The Windermere Children: Safe at Last

Unlike carpets, madam, children are not improved by beating.              
                                                                                   —Oscar Friedmann

The Montefiore Home in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda is a Jewish residential aged-care facility that opened in 1897, and was named after Sir Moses Montefiore, 1st Baronet (1784–1885), a philanthropist, British banker and Sheriff of London.

Joe Dolce’s reviews appear in every Quadrant.
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Montefiore was from an Italian-Jewish family and had no children of his own, but his long and active life got him a mention in the letters of George Eliot, the diaries of Charles Dickens and James Joyce’s Ulysses. His great-grandnephew Leonard G. Montefiore (1886–1961) was the founding member of the Central British Fund for Jewish Relief, and the driving force behind the Windermere Children Project, a scheme in 1945 to allow young Jewish concentration camp survivors into Britain.

Montefiore had previously helped to bring 10,000 Jewish children to the UK before the Second World War, in a scheme known as the Kindertransport. But Britain was now in an economic crisis and practically bankrupt from six years of war, and assisting foreign refugees was not a priority.

Through persistent letter-writing and lobbying, he secured an agreement with the Home Office to allow 300 children to be air-lifted on two RAF Stirling bombers from the liberated concentration camp and ghetto of Theresienstadt in northern Czechoslovakia (right). They would be housed in a former seaplane factory, closed at the end of the war, known as Calgarth Estate, on the banks of Lake Windermere in England’s Lake District. The workers’ barracks-style accommodation of the factory would allow each child to have their own room. A team of counsellors, led by German-Jewish psychoanalyst Oscar Friedmann, was tasked with the social experiment of rehabilitating the traumatised children in four months. The Home Office stipulated that Montefiore had to arrange the finance to support the project. He appealed to Britain’s Jewish community and donations started arriving from rich and poor.

This inspiring true story is dramatised in a movie, The Windermere Children (2020), directed by Michael Samuels, co-written by Samuels and Simon Block, and produced for BBC and ZDF.

The film opens with a voice-over testimony from one of the surviving children, now an elderly man, describing, in a voice breaking with emotion, how he was torn from his father’s arms by the Nazis—an incident he can never forget. He never saw his father again.

Oscar Friedmann (played by Thomas Kretschmann), the director of the project, had previously run an institution for troubled boys in Germany and was picked by Leonard Montefiore (Tim McInnerny), both because he had been an orphan and also because he had been sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany, until released in 1938. Montefiore believes that Friedmann has the credentials and an understanding of children’s trauma from his own experiences.

In August 1945, after the British government agreed to give refuge to 300 child survivors of the German death camps, they were transported with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, and no understanding of English. As the first buses arrive at Calgarth Estate in the dead of night, one of the children, Chaim Olmer, fears he has been registered under the wrong name, which will make it impossible for any surviving family members to find him. Many of the children hold out hope that some of their relatives have managed to survive. Another boy, Salek Falinower, refuses to leave the bus until Friedmann patiently explains to him that the Nazis have been defeated and it is now safe.

A team of counsellors and volunteers, led by Friedmann, is assembled to greet the children, but many are still suspicious of where they have been taken. And the instructions they are given, in German, don’t reassure them: “Boys to the left, girls to the right … remove all clothes and put them on the pile … remove anything of value from your pockets.” These instructions sound eerily like those they received in the concentration camps. Some of the children have no memory of life before concentration camps, and when reassured they are now in England, one remarks, “Last time I looked we were still Jews.”

Jock Lawrence (Iain Glen), the boys’ physical education instructor, was hired when he answered an ad in the local paper. Lawrence asks the boys their names and one tells him: “B-7608”, showing the number tattooed on his forearm. When Lawrence asks where he is from, the boy answers, “Otoschno, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt”—four concentration camps.

As the children line up in front of their bunker-style accommodation, one remarks that it reminds him of Buchenwald, “but no searchlights, no electric fence, no crematorium”. They discover that they each have their own private room, with clean linen, pillows and blankets. One group of very young girls had always clung together in the concentration camp, and cannot bear to be separated. Even though they are put into separate bunks, they immediately crawl under the bed of the oldest girl, Bela Rosenthal, preferring to sleep there on the floor. One of the older girls says, “Wherever Bela goes, they go too. Inseparable.”

In an interview for the linked BBC documentary program, The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words, Rosenthal (at left) said:

I barely knew who I was. We formed our own little family group. We all took on different roles. We never moved without each other. We cared for each other. If one had a nightmare, we didn’t go to the grown-ups, it was always one of us that would help out. We really were totally self-sufficient—even at that age.

The children’s main concern now is the welfare of their families. They are told the Red Cross will bring information as soon as it’s available.

At their first meal in the communal dining hall, they are served baskets of bread. As Friedmann addresses them he notices the children cannot take their eyes off the food. Rabbi Weiss begins a blessing, but after three words, the children grab the bread manically and run out of the hall, hiding it under their pillows, mattresses, in shoes, anywhere they can find. One tells Friedmann, “The reason I am alive is because I was strong enough to take bread from someone who was too weak to eat it.”

