Wednesday 25 January 2023

The Windermere Children: The story of 300 child Holocaust survivors who came to the Lake District

In 1945 the people of Lakeland welcomed three hundred child Holocaust Survivors into their community.

Lake Windermere
(photo Susan Brownrigg)

A special exhibition at Windermere Library From Auschwitz to Ambleside highlights what life was like for these children. I visited to find out more.

Windermere Library, home to the
Auschwitz to Ambleside exhibition
(photo Susan Brownrigg)

In 1942 the Nazis began what they called ‘the Final Solution’ - a plan to exterminate all Jewish people across Europe. Roma gypsies, gay and disabled people, as well as black and mixed-race people were also persecuted and killed. 

It's estimated that eleven million people died in the Holocaust including six million Jewish people

By the end of World War II, approximately 90 per cent of Europe’s Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust.

In June 1945, Leonard Montefiore, of the Central British Fund (now World Jewish Relief), persuaded the British Government to give permission for a thousand Jewish orphans aged from eight to sixteen to be brought to the UK for recuperation, and ultimate re-emigration overseas. 

Leonard Montefiore (for educational use only)
Leonard Montefiore also set up the
 Kindertransport (children’s transport)
 which provided refuge for
 10,000 children before the war.

Just 732 actually came to Britain. They became known as The Boys, though they included 204 girls. 

Of these, 300 children who had survived the Theresienstadt Ghetto in the Czech Republic were brought to Windermere. The youngest were just three years old. 

Many of the children no longer knew how old they were and could not remember their date of birth, and lots were older than sixteen.

The Lake District Holocaust Project which curated the exhibition explains: “The Jewish children who came to the Lake District had been liberated in May 1945. Many had been used as slave labour in many camps across Nazi Occupied Europe for a number of years. The list of names of the camps they had experienced is an A-Z of horror. Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Majdanek, Warsaw ghetto, Lodz ghetto…..they each had a different story to tell of a different journey. Their discovery in Theresienstadt does not begin to cover their story.”

The children were to spend a period of recuperation in the Lakes before setting out on new lives.  

The children were flown from Prague to Crosby on Eden airfield near Carlisle. 

The Immigration Officer said: “The behaviour of the children was exceptionally good.

From there the children were taken in a convoy of buses and army trucks to Calgarth - a wartime housing estate built to accommodate workers from the Short Sunderland Flying Boats factory on the shores of Windermere. 

The single workers no longer needed the rooms at the now lost estate, near Troutbeck Bridge - and there was the perfect number available for each child to have their own private room.

A plan of the Calgarth Estate from Cumbria Archives
which is on display in the library
(photo Susan Brownrigg)

Arriving in the Lake District was described by the children as like being in “Paradise”.  

The Lake District Holocaust Project website explains: “The estate had its own shops, canteen, entertainment hall and many other facilities. They were each given their own small room, a bed and clean linen. For many it was their first encounter with privacy and cleanliness in five years.

One quote on display is from Ben Helfgott, who was 15 when he came to Calgarth. I'll never forget the smell of the fresh linen I slept on that first night ... I can't remember ever having a better night sleep ... It was only a hut, but to me it was a palace.

The children who came to Windermere
were given a copy of Pears' Cyclopaedia

The children became known as the Windermere Boys - although the group included 35 girls.

Most young survivors were male and the Nazis considered girls less useful for slave labour.

When they arrived they could not speak English, so they were given language lessons.

The children were offered opportunities for sport, education, outdoor recreation and healthcare. 

Over a period of six months, they were gradually moved to other homes in places throughout the UK, and they had left Calgarth Estate by early 1946.

Around 30-40 children moved to Manchester, others to Liverpool, Gateshead and London. Some left Britain, to America, Canada and Israel.

Outside the library there is a memorial garden to the Windermere Children with colourful artwork and planting that tells the journey of the children through the language of flowers.

The interpretation explains: Many of the children spoke of their love of the luscious green of the Lake District and described it as an explosion of colour after the horrors of the camps.

Plants chosen include heather (protection) daffodils (new beginnings) and snowdrops (hope.)

From Auschwitz to Ambleside exhibition, Windermere Library
(photo Susan Brownrigg)

The children's story is also retold in the BBC film The Windermere Children and the accompanying documentary The Windermere Children: in their own words.

