James Walton

Understated, unashamedly patriotic and heartbreaking: The Windermere Children reviewed

BBC2’s dramatisation of this little-known story about a group of young Holocaust survivors struck the perfect balance between wonder and restraint

Understated, unashamedly patriotic and heartbreaking: The Windermere Children reviewed
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One of the many astonishing things about the BBC2 drama The Windermere Children (Monday) was that the real-life story it told isn’t better known already. In August 1945, 300 Jewish children, who just a short time before had been starving in Nazi concentration camps, arrived at a converted seaplane factory in the Lake District. None, as far as they knew, had any family left, and none could speak any English. Waiting to welcome them was Leonard Montefiore of the Central British Fund for Jewish Relief who’d raised the money to turn the factory into a carefully thought-out rehabilitation centre — and amid the wreckage of Eastern Europe had liaised with the Red Cross, the RAF, the Czech authorities and the British Home Office to fly them in. He’d also assembled an impressive team of people who were given four months to ‘return the children to civilisation’. Oscar Friedmann (Thomas Kretschmann), himself a refugee from the Nazis, was a pioneer in the newfangled discipline of child psychology; Marie Paneth (Romola Garai), an art therapist before art therapy even had a name; Jock Lawrence (Iain Glen), a Scottish PE teacher of the old school, much given to blowing his whistle and demanding 20 press-ups. (The child actors, incidentally, were at no point outshone by these starry grown-ups.)

Yet, despite Montefiore’s assiduous preparations, it was soon clear how haunted these children were. When asked to divide into boys and girls and strip off their dirty clothes, they immediately suspected another Selektion. At their first meal, they took one look at the baskets of bread, grabbed as much of it as they could and ran back to their bedrooms to hide it under their pillows.

Gradually, however, their heartbreaking sense of disorientation at being treated kindly gave way to the realisation that it wasn’t a cruel trick: they really did have comfortable beds, plenty to eat and the freedom to roam the countryside. The teachers, meanwhile, had their own lessons to learn. Marie began her work in a spirit of cool scientific inquiry, but faced with the horror of what the children painted abandoned her objectivity in favour of cuddling them. Once their English developed, Jock discovered that calling boys ‘son’ didn’t sound so affectionate when the boys in question had seen their parents murdered.

Through all of this, Simon Block’s script struck a perfect balance between wonder and restraint, on the whole letting the material speak for itself, while also giving us several individual stories to follow (and to emphasise that these children remained individuals, however brutal the attempts to erase their identities). He was equally deft with telling details. In one early scene, Jock introduced himself to a teenage boy and made the universal gesture for ‘and you?’ ‘B7608,’ the boy replied, rolling up his sleeve to show his camp tattoo. At night, the adults would gather outside the huts for a quiet summer-evening smoke where the tranquillity was broken only by the background murmur of the children’s night terrors.

The same understatement even applied to the sections where various locals expressed their disapproval of ‘having to accommodate these foreigners’. Instead of a Doctor Who-style clunk over our collectively guilty heads about modern attitudes to immigration, these felt more like a quietly jolting reminder of how little the Holocaust was then understood.

In fact, this was one of the more unashamedly patriotic dramas of recent times — especially in the big finish where some of the children gathered by the lake and were joined by their real-life counterparts as they are now: which is to say, filled with gratitude towards the country where they’ve since built their lives. Ben Helfgott, whose athletic potential we’d seen Jock spotting, became captain of the British weightlifting team at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics — and is now Sir Ben. Sam Laskier, the most sceptical and least reachable of the children, turned up as a beaming nonagenarian who explained that ‘When I show my British passport, I know who I am.’

Of course, one problem with fact-based dramas, however good, is wondering just how fact-based they are. On Monday, though, BBC4 instantly came to the rescue, by broadcasting The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words straight afterwards. Here, the people we’d seen, and some that we hadn’t, confirmed in accents that touchingly blended Mitteleuropean with northern English that Windermere was where ‘good things started’ in their lives — or, as Sam put it, where they went from ‘hell to heaven’. He finished by telling us how he’d celebrated his 90th birthday with a slap-up family meal in Windermere, although even then he couldn’t fully banish his past. As he proudly displayed the childhood photos of his kids and grandkids, he added that he can never look at them without remembering what the Germans once did to children of the same age.