What happened to the Jewish orphans who were brought to Britain in 1945?
The stories of the 732 orphans – of which only 80 were girls – who were taken in by the British government are now being recorded in ‘Memory Quilts’ at the Jewish Museum
For the Daily Telegraph January 27 2016
Bela Rosenthal was three years old when she came to Britain in August 1945. She spoke no English and even her German was limited to a few words, dog and soup.
Born in Berlin, Bela was the youngest of six Jewish orphans liberated from the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia in April 1945.
Her mother – whose name the toddler didn’t even know until years later – had died in the camp in March 1944, her father had been killed in Auschwitz the year before. In June 1945, the six were taken to houses outside Prague, while the Red Cross searched to see if there were still any surviving relations of the children.
When none were found on August 15 1945, Bela became one of 301 children aboard a Lancaster bomber, bound for England.
Nine flights full of Jewish orphans left that day, making Bela part of an exclusive club – “The Boys” – known as such because out of the 732 orphans who were taken in by the British government to make new lives, just 80 of them were girls.
Bela’s story, and those of the original 732, together with some “honorary Boys”, has now been woven into four extraordinary Memory Quilts, put together by the sons and daughters of the orphan survivors, the Second Generation. The four quilts are currently on show in London’s Jewish Museum and are destined to go on display in Britain’s proposed Holocaust Museum which many hope will open next year.
Julia Burton, one of the organisers of the Memory Quilts, in which every square tells a story, laughs as she recalls growing up “with a lot of short Jewish uncles”. Deprived of their own biological families, “the Boys” turned themselves into their own extended family.
While the youngest were sent to live with Jewish families, those who arrived in their late teens were first sent to hostels at Lake Windermere and nearby areas before finding places to work – which many of them sought to do as soon as they could. While some headed to London or even further afield – their network was quickly established as a substitute family.
No occasion, big or small, was complete without ‘the Boys’ on hand. What they had lost, they quickly reinstated.
Mala Tribich, 85, born in Poland, is proud to call herself an “honorary Boy”. She suffered the whole gamut of Nazi cruelty, from incarceration in a ghetto, to hiding with a Christian family, to slave labour and time in two concentration camps.
Her mother and sister were killed in December 1942 while her father was shot four days before the end of the war after trying to escape from the death march in Buchenwald. After being liberated from Belsen in April1945, Mala was sent to Sweden, but her brother Ben Helfgott, who had survived the camps, found her name on a Red Cross list of survivors and sent for her to join him in London.
“We were very confused, there was no explanation of what was happening. The hardest thing of all was to get used to having grown-ups around. In the camp we only saw grown-ups when there was food”.
Aged 16 and knowing no-one except her brother – who went on to captain Britain’s weightlifting team at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 – Mala found solace in London’s Primrose Club, established by the Boys after their arrival in Britain. “They became my substitute family,” she says.
“There were dances, talks – life would have been much more difficult without the Boys. I was too old to go back to school, so I learned English and enrolled at secretarial college”. Later, she took a degree in sociology and, like so many of the Boys, now spends time speaking in schools for the Holocaust Educational Trust.
In 1963 the Boys – led by Mala’s brother, Ben – established the 45 Aid Society, which has since raised thousands for other children’s charities, such as Barnado’s. It is now the Second Generation of the 45-ers which, with the quilts, is breathing new life into the organisation’s work.
Lili Stern Pohlmann’s Memory Quilt square gives little indication of the privations and hardships she suffered before arriving in Britain. Born in Lvov in 1930 and brought up in Krakow, in Poland, the young Lili’s life was saved by two remarkable non-Jews. One was a German woman civilian attached to the Nazi occupying forces in Lvov, Irmgard Wietch. And the other was the Greek Catholic Archbishop of the city, Andrey Sheptytsky.
Until she was ordered back to Germany in 1943, Frau Wietch had sheltered Lili and her mother, together with several other Jews. After that, the Archbishop took 150 Jews into his palace, and sheltered them there and in an orphanage until liberation.
Lili and her mother Cecylia Stern made their way back to Krakow, but in March 1946 a charismatic rabbi from London, Dr Solomon Schonfeld, arrived trying to rescue any surviving Jews. On Lili’s 16th birthday, March 29 1946, she and 109 other children arrived at Tilbury Docks to begin their new life in England.
With money raised by Dr Schonfeld, Lili was sent to boarding school in 1947 and, like Mala, soon gravitated to the Primrose Club and “the Boys”. Of her time at boarding school she says: “I was in a foreign country and longed to be with my own people”.
Her mother eventually joined her in 1947 and they were both reunited with her German saviour, Frau Wietch, after she wrote to the London police to see if they knew of Lili and her mother’s whereabouts. For them all it was a happy ending – the Sterns brought Frau Wietch to the UK and stayed close to her until her death.
For little Bela, too, there was also a resolution of a sort. In October 1945 her and her fellow five orphans were sent to a house in Sussex, Bulldogs Bank, where two German-Jewish sisters, Sophie and Gertrud Dann, looked after them. “We were very confused, there was no explanation of what was happening. The hardest thing of all was to get used to having grown-ups around. In the camp we only saw grown-ups when there was food”.
The children took all the habits of the camp with them, including how they took on different roles where each would pretend to be the grown-ups in the family. Fascinated by their interaction, the psychologist Anna Freud, did an academic study on the orphans.
Eventually the Jewish community decided that the six were ready to be adopted. “So we went on various ‘sale or return’ weekends, going to different families to see if they liked us. We were never asked if we liked them”, Bela remembers. Eventually she was separated from her siblings and adopted by a childless Jewish couple from London; pretending they were her natural parents, they changed her name to Joanna and would not let her stay in touch with the other five.
It took 30 years for Joanna Millan, as she had then become known, to be reunited with her original orphans after an American academic read Anna Freud’s study and tracked down all six children. A longing for further family connections took her back to Theresienstadt where she found her mother’s records and through a missing persons’ website also found some cousins. “Nobody was looking for me, because it was assumed I was dead.”
Through lecturing on her story for the Holocaust Educational Trust, Joanna became reunited with the Boys. Her bluebell-strewn quilt square represents “myself as a young girl alone, arriving in a strange country”.
For Joanna, as for many of the “Boys”, the Memory Quilt project and 45 Aid Society have helped her find her place in society and mark the huge debt they owe Britain. And show others how their exclusive club eventually turned into one enormous family.
Mala Tribich and Joanna Millan speak on behalf of the Holocaust Educational Trust. For more information, please visit www.het.org.uk