The Boys and the Lake District Holocaust Project

By Hayley Shaw *

From 1945, 732 child Holocaust survivors came to Britain, often collectively known and referred to here as ‘The Boys’; there were only 80 girls amongst them. The children came to Britain under the Central British Fund for Jewish Relief and Rehabilitation (CBF), later World Jewish Relief. A founding member of the CBF and chairman of the Jewish Refugees Committee, Leonard Montefiore, made applications to the government for permission to invite children to the country. Such applications were initiated after Montefiore visited Paris in May 1945. Shocked after seeing the first arrivals of camp survivors, he believed something had to be done to help the victims.  In June 1945 the Home Office gave permission for 1,000 children under 16 to be brought to England for recuperation and ultimate re-emigration overseas. The Committee for the Care of Children from Concentration Camps was soon established to monitor and care for the children.


Children in Auschwitz Concentration Camp (courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

In August 1945, 300 of the 732 children came to England from Theresienstadt concentration camp. My Masters dissertation focused on these 300 children, exploring how they, and other child survivors, were rehabilitated in the north of England. They were housed in Windermere at Calgarth Estate, an unused wartime village that had accommodated workers in the aircraft industry, and their families. In Windermere the children began their new life; they were taught educational lessons, the English language, how to break habits learnt in the camps, and the presence of an English Rabbi allowed religious teaching and the Jewish ritual to be maintained. From Windermere the children were sent to hostels in cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and London. The 300 children had left Calgarth Estate by early 1946 and it had achieved its aim of being the children’s first step into rehabilitation and a new life in England.


Terezin-Theresienstadt Camp (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Lake District Holocaust Project (LDHP), located in Windermere Library, was established in 2013 to promote and preserve the history of The Boys. Following a programme titled “The Orphans who Survived the Concentration Camps”, aired on BBC One in 2010, a small permanent exhibition was located in Windermere Library. Large success led to the space being enlarged and improved in 2013 for larger displays and a separate exhibition space for temporary exhibitions. Prior to the establishment, eight years of intense research, education work, oral history interviews and various trips to European countries such as Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic took place. Such work and commitment set the level of effort and work that continues by the Director of the LDHP, Trevor Avery, and Senior Adviser Rosemary Smith.

The LDHP has done large amounts of work towards the preservation of The Boys memory and the history of Calgarth Estate, I have picked out several instances to reflect this. In August 2018 Trevor Avery appeared on Who Do You Think You Are? Robert Rinder. Rinder is the grandson of Morris Malenicky, one of The Boys. Rinder appeared on the programme and traced the contrasting experiences of two of his grandparents who came to the UK seeking a new life. As part of the filming, Rinder met with Trevor Avery and explored documents which gave information into his grandfather’s life in Windermere and subsequent journey to London. In November 2018 the story of The Boys in Windermere was presented by Helen Mark on an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Open Country series, named The Windermere Boys. The episode included conversations with Trevor Avery and two of The Boys, Sam Laskier and Ike Alterman.

From 15th to 27th July 2019 an archaeological scan and dig took place on the site of Calgarth Estate, now The Lakes School. The project was named ‘From Troutbeck to Treblinka’ and I was lucky enough to take part in the dig. It was led by Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls, Professor of conflict archaeology at Staffordshire University. Numerous artefacts of interest were found such as a tube of baby curling gel, a keyhole and patterned china. The dig was filmed for Digging for Britain WW2 – Troutbeck Bridge to Treblinka. Rosemary Smith documented the dig, and a diary of the process and findings can be found in the further reading section below.

In January 2020, The Windermere Children, a film based on The Boys and their experience in Windermere aired, was commissioned by the BBC to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The LDHP was the principal source of information about the film and its accompanying documentary The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words. The film focuses on some of The Boys in particular: Ike Alterman, Ben Helfgott, Arek Hersh, Sam Laskier and Harry (Chaim) Olmer, exploring their personal experiences. The accompanying documentary further tells the story of the rehabilitation of the children in Windermere and includes first-hand testimony from Ike, Ben, Arek, Sam and Harry, covering their experiences in the Holocaust and their arrival and life in Britain.

Alongside these large projects, the LDHP continues to host regular events such as the ‘In conversation with…’ series which has included talks with Sam Gontarz, Ike Alterman and Mala Tribich and commemorations to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Throughout my Masters study I was lucky enough to gain strong working relationships with both Trevor and Rosemary and gained an insight into the incredible work they do on a daily basis to ensure the memory and history of The Boys lives on through the exhibition and other projects. The LDHP and its success is a credit to them and to their determination.

*  Hayley is starting her Ph.D at MMU this September.

Further reading and information:

Gilbert, M., The Boys: Triumph over Adversity (London: Phoenix, 1997).

Hersh, A., A Detail of History (Nottingham: Beth Shalom, 1998).

Kushner, T., and Know, K., Refugees in an Age of Genocide: Global, National and Local Perspectives during the Twentieth Century (London: Franks Cass, 1999).

Kushner, T., ‘Wandering Lonely Jews in the English Countryside’, Jewish Culture and History, vol.12, (2010).

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