This feature-length film, shown on Holocaust Memorial Day, told the story of 300 Jewish children who survived the Holocaust and were brought to the shores of Windermere to try to begin rebuilding their lives. I thought that the cast and the production team got it absolutely spot on. It was poignant without being sentimental, and uplifting without ever shying away from the horrors that the children had been through. It didn’t show viewers the concentration camps: other programmes shown this week fulfilled that role. Instead, the programme makers chose to focus on survivors, and, at the end and in a follow-up programme, we saw several of them, now in their 80s and 90s, speak about the new lives that they’d made for themselves – the living proof that the Nazis did not, ultimately, succeed in what they set out to do.
I’ve long known about The Windermere Children, or “The Windermere Boys” as they’re usually known (even though some of them were girls). There’ve been exhibitions about their story at Windermere, my beloved Windermere. More importantly, one of “The Boys”, who was portrayed in the film and interviewed afterwards, is a family friend. I’m not naming names, because I don’t think that’d be appropriate, but that made it particularly emotional viewing, and it was an emotional enough story as it was. Even so, there was so much I didn’t know. I hadn’t realised that some of the children were as young as three: it’s a miracle that such tiny, vulnerable children survived such horrific conditions. And I didn’t know about everything that Leonard Montefiore organised there, the team of counsellors and psychologists and a sports coach. There was a lot to learn, and a lot to reflect on, and so much to be inspired by.
It was filmed in Northern Ireland – which I hadn’t realised, so I kept looking for places I recognised and being confused when there weren’t any. It’s a shame that it wasn’t filmed at Windermere, but I suppose they needed somewhere quiet. And much of the dialogue was in Polish and German. I hadn’t been expecting that, but it was right: it wouldn’t have worked if it’d all been in English, when those portrayed arrived knowing barely a word of English. We saw the children arriving late at night, and Leonard Montefiore, whose initiative it all was, welcoming them to England. There were small touches, small but great kindnesses, like putting bars of chocolate in their bedrooms. Many of the survivors interviewed over the last few days have spoken of the kindness of the soldiers who liberated the camps, and of the people who welcomed them to their new lives.
It showed rather than told, and that worked very effectively. We saw the older children’s anxiety as they were asked to line up for medical examinations, which must have been horribly reminiscent of the selection processes at the concentration camps. We learnt about their nightmares. We saw a group of the younger ones run, terrified, into the woods when they heard a dog barking. Perhaps the two most memorable scenes were when they all grabbed as much bread as they could from the baskets in the dining room, and ran off, stuffing it in their mouths and hiding what they couldn’t eat, and when the youngest children all huddled together under one of the beds to sleep, unused to sleeping alone.
And we saw, focusing on a group of the older children, the care that was put into helping to rehabilitate them. For all the developments in psychology in the 19th and early 20th centuries, no-one could have been prepared for how to deal with the aftermath of what the Nazis did, not just to care for the survivors physically but to try to integrate the survivors back into society and enable them to build meaningful new lives; but the staff at the Calgarth Estate centre seem to’ve done a superb job.
We saw the physical and psychological effects of the sports training. The sports coach didn’t have any sort of psychological training and it must have been difficult for him, but he clearly played a very important role – and, as we were reminded afterwards, one of the boys, Ben Helfgott, now Sir Ben Helfgott, went on to captain the British weightlifting team at two Olympic Games. There were also daily English lessons – and a bit of light-hearted banter about the boys wanting to learn enough English to chat up girls.
New clothes. At first, they were going about in vests and shorts, but there was such excitement as parcels of clothes arrived. I’ve read an interview with a British Army nurse who worked with survivors at Bergen-Belsen, and she talked about how much it meant to people to get new clothes, proper clothes.
And, most of all, freedom, to run about, to swim, to cycle. That was why they had to be in the countryside. And what better place than Windermere? Windermere is very good for the soul.
We did see some hostility from the local community, even though this was a good few months after the broadcast of the Richard Dimbleby report from Bergen-Belsen. But there was a wonderful scene in which the psychologist, who himself had fled Nazi Germany, confronted a gang of hoodlums in the street and made them understand what had happened. At the end, some of the boys played them in a football match.
Progress was clearly being made. But then the letters came, telling the children that none of their family members had survived. Some of them had already known. Others had still had hope. What a job for the Red Cross and other charities and agencies, in the chaos that was Europe at the end of the war, trying to piece together some sort of record of the dead and the living, in the concentration camps, in the displaced persons camps, with cities smashed to pieces, transport and communications networks damaged and people desperate for news of loved ones. The exact fate of some people still isn’t known.
Just as an aside, it’d be quite interesting to see a programme about the work of volunteers, relief agencies and so on with the concentration camp survivors. I know that some British medical students went out to help. And what an effort Leonard Montefiore put in. The follow-up programme spoke more about what an administrative nightmare it was to organise bringing the children to Britain. The government wasn’t very helpful, initially only agreeing to issue two-year visas, and refusing any financial help – the money was raised by donations from generous members of the public. Leonard Montefiore had to liaise with the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Red Cross and the authorities in Czechoslovakia. Everything involves red tape.
The range of reactions to the news the letters brought was very well-portrayed – brilliant performances by such young actors and actresses, and brilliant scriptwriting. Grief, acceptance, lack of acceptance, hitting out, being able to share grief, needing to be alone.
One of the boys was convinced that his elder brother was still alive, and would come to find him. Just before the end, there was a football match between a team of the refugee children and a team of local boys … and, in the middle of it all, along roared a motorbike, and the motorbike rider was the brother. He had indeed survived, and he had indeed come to find his little brother. It sounds a bit twee, doesn’t it? Everyone sat around watching under the dappled sunshine, drinking cups of tea and eating sandwiches, and then the emotional reunion between the two siblings. But it wasn’t. For a start, it was true – I don’t suppose the older brother actually did turn up in the middle of a football match, but it was true that the two of them were reunited. Another of the boys – Olympian Ben Helfgott – was eventually reunited with his sister, who featured in BBC 2’s “Belsen: Our Story” and also spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Day service in Westminster, several years later. The other children had lost everyone, but they had each other – and that very much came across in follow-up programme, when they spoke about the lifelong friendships they’d forged there. And it was making the point, again, that the Final Solution failed, even though it did take so many innocent lives.
Then, right at the end, we saw the actors portraying the five members of the group who are still alive morph into the dignified elderly men that they are now. We heard about the lives that they’d made for themselves here, and about the two other members of the group who are no longer living, and the staff. Then, in the follow-up programme, the five men and several other men and women who were also Windermere Children spoke – about their lives beforehand, about how they’d been separated from their families, about the family members they’d lost and about their experiences in the camps, but also about how their time at Windermere had helped them to start rebuilding their lives, about the sense of belonging that they’d found here, and about the families and careers that they’d built here. On a day of reflection about loss and brutality, this was a story of hope.