‘The Windermere Children’ is a biographical tale that recounts the story of around 300 Jewish children, all of them refugees of World War II. The film follows the rehabilitation of the children, who are freed from the concentration camps, and land up in England. We see how the staff of a camp set up at the Calgarth Estate, near Lake Windermere, help the children regain a sense of normalcy and move past the horrors of the Holocaust.
Since the film is based on the experiences of the child survivors, you might be wondering about how much of the narrative is grounded in truth. We are here to explain the truth behind ‘The Windermere Children.’
True Story Behind The Windermere Children, Explained:
After the war, 305 (and a stowaway) child survivors were brought to the shores of Britain in the summer of 1945. The Jewish refugees had been liberated from the concentration camps, as the war came to an end. Not only were they long separated from their families, but they had no possessions, and no one to return to. The children came from different places, some from Berlin, others from rural Poland, or places like Warsaw and Czechoslovakia. While some grew up in poverty, others had known middle-class comfort. Most of the refugees were boys, but there were around 40 girls.
Months after the liberation, 10 RAF airplanes were ordered to transport the young refugees to Crosby-on-Eden near Carlisle. The scheme was organized by the World Jewish Relief, which was known as The Central Fund for German Jewry, back then. Leonard Montefiore, a prominent Jewish philanthropist, successfully lobbied the government to allow the Jewish children into Britain.
The first group of children was from the Theresienstadt camp. It is believed that the Cumbrian village was chosen because the crisp air and serene surroundings would help the children heal. By the Windermere lake, the children began to process their trauma through painting. They learned English, rode bicycles, and played football. Slowly, the children started to recover.
At Windermere, a team cared for these children. Oscar Friedmann, a child psychologist, led the team. He was accompanied by Marie Paneth, an art therapist, and Jock Lawrence, the sports coach.
Where are The Windermere Children Now?
Many of the actual Windermere children have grown up to become hugely successful in life. Ike Alterman was born in Poland and eventually reached Windermere, after stints at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Theresienstadt. He settled in Manchester, building an extraordinary career as a jeweler and diamond mounter.
Sam Laskier was also born in Warsaw, Poland. He spent time in the Warsaw ghetto, before becoming a prisoner at Blizin, Auschwitz/Birkenau, Buchenwald, and Theresienstadt. Eventually, in England, he was reunited with Rushka, his sister, and settled in Manchester, with his wife, Blanche.
Now, at 92, he’s one of the last living Holocaust survivors. Sam spoke with HuffPost of his time at Windermere, stating, “One of the things that helped us in Windermere was that while we didn’t have anybody else and we all came from different places, we had one thing in common and that was our suffering. Because of that, we felt as though we were one big family.”
Harry Olmer is another Polish refugee who went on to practice dentistry, having trained in Glasgow. Despite suffering from trauma, even after he arrived at Windermere, Harry did not talk much about the concentration camps. He said, “Genug, dass du es gesehen hast, must nicht daruber sprechen.” (It is enough that you saw it – you don’t have to talk about it.)
Sir Ben Helfgott was a prisoner at three concentration camps, before making it to Windermere. He has the distinction of being one of the two Jewish athletes who competed at the Olympic Games after surviving the Holocaust. Ben represented Great Britain in weightlifting at the Olympics in 1956 and 1960. He also won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games. Ben received a knighthood in 2018 from Prince Charles for Holocaust Remembrance and Education.
What Happened to the Child Psychologist and Counselors?
Oscar Friedmann was born in Germany in 1903. He trained as a teacher and social worker, specializing in working with delinquent boys. Before the war started, Oscar was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Oranienburg. He was released in 1938 and intended to return to Germany. However, he settled in England and worked with the Windermere kids in 1945, at the behest of Leonard Montefiore. Oscar passed away in 1958.
Marie Paneth is an Austrian born in 1895. She grew up in an academic family in Vienna and was acquainted with Freud’s family. Since Marie’s husband was Jewish, their family moved to England in the 1930s. She worked with orphaned and delinquent children alongside Freud’s daughter, Anna. She pioneered art therapy, which she practiced even after Windermere. Marie passed away in 1986. Jock Lawrence is a Scotsman who became part of the Windermere camp after answering a call for a Games Master. He passed away in 1995.
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