Life & Culture

The children who swapped the death camps for the Lake District

In 1945 hundred of young Holocaust survivors were sent to Windermere to rebuild their lives


To ordinary Britons from the city, the Lake District is a place of tranquil beauty. To the hundreds of Jewish orphans who arrived there from the death camps in 1945 to start a new life, it was nothing less than paradise.

"The most beautiful place I had ever seen," is the recollection of Minia Jay, three times selected by Mengele for death at Auschwitz, upon setting eyes on Lake Windermere. She was one of nearly 1,000 children flown there in convoys by the RAF after Britain's Jewish community persuaded the government to take in and rehabilitate the most needy refugees - young camp survivors who had lost their families and had nowhere to go to rebuild and restart their lives.

"I'll never forget the smell of the fresh linen I slept on that first night," says Ben Helfgott, just 15 when he arrived from Theresienstadt by way of Prague and the RAF base at Carlisle.

"It was the first time I had slept on a bed instead of a bunk for more than three years, and even longer since I had seen clean sheets. I can't remember ever having a better night's sleep than I enjoyed that first night in Windermere. It was only a hut I was sleeping in, but to me it was a palace."

Helfgott was one of several hundred children, some as young as four, who were billetted on the site of a wartime aircaft factory at the Calgarth Estate, where they slept in huts once occupied by the factory workers. Their story is the subject of a BBC documentary to be shown next week.

They were fed to the gills within the constraints of rationing, taught English and Hebrew, given clothes and encouraged to rebuild their health playing football and volleyball or going for long hikes. "Some went on the lake in boats - I went swimming in the cold water. We were there from August to December and I'll never forget the glory of the autumn leaves," he says.

Jack Aizenberg, who survived Buchenwald and a 200-mile death march, was one of many teenagers who could not wait to get out and explore the mountain scenery. "It was like going from hell to paradise," says the now 81-year-old.

The young survivors, revelling in a new lust for life, did not let a little thing like having no clothes stop them from getting out into the sweet fresh air of Cumbria. "We only had our underwear while we were waiting for suits to come from Burtons for us," he explains. "We got fed up just sitting in the chalets, so we went out in the rain wearing nothing but our vests and underpants. The locals must have thought: 'We've got a right lot here.' Whenever we saw a bike outside a house, we didn't bother to knock - we just took it and rode around on them in our underwear."

But the Lake District locals could not have been more tolerant towards the new arrivals, whose trauma they well understood. "If I see a face from Windermere I still recognise it," says Minia Jay, now in her 80s and a survivor of the Lodz ghetto as well as Auschwitz. She never again saw her parents, deported in 1942, or five of her six siblings (her surviving sister died less than a month ago).

"There could not be a greater contrast between our recuperation in the Lakes and the horror of Auschwitz," explains the great-grandmother, who lives in Golders Green. "I had TB when the war ended. I only got out of Terezin, where we had been relocated, to Britain because a doctor there who was also a refugee gave me a certificate saying I was well enough to travel."

She went on to a sanatorium from Windermere to recover her health. "I had my own room, lots to eat, and as much lovely fresh air as I wanted, in the middle of beautiful lakes and mountains. I didn't know what to think - just 'thank God I'm here!'"

Of course their joy at being alive and surrounded by warmth and tenderness was mitigated by the pain of having lost their families. Says Helgott: "The biggest moment of the day, after breakfast, where we wolfed down all the bread we could eat, was when the post came. There was such joy when one of us discovered a relative we had never expected to see again."

He and Minia Jay were each later reunited with a sister, the sole survivor in their respective families, who tracked them down from Europe.

After three months in the Windermere camp, the orphans were dispersed across Britain. Jack Aizenberg was one of 25 who went to Manchester. "There are only half of us left now," he says. "My son, daughter and three grandchildren are what keeps me going."

Ben Helfgott, who is now 80, went to London and in 1956 represented Britain in weightlifting at the Melbourne Olympics. He is now chairman of the '45 Aid Society, which holds annual reunions for the Windermere survivors.

For Minia Jay, one memory in particular puts encapsulates the moment when the fact she had survived and had reached a place of safety after all her suffering, hit home. It was the very first day she walked out into the fresh Lake District air. "A man doing his garden called out to me: 'It's a beautiful day, isn't it?' And I thought to myself: 'Yes, it is a beautiful day - a very, very beautiful day I never expected to see'."

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