Wednesday 27 January 2021

Is Britain, on Holocaust Memorial Day, still that country which once gave old men like Arek Hersh and 'The Widermere Children' a home in 1945 ?

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Arek is one of the five old men in the photo below. Like them he has one thing in common : they were all, once, boy refugees who came to Britain 76 years ago at the end of the Second World War. All of them had survived up to 6 years in labour and concentration camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe. All of them had witnessed scenes and experienced hardships which are impossible to imagine. All of them were given a new home and a fresh start in that generous and loving Britain we seem to have lost. Today, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, the BBC screened their story in Simon Block's 'The Windermere Children'.

From left to right : in the programme, refugee :
Chaim ‘Harry’ Olmer is played by Kacper Swietek
Arek Hersh is played by Tomasz Studzinski
Pascal Fischer is played by Ben Helfgott
Marek Wroblewski is played by Sam Laskier
Kuba Sprenger is played by Ike Alterman

Describing the challenge he faced as a writer, Simon said : “Your first instinct is to try to think your way into their heads, but you realise that’s impossible. I can’t imagine what Arek, who was in four different concentration and labour camps including Auschwitz, went through. And not just for a day, but for years. You can’t recreate that trauma; all you can do is reflect how their behaviour may have manifested some of that while they were at Windermere.”

Simon, who also wrote the 2015 BBC drama 'The Eichmann Show' about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, interviewed a dozen Windermere survivors and found that most of them were “very eager to get on with life. They couldn’t bury what happened to them completely because it would come back in their sleep, in their subconscious, but they wanted families and all the rest of that. It was when they retired and they had more time to reflect that it all came barrelling back to them.”

“The Windermere children are the most patriotic people I’ve ever come across. They’re so grateful for the chance they got to start their lives again in the UK, and they want to express that in many ways, by being successful here and paying taxes and raising their families here. Hopefully viewers will think, ‘Well, it’s not impossible to bring people here and help them rather than be scared of those who might be fleeing from terrible experiences.’ We can bring them in, help them and then that’s repaid many times over.”

* * * * * * * 

Arek Herszlikowicz, who is 92, has spent 76 of those years in Britain. Born in 1928 in Sieradz, a garrison town for the Polish Army in West Poland, he spent his first ten years with his Jewish family, his parents, brother and three sisters, supported by his father's income as a bootmaker, much in demand for making army officers’ footwear.

On 1 September 1939 the Germany army attacked Poland. Arek’s family had to leave their home town and stay with relatives in Łódz, a big industrial city similar to Manchester. The 65-km  journey took them three days on foot. Arek remembers seeing the German motorbikes, tanks and planes that far outclassed anything the Polish army had to fight with. He also remembers seeing German soldiers laughing and joking while they humiliated Jewish men by cutting their beards off.

In 1940 the Jews of Łódz had to start wearing the star of David on their outer clothing and soon were forced into a ghetto, where food was rationed and people lived in very cramped conditions. Towards 1941 the authorities came to take Arek’s father to a work camp, but his father and brother both managed to slip away.

Eleven year old Arek was less lucky and was arrested and transported to a labour camp near Poznan to lay railway lines and sleepers for the Poznan-Warsaw Railway, which would speed up the German attack on the Soviet Union. One of his responsibilities was to clean the room of the Camp Commandant, who every day would leave Arek a hunk of bread on his desk and he believes that saved his life and has said :  “We started with 2,500 men. Within 18 months, there were only 11 of us left alive. And I was one of them. Very, very lucky.”

In 1942 Arek was sent back to the Łódz ghetto.  Alone, and without his family, Arek was accepted into the orphanage where he worked in the textile mill and was able to find food.  He stayed there for two years and then in 1944 at the age of 16, was sent to the Death Camp in Auschwitz. On arrival with a transport of children, he lied to the SS officer and told him that that he was 17 years old and a locksmith. This saved his life : “So that’s what I said, and they told me to go to the right side and 180 children all went to the wrong side. And they were murdered.”

He was given a striped suit to wear and was tattooed with the number B7608.  From that day onward Arek lost his name and was only referred to by his number.

Arek was put into a block with political prisoners of different nationalities and had to work as an agricultural labourer for the SS, ploughing fields and fertilising them with ashes from the crematorium. He remembers feeling the bones as he spread the ashes on the ground. He later worked in the fishing commando which involved catching fish from the River Vistula to be transported to Germany for food.

His greatest challenge came early in 1945, when he was evacuated, first on foot, in the bitter cold and in deep snow, to the Buchenwald camp in Germany. Wearing only his thin, striped pyjama, no hat and wooden clogs, he marched for three days with the other prisoners, sleeping at night on the ground. Those who faltered were executed on the spot with a bullet in the back of the head and dumped on the roadside. Arek simply said : "I saw so many bodies." He then went on  "the train of damnation" to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. As he has said : "A whole month on open wagons without food. We ate grass. I ate the leather on my left shoe to keep going. I didn’t swallow but I chewed it.”

