There was a lot of praise earlier this year for BBC 2’s The Windermere Children , about a group of young Holocaust survivors who were brought to the Calgarth Estate on the shores of Windermere to begin rebuilding their lives. This book covers the same subject, but it’s aimed at children in the Juniors/Key Stage 2. It’s a difficult theme to tackle in an age appropriate way, but the author’s done an excellent job of it.
Most of the adult characters in the book were real people; but the three main characters, the protagonist Yossi and his friends Leo and Mordecai, are fictional, although their experiences are based closely on those of the real Windermere Children. As with No Ballet Shoes in Syria , the story of Yossi’s experiences in his (unnamed) home city in Poland and in the concentration camps is told through a series of flashbacks as particular incidents trigger memories, which I think works well for this sort of book. Whilst it doesn’t actually talk about gas chambers, it does mention ashes, and it doesn’t shy away from showing shootings and beatings, and telling us that the boys’ relatives have been murdered. But there has to be a balance between getting that message across and not upsetting young children too much: this way, readers know from the start that at least Yossi and his friends survive, and that they’re now in a place of safety.
We also see how they do begin to rebuild their lives, thanks to the wonderful care provided at the Calgarth Estate – physically, with nutritious food and exercise, emotionally, and practically as they learn English and consider what they might do when it’s time to move on. The author’s from Leeds and there’s a very strong Leodensian bias, with representatives of the Leeds Jewish community visiting the estate and our three boys eventually deciding to move to Leeds. I’d have made it Manchester 🙂 , and the word “London” is never even mentioned, but, OK, the point is that they’re moving to somewhere where they’ve been told that they’ll be welcome! Another key point is that they’re moving there together. They’ve lost all their relatives, and the communities in which they grew up have been pretty much wiped out, but they’ve got each other now; and that does come across very well.
The author’s put a huge amount of effort into this. He’s visited not only Windermere but also Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, spoken to representatives of Holocaust-related charities and people who grew up in the Calgarth Estate area, and interviewed some of the surviving Windermere Children. That’s a lot of work for a 176-page book for children, and it shows how much he wanted to handle a sensitive subject well. And he has done.
My only real quibble with it was that none of the main characters were girls. To be fair to the author, nearly all the Windermere Children were boys, but I think it would have been nice, especially with an eye to appealing to female readers as well as male readers, to have had some female input. Having said which, most of the adult characters were female, and there was also a sub-plot involving the book, her husband and their young daughter waiting anxiously to see if their son/brother had survived the war in the Far East. It’s the son’s safe return, and reunion with his family, which makes Yossi accept that, despite the Red Cross’s best efforts, none of his own family are going to be found: they’ve all gone, even his father, whom he hoped might have survived..
A lot of the themes will be familiar to people who watched the BBC 2 programme – the children being scared to sleep in a room on their own, the grabbing and hoarding food because they couldn’t process the fact that they weren’t going to go hungry again, the sports, the lessons, and the riding bikes without proper clothes. They’re all described very effectively, bearing in mind the target age group. The flashbacks are dealt with very sensitively. They are going to be upsetting for children to read, and children are going to ask parents or teachers why this happened; but that’s something that’s necessary.
We also see how Mordecai has a strong religious faith, but Yossi hasn’t: he’s lost that. At one point, he does actually despair, and wonders why he’s even going on at all, what the point is. That’s quite a powerful scene, when he remembers his father talking about how the Nazis wanted to dehumanise them and how the only way they can fight back against that is to keep whatever vestiges of civilised behaviour they can, even if it’s only washing their faces, and his mother, as she and her sisters went off to their deaths, telling him that he had to survive.
It’s also made very clear that they are going to be OK now. The TV programme showed that there was some hostility towards, or at least mockery of, them from some local lads who didn’t understand what they’d been through. That doesn’t happen here, but I think that’s due to the need for the young reader to see that the boys are safe and being made welcome. It was a minority view anyway. We do, however, at one point see the boys splitting into factions, largely along lines of nationality of origin, and fights breaking out, but then we see them all reuniting … to burn an effigy of Hitler.
And we’re told that Leo did return briefly to Poland, but was told in no uncertain times that he wasn’t welcome there. This would have been twelve months or so before Kielce, so it wasn’t getting at that, but … well, this is a difficult subject, and it’s come to the fore in recent years, especially given the current regime in Poland. I thought it was quite interesting that that was included.
Going back to Poland is never really an option. Leo considers going to what was then Mandatory Palestine, but in the end the three friends agree to stick together, and that’s the positive ending, if not exactly a happy ending. They’re moving on, and they’ve got each other.
Historical fiction is a very good, and underrated, way of both learning and teaching about history, and I think that this is an excellent book for enabling children of the target reading audience to understand about the Holocaust, without overfacing them with too much horror. Highly recommended.