Book cover of After the War from Auschwitz to Ambleside by Tom Palmer

After the War from Auschwitz to Ambleside by Tom Palmer

The book After the War : From Auschwitz to Ambleside by Tom Palmer tells the story of the Windermere Boys in a dyslexia friendly accessible format. It is published by Barrington Stoke. The Centre for Holocaust education offers lesson plans for schools studying the book.

The '45 Aid Society was set up in 1963 by some of the 732 children who came to Britain in 1945. Their children continue the society's work. 

Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) encourages remembrance in a world scarred by genocide. They promote and support Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) – the international day on 27 January to remember the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, and the millions of people killed under Nazi Persecution and in genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. 27 January marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.

Useful links:

Thursday 19 January 2023

From Guan Yin to Xuanzang - a road trip through Chinese myth and history by Maisie Chan

I’m Maisie Chan, the author of award-winning Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths. I’m going to chat with you today about a couple of books - Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu and Bedtime Stories: Amazing Asian Tales from the Past and how they feature some famous Chinese mythical and historical figures.
I’m known for humorous family tales set in the UK that feature British Chinese characters. Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu is about a girl who looks after her grandfather who is acting strange. He tells her stories about his favourite goddess Guan Yin (also spelt Kwan Yin, Kuan Yin and Gwan Yin). She is a Chinese deity that people in East and Southeast Asia still pray to.
She is the goddess of compassion and mercy. She features in many stories, sometimes they are fantastical and often they have a moral tale. In my novel, I retold four Chinese stories that feature Guan Yin. One of the stories that Guan Yin appears in is The Journey to The West – it is the most famous Chinese novel written by Wu Cheng’en; published in the 16th Century. It’s about a monk called Tripitaka (which is his Buddhist name) who is given a set of misfit companions by Guan Yin. They’re his protectors as the journey is full of demons and obstacles. His most famous companion is the mischievous Monkey King.

By coincidence, Scholastic asked me if I wanted to write a story for Bedtime Stories: Amazing Asian Tales from the Past. They had a list of historical figures - I chose Xuanzang. He travelled from China to India because he wanted to translate and return to China with updated Buddhist scriptures. This is the real life person that Wu Cheng’en was inspired by when he began writing The Journey to the West!
Xuanzang became a Buddhist monk before he was an adult. He followed in his brother’s footsteps. His life up to his teenage years were not easy. His parents had passed away, his country was experiencing civil war and he and his brother had to find refuge in a new city. When reading the Buddhist scriptures Xuanzang found they were incomplete or did not always make sense because of the poor translation. He decided that he wanted to go to India himself, learn Sanskrit and go on an adventure.
However, Emperor Taizong forbade him from leaving. Xuanzang made the decision to sneak out because he felt it was his destiny. It was a big risk for him to go without the proper travel passes. He travelled the Silk Road with merchants. But he encountered quite a few obstacles. He was abandoned by the merchants, had to cross tough terrain and in one town, a King wanted to keep him there FOREVER. But Xuanzang had a mission, he needed to make it to India. He persuaded the king to let him go. After more treacherous travel he finally made it.

He did what he set out to do, he learned Sanskrit. And in AD 645 decided to head back to China with newly translated Buddhist scriptures. His writings were the foundation of Buddhism in China where it is one of the most popular religions.

When I wrote Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu I was thinking about her road trip as an inner journey as well as an external one of getting to Blackpool to have some fun. I wondered how she and her friends would be changed by that trip? And who or what might stand in her way. I think of road trips in stories as a great way for the main characters to learn something about themselves, other people, and the world around them.

Writing exercise:
Think of a historical figure. Write a contemporary story about a road trip with this person and you, or a character you make up. Where would you take them? Who would you meet on the way? What would happen once you got there?

Maisie Chan is a children's author whose debut novel DANNY CHUNG DOES NOT DO MATHS won the Jhalak Prize and the Branford Boase Award in 2022. It was also shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Awards and Diverse Book Awards 2022.

Her latest novel KEEP DANCING, LIZZIE CHU is out now with Piccadilly Press. She also writes the series TIGER WARRIOR for younger readers. She has written early readers for Hachette and Big Cat Collins, and has a collection of myths and legends out with Scholastic. She runs the Bubble Tea Writers Network to support and encourage writers of East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) descent in the U.K. She has a dog called Miko who has big eyes. She lives in Glasgow with her family.

You can buy Maisie's books here.

