombers set off , and returned from Prague on 13th, landing at Carlisle airfield at 5 p.m. with thirty children and three or four accompanying adult survivors on each. Accommodation had been prepared on the Calgarth Estate, a prefabricated enclave previously occupied by the families of aircraft engineers who had been building the now redundant Sunderland Flying Boats which had played such an important part in defeating the u-Boat menace which during 1942 and ’43 had come near to bringing Britain to its knees. The history of the Calgarth Estate is a topic of local interest also, strangely fused with the story of ‘The Boys.’
‘The Arrival’ tells of the early days, the problems of adjustment to plenty, of dispelling the need to hoard food, bowls, cutlery. It quotes the first reactions of the children to the luxury of individual clean comfortable beds, of baths, regular ample meals, and the kindness that surrounded them.
‘When this man woke me up I must have talked to him for about ten minutes about the pleasure of sleeping in a bed by myself with this clean, clean linen ...‘ (Ben Helfgott). ‘I was reborn in Windermere in 1945. The promise of England was a dream to a teenage boy who no longer believed he could believe in dreams.’ (Michael Perlmutter). ‘It felt like heaven.’ (David Hirszfeld).
They enjoyed the country and lakeside environment, walking and swimming, and forged links with one another than have survived ever since. Next came ‘Adaptation,’ the learning the language, for which they were encouraged to watch English films, and the search for the names of family survivors on the lists published by the Red Cross. Once acclimatized and literate the children were transferred in smaller groups to hostels in different parts of the country from where they were able to attend school and catch up with their education before training for an occupation.
To us it was wonderful that local people, non-Jewish, some who were children in 1945 and are now as old as the ‘Boys’ themselves, should cherish the memory of the young foreigners who were planted in their midst, and seek to incorporate them in their local history by means of this permanent exhibition. We have to thank Trevor Avery and his colleagues for a memorable and heart-warming day.