For a group of pampered celebrities, it is a place of torture created for our entertainment; there are rats, creepy crawlies, a plumbing system that barely works, no electricity and stone hard beds. But 80 years ago, for 200 Jewish children, Gwrych Castle in Wales was a salvation from almost certain death in Nazi occupied Europe.
The story of the Kindertransport is extraordinary in so many ways but the place of Gwrych Castle — now housing the ever-popular series I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here — in that daring tale of rescue is one of the most fascinating elements.
On November 15 1938, shortly after the horrific events of Kristallnacht, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was convinced he should finally do something to help the Jews of Europe. He allowed for a small number of children under the age of 17 to be granted temporary refuge as long as they were not with their parents.
All sorts of British Jewish organisations helped in the effort to find homes for these youngsters and the 200-year-old castle — belonging to the philanthropic Earl of Dundonald which had already been empty for some years — was leased by the newly formed religious Zionist Bnei Akiva movement; it was a place where the children would not only be safe but could also train in agriculture so they could be pioneers in Palestine.
“The place looked magnificent,” recalls Walter Bingham, now 96, one of the first of the Kindertransportees to reach the castle. His father had already been taken by the Nazis when he was chosen to be rescued by a village elder. Having witnessed Kristallnacht first hand, with his synagogue on fire and the fire crews standing by to ensure only that German houses weren’t set alight, he knew his home was no longer safe for Jews.
Arriving at the 250-acre Gwrych Castle was eye opening. “It was beautiful with a marble staircase, gold panelling everywhere, a dining room with an enormous fireplace. The only problem was nothing worked. There was no heating, no lights and blocked toilets. Everything was completely neglected.”
Bingham, a Polish born Jew who had grown up in Germany, had always been handy at domestic repairs and although he was only 15, he was persuaded to try and sort out the plumbing. “Halfway down the sloping meadow was a manhole which held the key to the blocked drains. I went down there to see if I could find out what was happening. When I opened the manhole, everything spurted into my face. It was terrible.”
At first there weren’t even beds — the children had to sleep on straw on the stone floor until a Quaker group supplied some beds, while oil lamps were used for light.
In ordinary times the youngsters taken to Gwrych would have still been at school. Instead they had to work for their keep. Bingham was set to work sawing wood and then spent time in the locksmith department before getting a job at the local newspaper. Now living in Israel, Bingham holds the Guinness World Record for being the oldest ever radio broadcaster.
In many ways Gwrych was a model for kibbutz life, with the young people growing their own food and sharing tasks in the house. Some of the children who had met at the castle would go on to form Kibbutz Lavi in the Lower Galilee, which still runs today and specialises in making synagogue furniture. In some ways it was idyllic. “I lived on the first floor of the central tower and I would look down on the meadow, at the lambs who had been born and it was beautiful,” says Bingham, who has visited the castle twice since he left, each time seeing it becoming more and more run-down. “It was the closest thing most of us had to any sort of normal youth.”
But it was also a painful time. After the children had been there for a year, those with German passports were rounded up by British police and interned as “enemy aliens” on the Isle of Man or even in camps in Australia.
And the peace of the surroundings — even the kindness of the locals — could never make up for the terrible loss each of the children felt at having to leaving their families.
“It was traumatic for each of us having to leave our parents,” says Bingham. “Being at the train station was awful. You could hear all these cries from younger children wanting their mummies. Our parents were the real heroes; they took their children to the train station never knowing whether they would see them again. Most of them didn’t.
“And that is something that still angers me. I’ve done my job for the British. I won a medal for my part in the D Day landings and I was in the army for five years. But the idea that they would only accept unaccompanied children seems monstrous to me.”
There were fewer than 10,000 Kindertransport children and they were all extraordinary in their own ways. Among the group are four Nobel Prize winners, the Labour Lord Alfred Dubs, celebrated painter Frank Auerbach and the indomitable Walter Bingham, whose CV covers everything from starring as a wizard in the Harry Potter films to being inducted into the French legion of honour.
“We had to all learn to look after ourselves,” says Bingham. “It gave us the tools to stand on our own two feet and make something of the life we had been given.”