A member of the staff, Marie Paneth (Romola Garai), a Viennese émigré from a respected academic family and a friend of psychoanalyst Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud, begins art classes with the children to encourage them to draw and paint; an innovative therapy she believes will help them deal with subconscious traumas they cannot express in language. They are taught English by Rabbi Weiss, and Friedmann organises football training. Ike Alterman remembered Rabbi Weiss:

He had a bit of a beard—but the only [rabbis] I knew … had beards down to here [pointing to his chest] and I thought: and he’s playing football on Shabbas! We couldn’t believe it.

After a few weeks, Red Cross vans arrive with boxes of letters notifying the children whose families have perished in the camps. But there is no mention of Salek’s brother, so he still holds some hope. Arek Hersh and Sala Feiermann had formed an intimate relationship in Theresienstadt but when Hersh hears that his family is dead, in his grief he pushes her away, insulting her: “We all know how girls got by in the camps.” She slaps him and storms out.

Ben Helfgott has a surprising aptitude and determination on the football field and Friedmann believes he could be a successful athlete. (Helfgott later became captain of the British Olympic weightlifting team.) A football match is organised between the Windermere teens and the boys of the local town in order to promote better relations with the townspeople. During the game, a motorcyclist arrives. It is Salek Falinower’s brother, Chiel, who has miraculously survived and has found him. The reuniting of the two Jewish brothers resonates with everyone on the playing field who has lost family and is one of the emotional high points of the film.

When the Windermere Project reaches the end of the four-month trial the money has run out. The Home Office wants the experiment to end. All the children must be placed in the community, in private homes, but Friedmann and Paneth fear they are not yet ready and petition Montefiore to find more resources for them to extend their work.

In an ending reminiscent of Schindler’s List, a small group of the children stand on the bank of Lake Windermere as the scene dissolves to five elderly survivors standing together in present times.

The documentary The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words, narrated by Iain Glen, is an excellent adjunct to the film. Many of the survivors share their memories. Ike Alterman described his experience of the Nazi invasion of Poland:

Restrictions started with you couldn’t go to a school anymore, you couldn’t go on this side of the town, you couldn’t go to that side of the town, if you saw a German you had to bow and you were fearful of going out in case a German soldier was passing because you knew … trouble.

Then there was my mother my sister and my little brother … and the rest of all these people, they were marched out, can you imagine a nine-year-old, he’s got to walk out [with his hands in the air] with guns behind him, walked out of the square and turned, never to be seen again.

We could see the chimneys at night, glowing from the crematoriums. Twenty-four hours a day these chimneys were spewing … this stench was coming in the air … You lived from one day to the next because you didn’t know what was going to happen to you.

Bela Rosenthal (right, a lifetime later) was separated from her parents at three years old. Her earliest memories were “snatches of the plane. Very dark. Very noisy. Very scary. Nobody told us anything. We were on the last plane that left from Prague.” Zdenka Husserl recalled: “We sat on the laps of grown-ups. There was a bucket to be sick in and to be used as a toilet.” RAF Flight Sergeant Norman Shepherd remembers the first trip:

I spoke to them in English and also with a bit of irritation at their being sick and they were all so frightened, the poor little devils. I found some cloths and said help me to clear it up but they couldn’t understand me but they appreciated what I was saying. After I had finished I said very good very good (clapping his hands) so they came and started holding my hand and kissing me—you could see they hadn’t had any affection at all from anyone. 

By the first month of 1946, all the children had left Windermere and the Central British Fund began finding them permanent homes. Twenty went to Liverpool, thirty to Manchester.

A new scheme was organised and funded by Montefiore and the CBF which brought another 432 child survivors to Britain. An additional £400,000 was raised for continued support of the Windermere children, and Oscar Friedmann supervised the fund. Over the years, the children wrote him many letters and he always looked after them financially.

Calgarth Estate was torn down in the 1960s. The Lakes School, a coeducational secondary school, now stands on the site.

The children kept in touch with each other and formed their own charity, the ’45 Aid Society, chaired by Ben Helfgott. Eleven years after leaving Windermere, Helfgott found that he had an aptitude for weightlifting, rising to become the British champion for seven years, representing England in the 1956 Olympic Games. In 2018, he was knighted in recognition of his services to Holocaust education.

Arek Hersh trained as an electrician, Ike Alterman opened a successful jewellery business—the largest in Manchester—and Harry Olmer served in the army as a dentist. In 2017, Olmer was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

Marie Paneth remarked on the progress the children made during her four months at Windermere:

None of the boys or girls committed suicide in these critical weeks; none killed any other; nobody got seriously ill; nor were there any serious accidents. On the other hand, the straightforward outspoken­ness of their conversations with us showed their trust in the sanity of their surroundings.

Paneth had married Dr Otto Paneth, the son of Joseph Paneth, a physiologist who was an associate of Freud and Nietzsche. She moved to France in the late 1960s and died in London in 1986.

