The Southampton Boys

The second group of the Boys arrived in the UK in late October and early November 1945. The children were selected from three different locations: the displaced persons’ camp in Belsen-Hohne in the British occupied zone of Germany, the Feldafing Displaced Persons’ Camp and the Kloster Indersdorf International DP Children’s Camp, both in the US zone in Bavaria.

BACKGROUND

It is widely believed that the Central British Fund could not find 1,000 children to fulfil their quota of permits. The story of the Southampton Boys illustrates one of the reasons that the full quota of children was not brought to the UK.

On the ground in Germany there was no scarcity of child Holocaust survivors. The Central British Fund, however, faced considerable opposition to removing the children for recuperation in the UK.

Jewish survivors in the American and British zones of occupation had, by the summer of 1945, begun to organise themselves into an effective lobby, as there had been a revival of Jewish culture and above all Zionism. The Committee of the Liberated Jews of Bavaria and the Committee of the Liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen both lobbied for survivors’ rights and the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and were opposed to moving the children anywhere but Palestine.

It set them on a collision cause with the British government, which had imposed strict limitations on Jewish emigration to Palestine in the 1939 White Paper. After the war the Labour Party promised on the hustings to repeal the White Paper but after their landslide victory refused to do so. No more so was this more evident than in the Belsen-Hohne Displaced Persons’ Camp.

THE BERGEN-BELSEN BOYS

The liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by the British Army was a major news story and shocked the public. The Belsen-Hohne DP camp was the largest in the British occupied zone of Germany and remained so until it closed in 1950. It would have seemed logical that, as it was the British government who had offered 1000 visas to Jewish orphans from the concentration camps, the vast majority of those children would have come from Belsen, but they did not. Only 47 child survivors from the camp became part of the Boys.

BACKGROUND

The Bergen Belsen concentration camp was in northern Germany close to Hanover. The camp was liberated by the 11th Armoured Division of the British Army on 15 April 1945. At this point it had 60,000 inmates as many prisoners had been moved into the camp as the Allies advanced on Germany. Many of the Boys had arrived on death marches in the closing weeks of the war. Disease was rife and there was hardly any food or clean drinking water. Half of those survivors died in the weeks that followed.

The survivors were taken to the nearby Wehrmacht barracks that had been a panzer training school. Hohne is close to Lüneburg Heath, which was and still is used for battle practice. The barracks already housed 15,133 prisoners who had been brought from the Mittlebau-Dora labour camp in the weeks before the liberation. It is likely that this group included some of the Boys.

After liberation the priorities were: to eradicate a severe outbreak of typhus (the concentration camp was burned to the ground in the weeks that followed), bury the dead (a task assigned to the former SS guards) and give urgent medical care to the survivors. A hospital was set up in the DP camp. Many of the Boys were cared for in the Children’s Hospital.

At first German prisoners who had medical training were used as staff, as were survivors, who worked alongside the British Army Medical Corps and the Red Cross. Ninety-seven medical students were also sent from the UK. Among the survivors who cared for the children was Dr Hadassa Bimko, who had looked after children prior to the liberation in the camp. Mala Tribich has said that Bimko saved her life. Tribich was in a group from the Belsen DP camp who were taken to recuperate in Sweden and she came later to the UK to join her brother, Ben Helfgott, who was also one of the Boys. Child survivors were also sent to Switzerland.

The first aid workers were Quakers but also in the group was the first Jewish aid worker to arrive in the camp – Jane Leverson (later Levy). A key role in caring for Jewish survivors was played by the British Army chaplains Rabbi Leslie Hardman and Rabbi Isaac Levy.

Hardman and Levy called on the Jewish community to help by sending supplies and aid workers and were frustrated that the British authorities were slow in granting the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad’s Jewish Relief Unit (JRU) access to the Belsen-Hohne DP camp.

The first JRU volunteers arrived on 21 June 1945. The group was led by Shalom Markovitz. Markovitz was a leading member of Bachad and played a major role in bringing the Boys to UK and organising their care. A second team arrived a few weeks later and a third in August. Helen Balmuth (later Bamber) was part of the JRU. She became a leading psychotherapist and human rights activist and also worked with the Boys in the UK.

In Markowicz’s team were Eva Kahn-Minden, a nurse, who was later the matron of the Quare Mead hostel and Sadie Rurka (later Hofstein), who was a nursery school assistant and had been the only person to volunteer for the post of Child Welfare Officer.

Before Rurka left for Holland and then Germany, she had been given a brief training course at the Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Tavistock Clinic and Anna Freud’s nursery. When she arrived in Belsen, twenty-two-year-old Rurka was put in charge of 83 children under the age of 16 who had no relatives to care for them. She became the matron of the Kinderheim, the children’s home where 47 of the Boys were cared for. Not all of the Boys in the home had been liberated in Belsen and a number, like Chaim Liss, arrived after the liberation.

Rurka spoke Yiddish with the children and was a key player in the founding of the DP camp school. The children in the school were taught in German, which was the only common language. One of the teachers was a Czech survivor Irene Mandel who spoke five languages. It was here that Josef Himmelstein learned to read and write as he had had no schooling since the age of nine. Not only JRU aid workers cared for and taught the Boys but aid workers from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee were also involved.

