World Jewish Relief, under our former name The Central British Fund for German Jewry (The CBF), rescued and rehabilitated over 700 child Holocaust survivors after the liberation of the concentration camps.
The Jewish children, known as 'The Boys', although nearly 200 were girls, were initially brought to Windermere in the Lake District, and later to other hostels around the country, where they were given education, training, language skills and psychological assistance to help them integrate into British society.
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)
This story was featured in BBC's The Windermere Children broadcast for Holocaust Memorial Day 2020. The drama starred Romola Garai, Iain Glen, Tim McInnerny and Thomas Kretschmann.
Prior to the outbreak of World War Two, The CBF rescued around 65,000 Jews from Nazi Europe. In January 1945, following the liberation of Auschwitz, focus turned to helping survivors of the concentration camps. Leonard Montefiore OBE, a Jewish philanthropist who had been instrumental in the establishment of The CBF, went to Europe to explore what could be done. He suggested using the RAF planes returning to the UK with empty cargo holds to bring child survivors back.
In May 1945 the Chair of the CBF, Anthony De Rothschild, and Otto Schiff, Chair of the Jewish Refugee Committee (a CBF subcommittee) met with Sir Alexander Maxwell, Permanent Under-Secretary to the Home Office. The men appealed for ‘temporary admission to this country of about 1000 Jewish orphan children from the camps in Buchenwald and Belsen’.
He imposed strict conditions including that funding would all come from the refugee organisations, who would also arrange the transport and screen the health of the children.
Maxwell was persuaded and wrote to the Home Secretary saying he ‘would have liked to have avoided any scheme for bringing more refugees into Britain, but obviously this proposal with reference to children will receive [a lot] of public sympathy’.
The scheme got the go-ahead on the proviso that the children would stay no more than two years. The CBF set about fundraising, estimating it would cost £1million (the equivalent of £81 million in today’s money) to make the rescue and rehabilitation of the children possible.
Working with the RAF, The CBF initially rented accommodation for the children in a Ministry of Aircraft hostel in Calgarth Estate near Windermere in the Lake District.
Care for the children would be led by psychologist Dr Oscar Friedmann. He was a Jewish refugee from Berlin who had been working with The CBF to provide mental health care for young refugees. He passionately believed it would be possible to bring these children, who had witnessed such extreme horrors, back into civilised society and he made it his mission to do so.
In the first week of August 1945, The CBF were advised that RAF planes repatriating Czech Air Force personnel would return with the first influx of children on board. Only 24 hours notice would be given and the exact number of children was unknown. The youngsters had been liberated from Theresienstadt and other concentration camps.
On 14 August, Joan Stiebel (Chief Exec of The CBF), Leonard Montefiore and a small team including Alice Goldberger, watched and waited as a total of 10 planes, carrying 305 child survivors (including one stowaway), landed at RAF Crosby-on-Eden.
The children were warmly welcomed and taken to Windermere which would be their home for the next 3 months. Abraham Zwirek said:
When I woke up in the morning and looked around, I thought I was in heaven. There were white sheets on the bed and white bread to eat.
This incredible footage from the Imperial War Museum shows the children boarding the planes in Prague. An RAF cameraman spotted the commotion, swung his camera round and captured these historic scenes:
Life was good at Windermere, 'The Boys' showed a great willing to learn and grasped readily at the the opportunies given to them. They attended daily English classes, swam in the lake and enjoyed film screenings.
They were given psychological and social care and gradually started to accept that they no longer had to fight for food or possesions. Oscar Freidmann believed they should be given as much freedom as possible and that there should be no rules that couldn't be simply explained. Many of the Windermere boys reflected that this hallowed time gave them back their humanity.
In October the second group of 120 youngsters arrived. They were flown from Munich in Germany. Fifty of them came from Kloster Indersdorf, an International Displaced Persons Children’s Camp in Markt Indersdorf, not far from Dachau.
The rest came from the nearby Feldafing Displaced Persons camp. They spent the first few weeks in hostels in Southampton before being moved, with the children from Windermere, to some of the 30 different hostels the CBF established around the UK.
The third group of The Boys arrived in Spring 1946 in three different transports, some by ship from Gdansk and two from Prague, flying into Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively.