Some of the children in her Windermere art class travelled to New York in 1948 (left) to be involved in the launch of the New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition of their work. Paneth said: “[Art] allowed these children to express through a medium other than words things that cannot be said in words”—in images that are still haunting, seven decades later.

Anna Freud continued to work with six of the Windermere children, which formed the basis of a respected study, published in 1951, An Experiment in Group Upbringing.

My family has history with St Kilda’s Montefiore Home. Some of my partner Lin van Hek’s extended family members were Holocaust survivors. Her first husband’s father, Walter Friedmann (no relation to Oscar Friedmann), was arrested in Germany, with his two brothers, Kurt and Arnold, during Kristallnacht in 1938 and sent to Buchenwald concentration and slave labour camp. In 1939, the Nazi “Reich Flight Tax” permitted Jews to leave Germany. Friedmann’s sister, Grete, in Palestine, made the required payments to the Nazi government and the brothers were released and given one week to depart for Britain.

At first welcomed in England, after war broke out they were considered part of a potential fifth column, capable of aiding the Nazis if England was invaded, and were again arrested, this time as “enemy aliens”. Churchill suggested they be sent “to far off places where they could be of no harm”. They were herded onto the docks in Liverpool, where one passenger said, “We were jeered at, spat upon and generally subjected to high levels of abuse. Our belongings were all stolen from us.”

The Friedmann brothers were deported to Australia in 1940, on the refitted troop carrier the Dunera, and on arrival after two months at sea were confined to the Hay internment camp in outback New South Wales. Then they worked picking fruit around Shepparton. When the British government admitted it had made a classification error in judging them enemy aliens, they were offered the choice of returning to England or staying. The Friedmanns chose to stay.

Although he had been a judge in Germany, Walter Friedmann could not practise law in Australia during the war, so he and his brother Arnold, who had both worked in their father’s livestock and butchery business, in Suhl, Germany, opened a successful butcher’s shop in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick.

In 1955, Walter married Gertrude Hartwig (née Wessalowski) who had a son from a first marriage. She had been a widow since 1949 and had come to Australia from Germany via the refugee camps in Singapore. Friedmann’s sister Martha and his father, Max, were murdered by the Nazis, but his mother, Selma, managed to rejoin the family in Australia.

Walter, Gertrude and Arnold Friedmann lived in their final years at the Montefiore Home in St Kilda. Arnold left a substantial bequest to the home. The home amalgamated with Jewish Community Services in 2001, and became Jewish Care Victoria.

Abe Schwartz, in a recent article for Plus61J Media, told of his ninety-one-year-old mother, suffering from dementia, who was the last patient admitted to Montefiore before it moved to its new premises in Windsor, the Hannah & Darly Cohen Family Building. Due to COVID-19, in early July Jewish Care Victoria halted visiting rights. Schwartz’s mother said to him: “But why? I haven’t done anything! Why are they punishing us?”

There were no COVID-19 cases at the home throughout July, and Schwartz said, “Jewish Care maintained zero infections while everyone watched Melbourne’s statistics go through the roof,” but by the first week of August, three cases had been confirmed and, four days later, twelve. He remarked, “Jewish Care acted swiftly, and remarkably, within hours had … isolated all residents to their rooms, set up full COVID testing and communicated twice to family members.”

During the First World War, Leonard Montefiore served in India and Siberia as a captain in the Royal Hampshire Regiment. He supported sixteen charities and, as British journalist Chaim Bermant wrote, “he attended them all, gave money to them all, offered guidance to them all”. Fluency in German enabled him to understand and publish papers and articles about the oppression of the Jews in Germany as early as 1934. He made regular visits to Windermere during the children’s stay there. One of the nurses said:

When he has left, everyone has the feeling that he has come just for him or her—a remarkable man! Intelligence, compassion and financial freedom—which is the strongest? Love, concern and a certain shyness coupled with some extrovert abilities—perhaps that would describe him even better.

Sir Moses Montefiore served in 1845 as High Sheriff of Kent. On his eighty-ninth birthday, a newspaper published a mistaken large-font obituary of him, to which he responded, “Thank God to have been able to hear of the rumour and to read an account of the same with my own eyes, without using spectacles.” Once, at a dinner party, when an anti-Semitic nobleman told him of his recent trip to Japan, where, he said, “they have neither pigs nor Jews”, Montefiore instantly replied, “In that case, you and I should go there, so it will have a sample of each.”

2 thoughts on “The Windermere Children: Safe at Last

  • Davidovich says:

    I read this article with tears in my eyes and yet, as Montefiore suggested to the anti-semitic nobleman, there are still pigs out there whose bigotry is boundless. Thank you, Joe Dolce, for this story.

  • RB says:

    Davidovich. Same reaction.
    My first job was carrying a bag for a wholesale Jewish jeweller in Sydney on Pitt street. He and his wife were both survivors with the tattoos on their arms.
    They were both tough old birds with hearts as big as all outdoors, even for goyim like me.

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