The Windermere Children: the remarkable stories of 300 child survivors of the Holocaust

In August 1945, 300 traumatised Jewish children, survivors of Nazi concentration camps, were brought to the Lake District. Rebecca Clifford tells the remarkable story of how they were helped to begin new lives

Children in Auschwitz

It was 15 August 1945, the day of Alice Goldberger’s 48th birthday. Goldberger, a childcare expert who had come to Britain in 1939 as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, was standing on the tarmac at the airfield in Crosby-on-Eden, near Carlisle, waiting to begin a radical new work assignment. She was so excited and so nervous that she had forgotten it was her birthday. This only entered her mind as she watched the sky for aeroplanes. Goldberger had spent the war years in London working at Anna Freud’s War Nurseries (Anna Freud was Sigmund Freud’s daughter, and the founder of the field of child psychoanalysis), caring for young children made homeless by bombing. She had years of experience working with psychologically troubled children, but she still worried that the task before her would test her skills to the limit. The planes she awaited were bringing 300 orphaned Jewish child survivors of Nazi concentration camps to Britain, and Alice was part of a team charged with helping these children to begin a new life.

Together with a staff of around 35 people, Goldberger had worked to prepare a temporary reception centre near Windermere for the children. They had repurposed a set of barracks built during the war for aircraft factory workers, and had scrubbed and rescrubbed the dormitories. The beds had crisp white sheets. Little bowls of sweets had been placed on the nightstands. The staff wanted the children to feel welcome, but none knew quite what to expect of these children who had been found in or near the liberated ghetto-camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. They knew little about what had gone on in Hitler’s concentration camps, but had all seen shocking photos in newspapers and footage in newsreels of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald in April 1945: the corpses of the dead, and the starved and broken bodies of the living, peering out of skull-like faces, witnesses to conditions so horrific they stretched the human imagination. The children due to arrive that afternoon had seen the inside of the concentration camps. How would they behave? What would they need? Would the staff at Windermere be able to help them at all?

It was 15 August 1945, the day of Alice Goldberger’s 48th birthday. Goldberger, a childcare expert who had come to Britain in 1939 as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, was standing on the tarmac at the airfield in Crosby-on-Eden, near Carlisle, waiting to begin a radical new work assignment. She was so excited and so nervous that she had forgotten it was her birthday. This only entered her mind as she watched the sky for aeroplanes. Goldberger had spent the war years in London working at Anna Freud’s War Nurseries (Anna Freud was Sigmund Freud’s daughter, and the founder of the field of child psychoanalysis), caring for young children made homeless by bombing. She had years of experience working with psychologically troubled children, but she still worried that the task before her would test her skills to the limit. The planes she awaited were bringing 300 orphaned Jewish child survivors of Nazi concentration camps to Britain, and Alice was part of a team charged with helping these children to begin a new life.

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Together with a staff of around 35 people, Goldberger had worked to prepare a temporary reception centre near Windermere for the children. They had repurposed a set of barracks built during the war for aircraft factory workers, and had scrubbed and rescrubbed the dormitories. The beds had crisp white sheets. Little bowls of sweets had been placed on the nightstands. The staff wanted the children to feel welcome, but none knew quite what to expect of these children who had been found in or near the liberated ghetto-camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. They knew little about what had gone on in Hitler’s concentration camps, but had all seen shocking photos in newspapers and footage in newsreels of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald in April 1945: the corpses of the dead, and the starved and broken bodies of the living, peering out of skull-like faces, witnesses to conditions so horrific they stretched the human imagination. The children due to arrive that afternoon had seen the inside of the concentration camps. How would they behave? What would they need? Would the staff at Windermere be able to help them at all?

An estimated 90% of Europe's Jewish children were killed in the Holocaust

Expecting the children to be very young, Goldberger and her staff went around placing dolls and teddy bears on the beds. Then they waited for the planes. The hours crept by. The first plane arrived at around 4pm. The assembled crowd pressed forwards: staff, journalists from the local papers, customs officials and a welcoming party from the local Women’s Voluntary Service. But to the surprise of those waiting, the children who stepped off the plane were teenagers. Plane after plane arrived, but there were no young children among the passengers. “We began to worry after so many planes of youths arrived that there would be no small children,” Goldberger later wrote. “I thought about the dolls and bears in each of the beds, and what a joke that would be to these adolescents when they went to their beds.” Finally, long after dark, the last two planes arrived, and among the passengers were nine children between the ages of four and ten, and six three-year-old toddlers.

