'Special club' is where Shoah survivors found their family

The Primrose Club and now the '45 Aid Society continue to be a lifeline and source of pride


45 AID 2023 Dinner 13473. Photo John Rifkin

Almost 80 years ago, an 18-year-old Holocaust survivor newly arrived in the UK, bumped into someone he had known during the war. They had not seen each other in years - and certainly not in England.

They let out shouts of joy as they recognised each other and caught up on lost time. The young man described how lonely he felt and in turn, his friend told him about a special club he belonged to and encouraged him to visit.

This 18-year-old had been through the unimaginable: the Lodz Ghetto, the notorious Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, Stutthof concentration camp and later, a death march before his liberation.  He had come to England to join his mother, who he thought had died years earlier.

After the chance reunion with his wartime friend, this young man decided to visit this “special club”. It proved to be a significant moment - he was welcomed with open arms into the Primrose Club. This man was Holocaust survivor Zigi Shipper and as Zigi used to say, this was where he found his family and this moment represented a homecoming.

The Primrose Club was made up of fellow Holocaust survivors, people with whom he never had to put on a brave face; people who always understood. And there, he met someone else – a young woman called Jeannette, who would go on to become Zigi’s wife of 65 years.

The Primrose Club was founded on the ashes of the Holocaust. It was started by the Boys – a group of child orphans who survived the unimaginable horrors of Nazi Europe and who had come to the UK to rebuild their lives, first arriving in beautiful Windermere. They learnt English, upported each other through life’s ups and downs and they created a new family, more connected than any I have ever known. At the centre of this family was the indomitable Sir Ben Helfgott – Holocaust survivor, Olympic champion and founding member of what would become the ‘45 Aid Society.

This was established by members of the Primrose Club and ensured Holocaust survivors in the UK had the support they needed. In later years, it has given generously to numerous other causes. Built with the determination and vision of Sir Ben, its chairman for over 50 years, its work continues today. It’s now led by the next generation with the incredible Angela Cohen, whose father Moishe Malenicky was one of the Boys, at the helm.

Every year, the society holds a special reunion around the anniversary of the Boys’ liberation. Survivors, their children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren eat, drink and celebrate. These are the most joyful, life affirming people to be around – the minute the band plays everyone is on the dance floor. There is no holding back. And this year was no exception. The Chief Rabbi gave a hugely powerful tribute to the courage and humanity of the survivors. The survivors who were there barely stopped smiling.  

Amongst the joy, we couldn’t help but be reminded of the sorrow; all that the survivors had to endure to be part of this exclusive club that no one would want to join; and the absence of those who had been such a part of the ‘45 Aid Society.

But despite the sorrow, I take comfort in knowing that their legacy is secure. Whether in their sons and daughters sharing their parents’ stories, or in the toddlers in the centre of the dance floor, the Boys and the family they have created will endure for generations to come.

Karen Pollock is chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust

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