Friday 13 January 2023

Catching the Post by Catherine Randall

One of the things I used to associate with those quiet days after Christmas was having to write thank you letters. Before computers and smart phones, it was the only way to thank all the relatives and friends that I didn’t actually see at Christmas for the presents they’d kindly given me. Making a quick phone call to thank them was not an acceptable option in my family! Anyway, I quite enjoyed writing letters, which I suppose is not surprising given that I am now a writer. 

Of course, nowadays, most people will have expressed their thanks in an email or a text message. I wonder how many actual physical thank you letters are written and put in the post these days? 

One of the fun things about writing historical fiction is getting to discover how people did ordinary things in the past. In both my novel, The White Phoenix, and the novel I am currently working on, set in Victorian London, I’ve had to work out how my characters would communicate with each other without being able to pick up a phone, or send a text message or email. It got me thinking about how communicating has changed over the past 500 years.

To find out more, I visited the Postal Museum in London (on a rather windy day!)

From my research for The White Phoenix, I knew that the Royal Mail already existed in 1666, and that the General Letter Office in central London had burned down during the Great Fire with the loss of a huge number of letters. It was called the Royal Mail because it used the distribution system already in place for royal and government documents. This system had been put in place originally by Henry VIII (who else? He always gets involved!) and then in 1635 King Charles I made it legal to use the royal post to send private letters. The General Post Office, the state postal system, was formally and legally established in 1660 with post offices throughout the country connected by regular routes.

But, as I learnt at the Postal Museum, post in those days did not necessarily remain private. Staff at the General Letter Office would open letters to check that no one was plotting against the King or the government, so if you wanted to make sure your letter was truly private, you needed to find another way to send it.

Luckily, people could also send letters by the carriers who plied between towns, taking people and goods, or by giving it to a friend travelling to the right town, or – if you had money – you could use a private messenger. In The White Phoenix, letters are often sent by carrier.

When the Post Office was first established, the mail was distributed by post boys travelling on foot. But post boys were slow and sometimes unreliable, and – unluckily for them – they were also vulnerable to highwaymen and pressgangs trying to forcibly recruit men for the army and navy. In 1784 smart new mail coaches replaced the post boys along many major routes which really speeded up mail delivery.

A mail coach on display in the Postal Museum in London

The next great innovation came in 1840 with the introduction of the Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp. Until then, the cost of sending a letter depended on the number of sheets of paper included and the distance the letter had travelled and it was the recipient of the letter who paid for its delivery. You could choose not to pay, but then you didn’t receive the letter. I will never forget a story I once heard about two old and poverty-stricken friends who sent each other a blank sheet of paper every 6 months– they never accepted the ‘letter’ so they couldn’t pass on any news, but at least they knew that they were both still alive! 

 A Penny Black stamp, featuring the head of a young Queen Victoria

After the arrival of the Penny Black, it cost just one penny to send a letter weighing up to 14g (half an ounce) anywhere in the United Kingdom. This made the whole postal system cheaper to use and more efficient, and letter writing flourished. 

However, it wasn’t until 15 years later that post boxes were introduced - before that you had to take your letter to the nearest post office. The first post boxes were green, not the red we are used to today. 

An early post box at the Postal Museum

I was very happy to discover that post boxes began to appear on the streets of London at around the time my new novel is set – it made it so much easier for my main character to sneak out and post a letter! In a nice literary link, the famous Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope is credited with introducing the post box when he worked for the Post Office. The first post boxes in the UK were in the Channel Islands. 

Post boxes have changed in colour and size and design since the mid-nineteenth century, but they are still instantly recognisable, whatever their age. The post box where I live has been painted gold since 2012, in honour of Mo Farah’s gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. 

We might marvel at how much slower Victorian communications were than ours are today, but in Victorian London, you could expect to receive 12 deliveries of post a day – that’s one an hour! – and it was possible to send a letter by post and receive an answer the same day. Imagine that happening nowadays!

Of course, the fascinating displays in the Postal Museum cover the story of the Post Office right up to the present day, including such things as the introduction of the postcode, and the role post boxes played in the Second World War. If my next historical novel is set in the twentieth century, I will certainly be paying another visit, so that I can add authentic historical detail to my story. After all, people will always need to communicate with one another, and there’s nothing like an unexpected letter or a mysterious parcel to move a plot along!

Watch Catherine's YouTube video on Catching the Post by clicking here

The White Phoenix by Catherine Randall is an historical novel for 9-12 year olds set in London, 1666. It was shortlisted for the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2021.

Published by the Book Guild, it is available from bookshops and online retailers.

For more information, go to Catherine’s website:

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