Child refugees from Theresienstadt
Child refugees from Theresienstadt ghetto-camp, 1944. (Photo by Maurer/RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The youngest survivors

An estimated 90 per cent of Europe’s Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust. The roughly 150,000 children under the age of 18 who survived had seen periods in hiding, in ghettoes, and in forced labour and concentration camps, and many found that they were orphans at the war’s end. Postwar efforts to help these children – alongside the estimated 13 million other European children who lost parents in the war – constituted one of the largest humanitarian aid projects in history.

At the liberation, children were found in many concentration camps, but most were older children who had been admitted to the camps to work as slave labourers. For the teenagers who arrived at Crosby-on-Eden on that day in August 1945, Theresienstadt had been but a brief final destination after two-year or three-year sagas that had taken them through many different concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald. They had been sent westwards on death marches as Allied forces approached, for by the spring of 1945, there were few other places in the dwindling area of German control in which large numbers of people could be held captive.

Survivors of the camp at Gunskirchen Lager
Survivors of the camp at Gunskirchen Lager, reached by troops of the US 71st Infantry Division in May 1945. (Photo by Robert Holliway/US Army/National Archives/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

By the final days of April 1945, Theresienstadt had become a dumping ground for survivors of other camps, bringing with them infectious diseases such as dysentery and typhus. Moniek Goldberg, one of the teenage boys who was brought to Windermere, recalled that Theresienstadt was “a nightmare”. “People were dying like so many flies,” he remembered. “A lot of people had dysentery and were too weak to use the toilets. We could barely distinguish the living from the dead. But the worst of all was the stench. It was unbearable.”

Unlike the adolescents, the young children brought to Britain from Theresienstadt had been captives in the ghetto-camp for years – indeed, none had any memories of life before the camp. In Theresienstadt, they had been housed in a special facility for infants, separated from their families and cared for by other inmates. Most of these children later had only hazy memories of the camp, but several remembered “lots of large rooms, with lots of beds”, and a few recalled strange events such as being made to walk around naked in the spring sunshine – a cynical attempt on the part of the camp’s guards to brighten the children’s pale, nutrient-deprived complexions in anticipation of a visit from the Red Cross in June 1944. In September and October 1944, the infants’ home and children’s homes in Theresienstadt were liquidated, and the majority of the camp’s children were sent eastwards to Auschwitz, where almost all were murdered upon arrival. Roughly 800 children remained, including the children who eventually made their way to Britain.

Theresienstadt

The Nazi ghetto-camp of Theresienstadt, established in November 1941, was used for a variety of purposes. It was a transit camp for Czech Jews before they were deported onwards to killing centres and concentration camps in the east; it was a ghetto where people were imprisoned and forced to work; and, in the end, it was a dumping ground for prisoners from other camps as the Nazi empire collapsed. Most significantly, however, it was a propaganda exercise meant to hide the true nature of Nazi deportations.

In October 1941, Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) chief Reinhard Heydrich proposed using the garrison town of Terezin as a ‘settlement’ for German, Austrian and Czech Jews who were either elderly, highly decorated war veterans or celebrities. Heydrich intended Theresienstadt as a decoy, meant to convince the world that elderly Jews were being sent to a ‘spa town’ rather than to a holding pen and prison.

This deception went far. In June 1944, the International Red Cross was allowed to visit Theresienstadt. Before the visit, the town was ‘beautified’: gardens were planted, houses painted and a programme of cultural events was put in place. Red Cross officials fell for the trick. As soon as their visit was over, deportations to the east recommenced, where most former inmates of Theresienstadt were murdered.

Nevertheless, Jewish people imprisoned in Theresienstadt managed to maintain a degree of normalcy in the camp – and this was particularly true for children. The camp’s Jewish Council worked to construct a system of children’s homes, the Kinderheim, where children were insulated from starvation and disease. They were not protected from onward deportation, however, and of the 15,000 children who passed through Theresienstadt, an estimated 90 per cent were killed. There were 1,600 surviving children in the camp when Czech health workers entered on 4 May 1945. Of the thousands of children deported eastwards from the camp, a mere 142 survived.

