A BBC Sounds series narrated by Desert Island Discs presenter Lauren Laverne tells the remarkable and previously unknown story of how more than 20 young girls were rescued from Nazi persecution and brought to the small town of Tynemouth, east of Newcastle, and supported by the small local Jewish community.
In a nondescript terraced house overlooking the sea, the girls lived together for about a year in 1938. Once war was declared, they were collectively relocated from 55 Percy Park to Windermere in the Lake District for the next six years.
Speaking to the JC, series co-creator Joanna Lonsdale said: “The story of Tynemouth’s Kindertransport girls is a remarkable one and one that we just couldn’t believe had been forgotten. Everyone knows the story of the Windermere boys — there’s even a movie about it. But nobody knows that there was also a community of girls there that escaped the Holocaust.
“Between 20 and 24 girls were forced to leave their families behind and make the long journey to London — and then hours and hours up to Tynemouth.
“They had never heard of Newcastle. Many had never seen the sea before.”
Led by jeweller David Summerfield and his wife Annie, a committee was formed in Tyneside to open a hostel for the girls, who they considered more vulnerable than the boys.
“This all was arranged by Tynemouth’s small Jewish community, which couldn’t have been very well off and yet undertook the extraordinary responsibility to put together a huge amount of money and care for them for so long,” said Ms Lonsdale, a Northumberland reporter for BBC Radio Newcastle.
“To feed 24 girls for seven years and to pay for a hostel, clothes and necessities, and the wages of two matrons, would’ve cost them in today’s money hundreds of thousands of pounds. I can’t tell you what an extraordinary and long-lasting act of altruism that was.”
The girls were well fed and cared for but, as was the norm at the time, the matrons of the house — celebrated cook Alice Urbach and businesswoman Paula Sieber, both from Austria — operated a strict regime.
The matrons and house staff pose outside the Percy Park house, where the girls lived for about a year
Ms Lonsdale and co-creator Jane Downs added that it was also unusual that the girls were able to stay housed together for so long, rather than being separated.
“It’s easy to imagine that these girls felt like a family and that Tyneside’s Jewish community — which would’ve been likely led by a committee — probably felt a strong commitment to keeping them together, even under difficult circumstances.”
Ms Downs, a BBC producer, explained that “none of the girls stayed in the area. So the memory of the girls fell by the wayside and was almost forgotten completely, both by the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.
“For one reason or another, the girls didn’t really want to talk about it and didn’t talk about it for a very long time after they left.
“One thing both Joanna and I picked up on very strongly as we were researching and talking to daughters and granddaughters was this common theme among them: a sense of women just choosing not to dwell on it and to get on with their lives.
“They had a very strong sense that they were the lucky ones because they weren’t in concentration camps. They might’ve lost everything but they were alive and, therefore, had no right to complain about anything that had happened.”
That feeling was most strongly embodied by the youngest of the girls, Inge Hamilton (then Inge Adamecz), who came to the UK from Poland when she was just five years old. Ms Hamilton, who remained in the UK, is one of only three of the girls known to still be alive.
The others are Dasha Caminer, 91 — who was seven when she left Czechoslovakia and now lives in Australia — and Alisa Tennenbaum, who left Vienna, aged ten, and now lives in Israel.
Ms Downs said the reaction to the series had been “heart-warming”. The owner of the Tynemouth building was unaware of its history when he purchased it in 2017 and said that people were taking selfies with the blue plaque that was recently put up on the wall.
“Other people have reached out to say they have lived in Tynemouth all their lives but were unaware of this history and that they’re proud.
“It’s a hard story in many ways but uplifting in that this small local community so far from London thought: ‘We can’t sit by and let this happen’ and so they did something about it.”
The five-part series, The Girls: The Holocaust Safe House, is on BBC Sounds