The BBC’s The Windermere Children is a moving portrait of the children who survived the Holocaust

As this BBC drama makes clear, the adults who survived Nazi camps remembered life before the war. But the children had no prior memories to cling to.

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In August 1945 the British government gave refuge to 732 child survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. Three hundred of these children, every one of whom had lost most, if not all, of their families, were sent to the Calgarth Estate by Lake Windermere, where a team of counsellors was waiting, hoping to rehabilitate them. The volunteers were overseen by a child psychologist, Oscar Friedmann, and among them were an art therapist, a football coach, and a rabbi-cum-English teacher. Together, they had just four months in which to do their seemingly impossible work.

The Windermere Children (27 January, 9pm), a drama by Simon Block about this project, to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, is in many ways pedestrian – its direction (by Michael Samuels) a touch predictable, its script too explicatory. Then again, how else to tell a story like this one, but straightforwardly and from the heart? Watching it, I came to regard its longueurs as necessary breathing spaces and its lapses into sentimentality as forgivable. We’re entering a time of forgetting, and we must do whatever it takes to remind the next generation of what is involved when horror takes over; when a country, or a people, loses its mind and its morals. For some, a film like this is about remembrance. But for others – more and more as the years go by – it will involve learning. Some lessons are understood more easily without so-called art getting in the way.

Just as there are no words to describe what happened in the camps – or no adequate words – so I find myself quailing slightly at the thought of putting down what I saw on screen. This is a hard thing to admit. I was at school in Israel at the beginning of the Eighties, when it was still common to see, at barbecues, tattooed numbers on people’s arms; my holocaust education was rigorous and took place early. Until last week, however, I’d never thought deeply about the children. As The Windermere Children makes clear, the adults who survived remembered life before the war, but the children had no prior memories to cling to, as if to a life raft. In art therapy lessons, supervised by their increasingly distressed teacher, Marie Paneth (Romola Garai), their paintings depict endless black skies and stick people with nooses around their necks.

The counsellors, as portrayed here, were kind, patient and outwardly serene. But the treatment of trauma was then in its infancy and inadvertent mistakes were made. The children’s accommodation, for example, in low buildings once occupied by aircraft workers, reminded them of what they’d so recently escaped; so, too, did the roll calls, the medical examinations and the tent in which they were de-loused in clouds of white spray.

The children’s behaviour, ingrained and savage, shocks even Friedmann (a fine, restrained performance by Thomas Kretschman), a vision of hell suddenly ushered into the room. When bread is served, they grab all they can carry, hurtling to their rooms to eat quickly and alone. The younger ones, barely older than toddlers, sleep huddled in a row on the floor beneath a single bunk; on encountering a tiny dog in a nearby wood, they run and hide beneath the bracken in terror. A local kid, high on the defeat of “Fritz”, performs a swaggering Nazi salute in front of one of the boys. The boy in question pees himself on the spot.

Through all this, I didn’t cry. I wouldn’t allow the solace of tears. But then, in the film’s last moments, five old men appear. Soft-faced, they address the camera directly, in faint Polish accents. “The good things started in Windermere,” says Chaim Olmer. “I felt like living again,” says Arek Hersh, MBE. “I was not alone anymore,” says Sir Ben Helfgott. “Windermere was my first home in England,” says Schmiel “Sam” Laskier. “We will be forever grateful to the British government,” says Icek “Ike” Alterman. Listening to these voices, I felt tiny and immeasurably lucky, deeply ashamed. All the things – the pathetic things – that I find so hard to endure! But I was dumbfounded, too: by the human spirit and the way that it moves, sometimes at a crawl and sometimes at a gallop, towards the light. And then, yes, I wept. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 29 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out

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