A temporary new home

It was not natural or inevitable that these child survivors of the Holocaust should have come to Britain. Home Office officials were in fact quite reluctant to allow even small numbers of child survivors into the country. But British Jewish aid workers were persuasive. These workers had, after all, ensured that nearly 10,000 children had been rescued from central Europe in 1938 and 1939, and brought to Britain via the Kindertransport scheme. In May 1945, philanthropist Leonard Montefiore, one of the founders of the Central British Fund (the key aid agency overseeing the children’s rescue, which exists today as the humanitarian and development charity World Jewish Relief) had gone to Paris, where he had seen some of the first liberated concentration camp survivors. “I had never seen anything so ghastly in my life,” he later wrote. “The people I saw were like corpses who walked. I shall never quite forget the impression they made.”

It was not inevitable that these child survivors would come to Britain

Montefiore managed to persuade the Home Office to allow 1,000 children under the age of 16 to be brought to Britain for recuperation. All were to be granted temporary two-year visas, for Home Office officials insisted that the children should eventually move on. Nor was the government willing to put up any of the costs, so the considerable funds needed for the rescue effort came entirely from donations from Britain’s Jewish community.

A young former inmate of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp
A young former inmate of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, photographed shortly after the camp’s liberation by the British Army. (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The next challenge was finding suitable children for the scheme. The Home Office had specified that the children must be under 16 but in the end, because few of the children had birth certificates or any other form of identification, many were older. The Home Office also specified they must be free of contagious diseases, but some were later found to have tuberculosis. In July 1945, news reached London that several hundred children had been saved from Theresienstadt and were healthy enough to make the trip to Britain. The Central British Fund rushed to prepare the Windermere reception centre. In August the children arrived, carried from the continent in specially adapted British bombers.

“Difficult to handle”

On the day of the children’s arrival, Leonard Montefiore later recalled, “I still had in my mind the walking skeletons, with sunken eyes and yellow parchment skins, I had seen in Paris a few months earlier. It was a shock and a pleasant surprise to see the first batch get out of the planes, looking much fitter and stronger than anything we had expected.” The children had in fact had two months’ recovery time, in liberated Theresienstadt and then in Prague, to eat nourishing food and regain some of their strength. Some of the youngest children remembered with delight that they had been given ice cream in Prague, tasting this “marvellous pink confection” for the first time. Nonetheless, the children’s bodies showed signs of damage from malnutrition: of the six toddlers, two had damage to their eyes from nutrient deficiency and another toddler had trouble walking.

A child refugee receives medical car
In sharp contrast to his life before, one of the refugees receives medical care. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Alice Goldberger and her staff at Windermere soon decided that because the young children were so few in number, it would be best for them to be moved into their own dedicated facilities as quickly as possible. Through Anna Freud’s connections, a home was found for the six toddlers: after two months in Windermere, they moved into Bulldogs Bank, a cottage in West Hoathly, where they were cared for by German-Jewish emigré sisters Sophie and Gertrud Dann, who took careful notes on their behaviour. The Dann sisters noted that the toddlers were suspicious of adults, but had formed strong attachments to each other. They were “aggressive” and “difficult to handle”, but equally nurturing and protective of the others in the group, in a way that is rarely true of ordinary siblings. Anna Freud later used the Dann sisters’ notes on the toddlers as the basis for her paper An Experiment in Group Upbringing, in which she argued that the group had taken on some of the normal functions of parents for the Theresienstadt infants, deprived as they were of their own parents, and of any adequate parental substitutes. Published in 1951, the paper remains to this day a core text in the field of child psychology.

Orphaned children at Windermere in the Lake District
Windermere offered stability to those who had seen, and experienced unimaginable horrors. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

After the six toddlers were settled into Bulldogs Bank, Alice worked to secure a home for the remaining nine children who were between the ages of four and ten. Sir Benjamin Drage, a philanthropist who owned a chain of furniture stories, donated part of Weir Courtney, his estate in Lingfield, Surrey, for this purpose – and Alice herself volunteered to act as matron. Alice, her staff, and the children moved into Weir Courtney in December 1945, the children arriving to a house lit up with candles for the first night of Chanukah, which commemorates the second century BC rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Many later recalled their wonder at arriving at the beautiful, huge house at night to see its many windows shining with candlelight.