Rurka later said that the night before the children were due to leave for the UK that she argued late into the night with the head of the Central Committee of the Liberated Jews, Josef Rosensaft. He only agreed to let the children leave after David Ben Gurion, who was on a visit to the camp personally intervened. He promised Rosensaft that all of the children would be resettled in the Palestine Mandate. The Boys who had been given visas for the UK had previously staged a demonstration demanding that they be allowed to leave for Britain.

While the Boys were in the Bergen-Hohne DP camp Jewish survivors were classified by their country origin and were only recognised as a separate group after the Boys had left for the UK. This is clear from the list of the children who came from the British zone as they are listed by nationality unlike those of the second group who arrived at the same time from the American sector.

Shalom Markowitz returned the UK from Belsen before the arrival of the second group of the Boys. He visited staff at Wintershill Hall to brief them. He was appointed to head the hostel in Hemel Hempstead that was prepared to receive a subsequent group from Belsen of 220 children who were not allowed to leave by the Committee of the Liberated Jews. They were supported by the rabbis who opposed the children’s transfer to the UK as some children on the pre-war Kindertransports had not been placed in Jewish homes.

FELDFING DISPLACED PERSONS’ CAMP

In Bavaria, Feldafing Displaced Persons’ Camp was the first such camp reserved only for Jews. At first Holocaust survivors were categorised by nationality and many found themselves in camps alongside their co-nationals who held anti-Semitic views and had even persecuted them in the Nazi concentration camps.

After a campaign by the US Army chaplain, Abraham Klausner, Feldafing became an exclusively Jewish DP camp in July 1945. As with many displaced persons’ camps, it was in a former Nazi base which had held prisoners of war and housed a Hitler Youth summer camp.  There were about 450 teenagers in the camp, who were housed in a children’s barracks.

Feldafing is on Lake Starnberg and Izak Perlmutter, now Ivor Perl, remembers it as an idyllic place and he and his brother spent a lot of time playing about on the shore and swimming in the lake.

Ivor Perl also remembers Rabbi Yekutiel Halberstam, the Klausenberg Rebbe from the Sanz dynasty, who had lost his wife and 11 children in the Holocaust. He devoted his time to rehabilitating the other survivors. He became a father figure to many of the orphaned children in Feldafing. Halberstam held the services at the first New Year and Yom Kippur holidays after the Holocaust.

Both Perl and his brother Abraham Perlmutter, also one of the Boys, wanted to settle in Palestine, like so many of the survivors. Unsure as to what they should do when they heard that a group of youngsters were being taken to Britain, they consulted Halberstam who told them to seize the opportunity. In all, sixty children were brought from Feldafing.

After much negotiation with the Committee of the Liberated Jews of Bavaria, it was finally agreed that those children who had been told they were leaving for Britain would be allowed do so but as survivor Perl remembers the lorries that took them out of the camp left in the middle of the night just in case Zionist activists tried to stop them.

KLOSTER INDERSDORF CHILDRENS’ HOME

Fifty of the Southampton Boys spent the months after the liberation at the childrens’ home in the convent at Kloster Indersdorf near Dachau. The home cared for both Jewish and non-Jewish orphans and run by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

It was the first displaced persons camp dedicated to children in the American zone and was run by Greta Fischer, a Czech Jew who had escaped to London before the war. There she worked for the child psychologist Anna Freud and she brought with her to Indersdorf Freud’s radical new ideas. She spent time listening to the children’s stories and they were encouraged to express their experiences their art and drama.

Photographs were taken of the children that were published in newspapers across the world in the hope that relatives might be found. They were taken by the well-known American photographer Charles Haacker.

It was one of the Boys, Salek Benedict, who had the idea of painting the names on a piece of wood. Benedict would later become a successful graphic artist.

Aid workers belonging to UNRRA also had reservations about sending children to Britain as they did not want to break up the wider groups of friends. As 1945 progressed they decided against sending more children to the UK.

Today, there is a small exhibition in the convent that tells the children’s story.

JOURNEY TO THE UK

The children were flown to Britain from Celle in the British occupied zone of Germany and Munich in American occupied Bavaria. In Munich, where they were given doughnuts by the American soldiers who took them to the airport. Manfred Heyman, one of the Boys, remembered the flight as extremely cold. The children sat on the floor of the plane and he remembers a number of them getting frostbite.

The flights landed in the UK at the Stoney Cross airfield in the New Forest, in southern England, which had been a base for RAF bombers.

Upon arrival, the Boys were met by Leonard Montefiore and Joan Steibel. After arriving in the UK, the group spent time in Wintershill Hall reception centre near Southampton, Hampshire.

 

The Boys:

Source: Arolsen Archives.

Kloster Indersdorf

Documents belonging to Ivor Perl while he was in Feldafing DP camp in Germany.

Rabbi Klausner with survivors in the Landsberg DP camp, 1945.

The second group of the Boys arrives in Southampton.