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Child survivors of the Holocaust

On 9th May 1945 Theresienstadt concentration camp was liberated by the Soviet army.

300 child Holocaust survivors came to England from Theresienstadt in August 1945.  One of them was Arek Hersh, whose story is told in the Holocaust Exhibition & Learning Centre’s exhibition Through Our Eyes.

In my MA dissertation I explored how these children, and other child survivors, were rehabilitated in the north of England. The subject, with the exception of a recent BBC film (The Windermere Children), its accompanying documentary (The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words), and a book written by Martin Gilbert, has not yet received any large-scale attention.

From 1945, 732 child Holocaust survivors came to Britain, often collectively referred to as ‘The Boys’; there were only 80 girls amongst them. The children came to Britain under the Central British Fund for Jewish Relief and Rehabilitation (CBF), later World Jewish Relief. A founding member of the CBF and chairman of the Jewish Refugees Committee, Leonard Montefiore, made applications to the government for permission to invite children to the country. Such applications were initiated after Montefiore visited Paris in May 1945, shocked after seeing the first arrivals of camp survivors, he believed something had to be done to help the victims.  In June 1945 the Home Office gave permission for 1,000 children under 16 to be brought to England for recuperation and ultimate re-emigration overseas. The Committee for the Care of Children from Concentration Camps was soon established to monitor and care for the children.

The total brought to Britain was 732 due to difficulty finding child survivors. The children had to be under the age of 16, but it was difficult for any children to prove their age as they were unlikely to possess identity papers or other documents. Within this group of children were the 300 children from Theresienstadt. On 14th August 1945 the 300 children travelled to Windermere from Prague in Lancaster bombers, landing at Crosby-on-Eden airfield.

Group of child survivors photographed in Prague
A group of child survivors photographed in Prague the day before leaving for Windermere. Arek Hersh is seated second from the left.

This was the beginning of a new life and arriving in Windermere has been described as like going from hell to paradise. Windermere was chosen for its peaceful and scenic landscape and because there was an unused wartime village, Calgarth Estate, that had accommodated workers in the aircraft industry and their families.

In Windermere the children began their new life; they were taught how to begin to break habits sought in the camps, engaged in numerous leisure activities, and received English speaking and educational lessons such as history, mathematics and English culture. There was also an English Rabbi, allowing religious teaching and the Jewish ritual to be maintained. The introduction of English speaking and educational lessons and the reintroduction of Judaism into the lives of the children meant that they were able to reach a stage of normalcy. From Windermere, the children were sent to hostels in cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and London. Calgarth Estate was empty by early 1946 and had achieved its aim of being the children’s first step into rehabilitation and a new life in England.

Through doing my Masters placement at the HELC, I met with Arek Hersh and asked him whether I could interview him about his experience as one of The Boys in Windermere and elsewhere. Arek recalled many experiences and memories from Windermere but the few that stay in my memory are the following: The Boys watched Meet Me in St Louis and whilst still learning English, they were unable to understand the film fully yet Arek thoroughly enjoyed the music. No doubt a luxury after years of suffering in various concentration camps. Arek also described how whilst in Windermere he began to feel himself grow again, from the food and activities made available to him. Arek told me many more details about his experiences and the time spent with him was a once in a lifetime opportunity and something I will never forget.

The Boys set up the ’45 Aid Society in 1963 to look after one another and to raise money for charitable causes, also welcoming other survivors not brought to Britain under the scheme led by Montefiore. Many of The Boys I have spoken to have said it was as if they became one big family. The survivors had a shared experience of loss and suffering and were able to come to terms with their life together, understanding the difficulties and the joys of creating a new life in England. A bond was created that could never be broken.

The support, solidarity and friendship that continues to exist between The Boys is a telling lesson for all.

Hayley Shaw, May 2020

Further reading & information

The Lake District Holocaust Project, located in Windermere, was established in 2013 to promote and preserve the history of ‘The Boys’.

Gilbert, Martin., The Boys: Triumph over Adversity (London: Phoenix, 1997).

Hersh, Arek., A Detail of History (Nottingham: Beth Shalom, 1998).

Kushner, Tony, and Katherine Know, Refugees in an Age of Genocide: Global, National and Local Perspectives during the Twentieth Century (London: Franks Cass, 1999).

Kushner, Tony, ‘Wandering Lonely Jews in the English Countryside’, Jewish Culture and History, vol.12, (2010).

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