The Windermere Children: ‘Coming here made me feel human again’

The Windermere Children: ‘Coming here made me feel human again’

Francine Wolfisz meets the cast and survivors portrayed in a BBC2 film exploring the incredible story of 300 Jewish orphans who were brought to Britain after the war

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

From left: Harry Olmer, Kacper Swietek, Arek Hersh, Tomasz Studzinski, Pascal Fischer, Sir Ben Helfgott, Marek Wrobelewski, Sam Laskier, Kuba Sprenger, Ike Alterman
From left: Harry Olmer, Kacper Swietek, Arek Hersh, Tomasz Studzinski, Pascal Fischer, Sir Ben Helfgott, Marek Wrobelewski, Sam Laskier, Kuba Sprenger, Ike Alterman

Inside the art classroom, a group of children thoughtfully paint whatever comes to mind, but the more usual depictions of a beaming sunshine, a bright blue sky and happy families from the imaginations of the young are nowhere to be seen.

Instead, for these child survivors of the Holocaust, their paper is daubed with the darkest of colours, some subtly and others more openly expressing their loss, their trauma, and the brutality they have witnessed during the war.

It’s just one of the soul-stirring scenes from BBC2’s emotive drama, The Windermere Children, which airs tonight (Monday) on BBC2, and relates the true-life story of how 300 young Jewish orphans were brought to the tranquil surroundings of Lake Windermere as part of an effort to help rehabilitate them after the war.

Bafta-nominated screenwriter Simon Block and award-winning director Michael Samuels have employed a stellar cast, including Thomas Kretschmann (The Pianist), Romola Garai (The Miniaturist), Tim McInnerny (The Trial of Christine Keeler) and Iain Glen (Game of Thrones).

In all, the British government agreed that up to 1,000 young Jewish concentration camp survivors could be brought over to England, thanks to the lobbying efforts of Jewish philanthropist Leonard Montefiore and the Central British Fund, now known as World Jewish Relief.

For the youngsters who ended up at Windermere – who were known collectively as “The Boys” although there were also 40 girls in their number – they were housed in the workers’ accommodation of a seaplane factory that had become defunct following the end of the war, and were given access to art therapy, counselling and a fitness coach.

While the UK had granted them all two-year temporary visas, it was apparent there was nowhere else for these children to go and the majority ended up staying in the UK for the rest of their lives. Many have stayed in touch with one another to this day.

At a special screening of the drama, survivor Arek Hersh, 91, recalls with appreciation how his life was forever changed by his arrival in Britain.

“I started feeling like I’m a human being again, that’s what Windermere did to me,” he says.

Harry Olmer, 92, closes his eyes as he says simply: “It was freedom, we hadn’t known freedom in more than five years.”

Ike Alterman, Sir Ben Helfgott, Arek Hersh MBE, Chaim (Harry) Olmer, Sam Laskier

Meanwhile for Polish-born Sam Laskier, 92, who survived four concentration camps, coming to England meant he could start rebuilding his life.

“After just a few months, it wasn’t like we could get back to normal – we would never get back to normal again. But at least we know we can have bread on the table, we can have jam on the table.

“To this day, a piece of bread and jam is good enough for me.”

Tim McInnerny, who plays philanthropist Leonard Montefiore, described hearing the survivors speak as an “overwhelming” experience, adding that it was “a privilege” to have portrayed their story, especially given its pertinence to proposed changes to the immigration system after Brexit.

He tells me: “The UK is a mongrel race and for 1,000 years people have been welcomed to this island. I hope this somehow helps redress any balance there may be about whether we should accept refugees into this country anymore – because that’s what built this country.”

Game of Thrones actor Iain Glen, who portrays sports coach Jock Lawrence, adds that the story brings home just how “transformative” Britain proved to the youngsters’ lives.

Iain Glen (centre) as Jock with Tim McInnerny as Jewish philanthropist Leonard Montefiore

“Here they are, they’re alive and they went on to do such extraordinary things. They were always incredibly grateful to the UK for their safe haven.”

Over a period of four months the children gradually emerge from their traumatised shells and regain their confidence by  learning to speak English, play football and ride bikes. It was also at Windermere that Marie Paneth, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna, introduced the pioneering idea of art therapy.

Romola Garai, whose Hungarian-Jewish relatives were murdered in the Holocaust, describes the real-life woman she portrays as “truly incredible”.

She adds:  “Therapy came up against the greatest tragedy of all human history and found itself not quite prepared for that. People didn’t know what they were doing except that they understood the human experience had to be more than just survival, it also had to be happiness – and they tried to generate that feeling again in the children.”

For Harry Spiro, 90, that happiness came simply from surviving and defying Hitler.

“I was the only one who survived from the whole of my family,” he says movingly. “Family is the most important thing, and now 75 years down the line I’m married, I’ve got three children and nine grandchildren. I never thought I would have a family. Yes, I suffered loss, but I also got my life back.”

The Windermere Children airs on Monday 27 January, 9pm, on BBC2

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