Every now and then, something comes along that reminds you just how powerful television can be; just how much it can touch you and move you, leaving you emotionally battered and yet profoundly grateful for the experience of having watched. The Windermere Children is one such drama.
It is the summer of 1945, and several buses packed with exhausted Polish kids have just arrived in the Lake District. They are child survivors of the Holocaust, liberated from the Nazi death camps after having experienced unimaginable horrors, and now they are here in post-war England with just the clothes on their backs. Their families have almost entirely been wiped out. They have nowhere else to go. So what comes next?
On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, this drama – which closely follows the extraordinary real-life story of the Windermere children – will air in the UK on BBC Two at 9pm. It’s also set to go out simultaneously on German TV station ZDF, which seems like an excellent way to mark Holocaust Memorial Day across both nations.
As the traumatised and wary children arrive at their temporary new home near Lake Windermere, they are welcomed by the project’s philanthropist and fundraiser Leonard Montefiore (Tim McInnerny) and a progressive psychologist named Oscar Friedmann (Thomas Kretschmann) whose job it is to help the survivors recover and re-enter society. Also joining the team are art therapist Marie Paneth (Romola Garai) and sports coach Jock Lawrence (Iain Glen) who are convinced of the healing properties of paints and footballs (respectively).
Once they arrive, some of the children are worried that this facility – with rows and rows of workers’ accommodation – may be yet another concentration camp, another trap. When they are given bread, there is a mad dash to hide it in pockets and beneath mattresses in case there is no more food; when they go to sleep, there are night terrors and terrible memories. One boy answers an enquiry about his name by showing the tattoo on his forearm. Each child is desperately waiting for news from the Red Cross about whether any loved ones have survived at all. Reader, I bawled my eyes out.
But there is also hope and joy to be found, because the survivors have such determination to grab hold of this chance to live their lives – which is what makes The Windermere Children so particularly affecting. They ride bikes! They swim in the lake! They flirt with local girls! They learn English, and form friendships, and have a laugh! They nick a bunch of eggs for a fry-up and get into trouble!
Out of the 300 kids who were brought to the Lake District, writer Simon Block has honed in on a group of teenagers. They are played with brilliance by a bunch of up-and-coming young actors, and they are Arek Hersh (played by Tomasz Studzinski), Sala Feiermann (Anna Maciejewska), Ike Alterman (Kuba Sprenger), Sam Laskier (Marek Wrobelewski), Chaim ‘Harry’ Olmer (Kacper Swietek), and future Olympic weightlifter Ben Helfgott (Pascal Fischer).
Seventy-five years on, time has already taken away most of the those with first-hand experience of the Holocaust. As elderly survivors gather to mark the anniversary, these is an awareness (spoken and unspoken) that this may be the last time, and that each passing year robs us of the chance to hear their stories. Even the very youngest of those rescued from the camps – like Bela Rosenthal, who was only three – are now getting on in years. Many of the real Windermere children who’ve shared their memories with The Lake District Holocaust Project over the last 15 years have since passed away.
But at a special screening in London, the real-life Arek and Ike and Harry and Bela and Sam and Ben all gathered once more to watch their stories play out on screen. They were chosen as central characters for the TV drama, and they also tell share their memories in the (very good) documentary which airs at 10.30pm on BBC Four.
After the credits rolled, Ike stood up. “On behalf of the survivors, I want to thank each and everyone who’s been involved in this project,” he said. “And what we’ve seen tonight – well, it’s just like starting all over again.” Each of the survivors gave their verdict in turn, and it was impossible not to be moved.
“Well, the film was very well made. Very realistic,” Arek added. “What can I say? It made me weep a bit from time to time.”
The Windermere Children will be broadcast on BBC Two on 27th January 2020 at 9pm