From Nazi camps to the Lake District: the story of the Windermere children

In 1945, hundreds of children liberated from concentration camps were flown into a tiny town in the Lake District to begin new lives. On the eve of a BBC dramatisation of their story, 91-year-old survivor Arek Hersh talks about the experience

On the morning of 14 August 1945 towards the end of the second world war, 16-year-old Arek Hersh and 300 other Jewish children boarded a squadron of 10 converted Stirling bombers and took off from Prague. They were organised in groups of 30 to each aeroplane, with 15 sitting on each side on the floor. Hersh remembers it vividly: “They cut us some bread,” he says. “We thought it was cake. They gave us each a piece and it was great.” About eight hours later, they landed at RAF Crosby-on-Eden, near Carlisle.

The children were the first intake of a pioneering rehabilitation scheme, in which boys and girls from labour and concentration camps in eastern Europe were transported to the Lake District to find new families and start afresh. Their journey has been dramatised by the screenwriter Simon Block and the result is a timely and moving BBC film The Windermere Children, starring Thomas Kretschmann and Romola Garai, to be shown this month, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Block found that this idea of giving something back is a recurring theme. “The Windermere children are the most patriotic people I’ve ever come across,” he says. “They’re so grateful for the chance they got to start their lives again in the UK, and they want to express that in many ways, by being successful here and paying taxes and raising their families here.

“Hopefully viewers will think, ‘Well, it’s not impossible to bring people here and help them rather than be scared of those who might be fleeing from terrible experiences.’ We can bring them in, help them and then that’s repaid many times over.” Source: The Guardian

The Windermere under-fives: An important step for child psychology

While the teenagers rejoiced in regaining their freedoms, those who were younger found the transition into British society very frightening.

One group of six children had survived Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia together. They came to Britain with no sense of the world before the war, and now they would have to fit into one after it.

“I had no clothes of my own, no toys, no possessions, no passport, no parents, no family,” says Joanna Millan, one of the Windermere under-fives. “I barely knew who I was.”

To cope with the change, the children had taken on different roles, forming a family of themselves.

“If one had a nightmare, we didn’t go to the grown ups; it was always one of us that would help out,” Joanna continues. “We really were totally self-sufficient, even at that age.”

Observations of the children were sent to Anna Freud, influential psychoanalysist and daughter of Sigmund Freud. A Jewish refugee, she fled to Britain from Austria in 1938. Like Friedman, she had new ideas about child psychology, and she began to understand that all of the children’s behaviour carried meaning.

“There’s pictures of us eating with our hands, because that’s what we did in the camps,” says Joanna. “We didn’t have a lot of language at all – there was no one to teach us. So we were communicating non-verbally… We just had no idea what was expected of us at all.”

Anna published her study on the children in 1951. Her later works in psychoanalytic theory on child development were very much influenced by the Windermere children. Source: BBC bitesize

Where are the The Windermere Children now?

Ike Alterman

Ike Alterman

Alterman was born in Poland and later became a prisoner at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Theresienstadt, before the camp was liberated by the Russian Army. Alterman was on one of the planes that carried the 300 refugees over to Windermere in the Lake District.

After growing up in Windermere, Alterman finally settled in Manchester where he established a successful career as a jeweller and diamond mounter.

Speaking about his life and time spent in Windermere, Alterman said: “I am proud of the fact that I managed to make a business for myself I had the largest trade in Manchester.

“Windermere was paradise. It was paradise. Some of the boys used to be in a pair of underpants and a vest and they were running about in the streets. We didn’t have any bikes, didn’t matter whose it was… if there was a bike there, well we’d get on it.”

Sam Laskier

Sam Laskier

Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1927, Laskier spent 18 months living in the Warsaw Ghetto before he came a prisoner at the concentration camps in Blizin, Auschwitz/Birkenau, Buchenwald, and Theresienstadt.

A year after arriving in the UK, Laskier was reunited with his sister Rushka in 1946. He went on to settle in Manchester where he met his wife Blanche and started a business.

Recalling his time in Windermere, Laskier said: “We had every opportunity to do whatever we are capable of doing. You know, if you wanted to go and play the piano, they’ll give you facilities for that. We knew we were going somewhere nice. We knew the war was over, it didn’t matter where we were going.”

Harry Olmer

Harry Olmer

Olmer was born in Sosnowiec in Poland in 1927. During the war, Olmer and his family had to flee their hometown and went on to settle in his grandmother’s village of Miechów-Charsznica. However, they were forced out in 1942 and Olmer spent the following years in various labour and concentration camps.

After his time at Windermere, Olmer moved to Glasgow and trained in dentistry. He remained a dentist until his retirement in 2013.

“Places we were before was just under hardship and hunger, and to come to a place like Windermere, it was absolutely heavenly. Really heavenly. Really heavenly. After all the dirt and deprivations Windermere was absolutely fantastic,” he recalled.

Sir Ben Helfgott

Ben Helfgott

Sir Ben was moved to the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944 before being sent to Schlieben and then Theresienstadt before its liberation in 1945. In August of that year, Ben arrived in Windermere for the first time.

As a talented athlete, Helfgott went on to represent and captain Great Britain in weightlifting at the Olympic Games in 1956 and 1960. He also won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games.

Sir Ben is one of the only two Jewish athletes to have competed in the Olympic Games after surviving the Holocaust.

He received a Knighthood for Holocaust Remembrance and Education from Prince Charles in 2018.

“It’s the greatest pleasure that I could have. That I have my children, my wife and my grandchildren,” he said of life after coming to the UK. Source: inews

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