After the War: from Auschwitz to Ambleside by Tom Palmer

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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.

 

 

The Windermere Children – BBC 2

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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.