The toddlers were nurturing and protective of others in their group

Other children later joined the nine Theresienstadt children at Weir Courtney. Early in 1946, two additional groups of young child survivors arrived: some were survivors of Auschwitz, and some had survived the war in hiding and in orphanages. The Bulldogs Bank toddlers also joined the older children after a year.

What became of these children under Alice Goldberger’s care, these young survivors of the Holocaust for whom Britain was meant to be a temporary way-station en route to somewhere else? Of the six toddlers, five were adopted relatively soon after joining the older children at Weir Courtney (despite foreign-born children not being legally allowed to be adopted in Britain until the 1950s). Of those aged between four and ten who arrived on Alice’s birthday in 1945, one girl was found by an uncle and aunt, and went to live with them – although she believed for many years that they were in fact her father and mother. One girl had pronounced developmental problems, and was eventually sent to live in a specialised home for children with learning disabilities. One girl was adopted.

The Calgarth Estate, Cumbria
The Calgarth Estate, Cumbria, where youngsters were housed, was originally built to house workers at a nearby flying boat factory. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The rest, two boys and four girls, stayed with Alice, as did several of the children who arrived in 1946. Indeed, some stayed with Alice even when their own birth parents turned up alive (see boxout). They became family to each other. And despite the Home Office’s insistence that the children’s stay in Britain was temporary, most went on to live the rest of their lives in Britain. Alice fought for their right to become naturalised citizens and those still under her care were awarded citizenship in 1954.

Rebecca Clifford is associate professor of history at Swansea University. Her new book, Orphans of the Storm: Children After the Holocaust, will be published by Yale University Press in 2020.

The Windermere Children will be broadcast on BBC Two in January, to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army, which took place on 27 January 1945.

New lives: 3 stories of child survivors

ZDENKA HUSSERL

Zdenka Husserl was born in Prague in February 1939; her parents were called Helena and Pavel. When Zdenka was only two years old, her father was deported to the Lodz ghetto, where he perished. In November 1942, Zdenka was deported with her mother to Theresienstadt, and her earliest memories are from the camp. She particularly remembers screaming as her head was shaved. Zdenka was separated from her mother in the camp; she learned years later that Helena was deported to her death in Auschwitz in 1944. Zdenka was six years old when she was liberated, and soon found herself in Windermere. In December 1945, she went to live at Weir Courtney under Alice Goldberger’s care, where she spent the rest of her childhood. “We had as happy a childhood as any normal child,” she recalls.

AVIGDOR COHNHEIM

Avigdor Cohnheim was born in April 1941 in Berlin. Circumstances surrounding his early months and years are unclear. He was deported to Theresienstadt alone in June 1943, as a two-year-old toddler. He had just passed his fourth birthday when he was liberated and brought to Windermere. From there, he went to live in the Weir Courtney care home with Alice Goldberger and her staff. In 1946, Alice received some surprising news: Avigdor’s mother had survived and was living in Austria. But as was the case for thousands of other child survivors of the Holocaust whose parents also survived, there was to be no happy reunion for Avigdor and his mother. His mother was too emotionally troubled to commit to his care, and he did not see her again until 1959 when, in his late teens, he emigrated to the United States to try to live with her. “It was not what I thought it would be like,” he recalled. “There were times when I wondered what I was doing there.”

JACKIE YOUNG

Jackie Young was born in Vienna in December 1941, and deported to Theresienstadt when he was only nine months old. He was three years old at the time of liberation, and was sent with the other toddlers to Bulldogs Bank after his arrival in England. A Jewish family in London adopted him when he was five. Like many adoptive parents of the era, Jackie’s new mother and father did not tell him about his past, and so he learned the truth through a series of shocking, accidental revelations. When he was around ten years old, a schoolmate revealed that Jackie was adopted; a few years later, Jackie learned that he had not been born in Britain. Most shocking of all, he learned only when he was 20 that he had survived a Nazi concentration camp and that his real name was Jona Spiegel. He has worked for decades to learn more about his birth mother, Elsa, and his family of origin, all of whom the Nazis murdered.

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This article was first published in the January 2020 edition of History Revealed