Life & Culture

Meet the 200 Kindertransport children who found refuge in a Welsh castle

Andrew Hesketh’s new book tells the story of the children who played an important role in Zionist history


Between 1939 and 1941, more than 200 Kindertransport children escaped war-torn Europe to Gwrych Castle in north Wales. There, the people looking after the youngsters developed a successful hachshara — an agricultural training scheme — for them.

While Kindertransport has been well researched, the focus has been very much on individual experiences.

By contrast, training centres such as the one at Gwrych Castle — better known these days for its starring role in I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here during lockdown — have been somewhat neglected; as one historian commented, they were “transient phenomena” that “left few traces on the ground”. Now my new book, Escape to Gwrych Castle, a Jewish Refugee Story, attempts to redress the balance.

The Gwrych Castle hachshara opened in late August 1939, just days before the Second World War began. Nearly half of the children, all aged 14 to 17, came from Great Engeham Farm in Kent.

The remainder came from various places, including 31 of them who arrived straight from the very final Kindertransport to escape the European mainland. The 200 included Gerard Friedenfeld, who had been put on a Kindertransport train by his parents in Prague in May 1939.

Excited by the prospect of living in a castle, the children found themselves in an empty and dilapidated building, without electricity and with an unreliable water supply.

For several days they slept on hard floors and battled hunger until donations from Marks & Spencer and the local Baptist church transformed things. Within weeks, their madrich, Erwin Seligmann, had found them on work on local farms and routines were established.

As a sign of the importance of Gwrych, a rabbi was appointed to the project. Rabbi Sperber initiated educational programmes that focused heavily on developing the children’s religious knowledge and understanding.

Later, he also set up a yeshivah within the castle. The rabbi also led the community’s public relations with the town of Abergele and established a good rapport with many local ministers.

Initially, many of the youngsters were nervous about visiting the town. They feared an antisemitic response and were conscious of the fact that most of them were Germans which, in the words of one who was there, had the potential to be “upsetting” to the locals.

Early visits were thus often carried out in groups, quietly attempting to avoid notice.

However, the youngsters soon discovered that local farm labourers, often of a similar age, were not at all antisemitic and actually keen to know more about them.

The Jewish children often claimed to be Polish rather than German to avoid unnecessary confrontation, but they learned that the local people had no issue with their presence — in fact, the refugees were seen as friends. If nothing else, the two communities shared a common enemy.

As fears abated, the young refugees went into Abergele with increasing confidence and often alone, especially when farmers had offered them cash backhanders for their work and once the castle leadership had established a kitty to provide some spending money. Most spent their money at the cinema and on chocolate.

In Abergele, the children became a visible and essential part of the landscape for nearly two years. As refugees, they contributed massively to the local agricultural economy and, in many ways, personified the “Dig for Victory” mentality.

Their presence was a subject of great interest for the local community and there were moments of friendship, mutual respect, tension, high drama and comedy as Jew and non-Jew tried to get the measure of each other.

Although the refugees’ time in Abergele was only of a short duration, it resulted in the creation of several unique bonds and friendships being formed with some of the locals.

Escape to Gwrych Castle, based heavily on the memories and words of the children who were there, also charts how the young refugees gained confidence in other ways.

By the beginning of 1940, the youngsters were starting to emerge from the darkness of their recent past and had the opportunity to behave, probably for the first time, as teenagers do.

Friendships and bonds formed. They fell in love, they fell out of love, they messed about, carried out pranks and supported each other. They played music, they danced, they played hide and seek in the woods of the estate; they organised nature rambles and caught buses to explore the local area.

They played sports and, after a crushing opening defeat, the newly formed Gwrych Castle Football Club repeatedly trounced local teams in what were humorously referred to as “internationals”.

They also argued and, in some cases, bullied each other. One committed a crime in the town and the castle leadership found itself in front of a local court (twice) on charges of breaking the blackout regulations.

Despite this, the bond that was forming between the Jews of Gwrych and the Welsh of Abergele, could not be tarnished. Even as Britain stood alone, and “spy fever” gripped the nation in the spring and early summer of 1940, local fifth columnist hunters cast their attentions everywhere except at the refugees, despite them being the biggest single collection of German foreigners anywhere in Britain.

Nationally, however, after Dunkirk, the mood changed and the Gwrych community was damaged by the internment of “enemy aliens” in the summer of 1940.

This, the difficulty of attracting new recruits since Kindertransport ended, and the ever-increasing costs of maintaining a castle in poor condition, all led to questions over their future.

Despite the fact that Gwrych was the flagship hachshara, the centre’s days were numbered and during 1941 it was allowed to decline in favour of a new centre in Birmingham.

However, the Gwrych hachshara should not be remembered for its end, but for what it tried to achieve and for the example it set. In that regard, it was an enormous success.

After the chaotic opening days, and almost against the odds, the children at the castle established a bond and a community that was remarkable.

Together, they developed and came to agree upon, a vision for a better future. Visitors commented on the spirit and ambition that the children of Gwrych displayed.

The fact that the centre was chosen as the place to host all the training schemes in October 1939 showed how much the project impressed people.

It was chosen again for a meeting of the leaders of Bachad and Bnei Akiva in December 1940, the first ever to be held on British soil.

Arieh Handler, who led the scheme, appointed a permanent rabbi at the castle and chose it as the venue for his own wedding.

All this speaks volumes for its status within Zionist youth circles. The importance of Gwrych and what it had tried to achieve should not be underestimated.

‘Escape to Gwrych Castle, a Jewish Refugee Story’, by Andrew Hesketh, published by Calon, an imprint of the University of Wales Press, is out now

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