He was still only 16 and after arrival in Theresienstadt, expected to be killed at any moment. Then, when the camp was liberated by the Russian Army on 8 May, 1945 he was moved to Prague. On arrival he was selected for the 'Committee for the Care of Children from Concentration Camps', which was set up by the British philanthropist Leonard Montefiore. A leading figure in the Anglo-Jewish Association he had persuaded the British Government to accept 1,000 displaced children aged 8 to 16 and the Home Office had agreed on condition that the funds were found by the Jewish community.

Arek was one of the first intake of a pioneering rehabilitation scheme, in which 650 boys and 80 girls from labour and concentration camps in eastern Europe were transported to the Lake District to find new families and start afresh. He was photographed in Prague in August 1945 before being flown to Britain before on one of a squadron of 10 converted Stirling bombers. The children were organised in groups of 30 to each aeroplane, with 15 sitting on each side on the floor. Arek recounted : “They cut us some bread. We thought it was cake. They gave us each a piece and it was great.” 

After landing at RAF Crosby-on-Eden, near Carlisle, they were driven then driven to the Calgarth Estate in the village of Troutbeck Bridge. A mile from Windermere, it consisted of wartime housing which had been used for workers from the Short Sunderland Aeroplane Factory. The children slept in dormitories with single rooms for older boys, like Arek. After 6 years in the camps, his needs were modest and he recalled :  “Each one had a bed, a chest of drawers. There was everything you needed.”

The immediate priorities for the children were to get clothing and find out about their families. The Red Cross supplied clothes, but they were odd shapes and sizes, so many children walked around in their underwear for a few days until donations of garments from local families started arriving. Arek found out his mother had been gassed and thrown into a mass grave at the Chelmno extermination camp. Of his immediate family, only his older sister Mania had survived, having escaped to the Soviet Union. His father, brother and two other sisters were gone. Like the majority of the children, he was alone.

Mixed with tragic news there were moments of childhood, regained : "Some kids brought us bicycles and they said, ‘Go on, have a ride!’ We didn’t understand what they were saying, but they gave us a bicycle. So we went on the main road, and we were cycling on the right-hand side, so they tooted the horn like mad, shouting from the cars. We didn’t know what they were shouting at us. We couldn’t speak one word of English! But we caught on quite quickly, and we went to the cinemas, sixpence per seat, and it was very nice and we made our own life and things were OK.”

In an age where post-traumatic stress is recognised and alleviated, it seems incredible that at the Calgarth estate, the children received no counselling and instead, were encouraged to swim in the lake, play football, and given basic English lessons. Arek recalled :  “There were three or four boys I had been with in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. We were always together. So I could talk to them, because they had a similar story to mine, but not to anybody else. We just had to suffer. Terrible. I had about 30 years of nightmares. Middle of the night, I used to get a nightmare and so on.”

The Calgarth Estate Programme was designed to be a temporary scheme, running for four months, after which, the younger children would be placed in the care of foster families, and the older ones would live in hostels and prepare for work. Arek moved first to Liverpool with his friends and then Manchester where he trained as an electrician. Eventually, living in Leeds after marrying Jean, he bought and let property, mainly to students. He shortened his name from Herszlikowicz to Hersh in the 1950s because, not unsurprisingly, he was fed up with having to spell it out.

Now, long into his retirement, Arek is involved in education, at schools and universities and with the charity 'March of the Living', which each year organises a walk between the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. In 2009, he was awarded an MBE. “When I first went back to Auschwitz, it was awful for me. I couldn’t get through the gate. But after three attempts I got through and since then I’ve been going there with children and young people to show them the place. I don’t want people to think that it just happened many moons ago, and people forgot about it. I talk to everybody, so young people know that what actually happened to me can happen to anybody. That’s the main reason I do it.”

The Windermere Programme is not as well known as the Kindertransport Initiative, which moved nearly 10,000 mostly Jewish children from Nazi-occupied territories to Britain between 1938 and 1939. At that time, some British politicians, including former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, argued that it was a humanitarian duty. “I have to ask you to come to the aid of the victims, not of any catastrophe in the natural world, not of an earthquake, but of an explosion of man’s inhumanity to man.”

For many years Arek spoke to no one about his Holocaust experience. Neither to his three daughters, nor to Jean, his second wife, whom he married in the early 1970s. Eventually, around 1995, Arek decided to write it all down. The words came slowly : “Two lines a day but I wrote it, and then after that I could speak, I could talk about it.” After he has completed his book, 'A Detail of History', in 1998, he finally began to heal and the nightmares subsided : “It’s left me now. After I wrote the book actually, it left me then.”

On January 9th 2020 : 

The House of Commons has rejected proposals to keep protections for child refugees in the redrafted 'EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill', triggering dismay from campaigners like Lord Alf Dubs, who said it was a “very depressing” development. It is very disappointing that the first real act of the new Boris Johnson government is to kick these children in the teeth. It is a betrayal of Britain’s humanitarian tradition and will leave children who are very vulnerable existing in danger in northern France and in the Greek islands.” 

MPs voted 348 to 252 against the amendment, which had previously been accepted by Theresa May’s Government and which would have guaranteed the right of unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with family members living in the Britain after Brexit. It is certainly no country for a bitterly disappointed Alf Dubs :

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