Key figures from The CBF including Leonard Montefiore, Oscar Friedmann, Elaine Blond (daughter of the Marks and Spencer founder) and Lola Hahn-Warburg took enormous personal interest in the individual needs of each of The Boys. Together they helped the Windermere boys through their education and into employment. They kept a close eye on each of them, attending weddings and keeping up a lively correspondence.
World Jewish Relief still holds a bumper archive of case files, some of which run to hundreds of pages, charting the individualised help provided, and showing the extraordinary journey from horror to hope.
Our organisation was founded to help refugees and we continue to do so today.
Meet some of The Boys:
Sir Ben Helfgott
Ben was 10 years old when the Nazi's invaded his home town of Piotrkow in Poland and created the first Jewish ghetto. He survived the horrific ghetto conditions for three years and was then transported from concentration camp to concentration camp, experiencing death marches and slave labour. He was 15 when World Jewish Relief rescued him and brought him to the UK in the first intake of 'The Boys'. He soon discovered weight lifting and rose through the ranks to become captain of the British weightlifting team and representing his adoptive country in two Olympic games.
Ben is one of the The Boys featured in the BBC drama 'The Windermere Children'.
Dr. Harry Olmer BEM
Describing Windermere, Harry said 'The return to humanity began'. Harry had survived extreme slave labour and numerous concentration camps. Time after time he saw people shot and killed in front of him, including the man working next to him in a Nazi munitions factory. He has no idea why he was spared. Harry made it to the UK by chance when another boy dropped out. He assumed his name in order to make it onto the plane. Harry went on to become a dentist, supported by The CBF throughout his studies.
Harry is one of the The Boys featured in the BBC drama 'The Windermere Children'.
Harry Spiro BEM
Harry survived the same ghetto as Ben Helfgott, working with him and other youngsters in a glass factory, and making them of more value alive than dead. He survived numerous death marches and concentration camps. After being brought to Britain he ran his own factory, employing hundreds, and contributing to the British economy. He says "As survivors, we were very vulnerable to be pushed in all directions, we could have been angry men or terrorists, we were ripe fruit, we went through terrible things, but World Jewish Relief, you believed in us and you brought us back to life".
Moishe's parents, four sisters and a brother were all killed at Treblinka. Moishe survived the Holocaust as he was made to work at the glass factory in Piotrkow. He was then sent to Buchenwald and Schlieben. His story, featuring papers from World Jewish Relief's archive, can be seen in BBC documentary Who Do You Think You Are, where his grandson, the criminal barrister and TV host (Judge) Rob Rinder explored his experiences. One of the letters in his file recalled an apple pie he had baked at Windermere. Moishe went on to become a professional caterer and property owner. His daughter Angela Cohen is chair of the 45 Aid Society.
Roman was from Lodz in Poland. His family were sent to Chelmno extermination camp where they all died, but Roman managed to escape from the cart transporting them. He was found and sent to Auschwitz, but as a skilled metal worker, he was saved from extermination. In March 1945 he escaped again, this time from a death march. He was hidden by a German couple but when the Nazis found out, they assasinated the husband. Utterly at a loss, Roman travelled to Prague after the war where he met Ben Helfgott and joined the group coming to Windermere. In the UK he became an architect, a sculptor and a celebrated artist. He was supported by The CBF to complete his studies.
Rabbi Hugo Gryn
Hugo was 13 years old when he was deported to Auschwitz. As he stood in line to be checked by the SS, someone whispered in his ear 'you are 18 and you have a trade'. When the SS asked, he confidently told them he was 19 and was a carpenter and joiner. This saved his life as he was sent off to build a holiday camp for German Officers. Hugo was in the third group of The Boys to come to the UK. He arrived on 19th February 1946 and was sent to Polton House in Midlothian, Scotland. From there he went on to study in London and later trained as a rabbi in America. He led the congregation at West London Synagogue and was also a much loved radio broadcaster, appearing regularly on Radio 4's 'Moral Maze' and 'Thought For The Day'.
Sir Martin Gilbert's definitive book The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity
Read 'The Real Story...' an article by Rosie Whitehouse in Haaretz - Feb 2020
The Lake District Holocaust Project featuring stories of The Winderemere Children
45 Aid - organisation formed by The Boys, hosting annual reunions.
The Ascot Boys - 34 of the boys went to Woodcote House in Ascot
Interview with Simon Block, screenwriter of The Windemere Children