Tuesday, 28 January 2020
Last night I watched the BBC Two programme, The Windermere Children, about 300 Jewish and largely Polish refugee children who were brought in 1945 from the war-ravaged continent to be re-rehabilitated in the UK.
Some things haven't changed much. The Home Office wasn't all that co-operative and gave them visas for only a year. So it wasn't quite a hostile environment from officialdom, but not all that welcoming either. The scheme was organised by the Jewish philanthropist Leonard Montefiore, he of the pre-war Kindertransport rescue.
There were mistakes. On arrival at a former factory camp which looked from the outside surprisingly like a concentration camp, the children, played in this reconstruction by Polish actors, were ordered to line up, boys on one side and girls on the other, stripped of their clothing, which was burned, and then medically examined.
Must have been very reminiscent of their previous experiences . But we know much more today. Maybe the organisers didn't know then.
After this uncertain start the system worked and supported by love, skilled psychiatry art therapy, education, and loads of bread (which wasn't rationed until July 1946) the children were helped to cope with the horrors of their past and move on to live useful and fulfilling lives, mostly in the UK.
A programme on BBC Four, (TV, not radio) followed in which the some of the surviving participants told of their experiences both in Windermere and subsequently. You can see some of the details discussed at:
Why should I feel so proud of what my country achieved then? After all, it was nothing to do with me. I was only eight and probably didn't know where Windermere was. (there wasn't much travelling cor the likes of me during the war).
But I do feel shame at my country's current indifference to the plight of all refugees, not just children, today. Specifically, last week the Dubs Amendment to accept unaccompanied refugee children with family connections in the UK, which the House of Lords re-inserted into the EU Withdrawal Bill, was again removed by the Johnson government and its 80 seat Commons majority
A letter in yesterday's Guardian form a Bob Finch, points out that practical humane gestures are actually a well established feature of our tradition. He reminds us that in1552 King Edward VI set up Christ's Hospital:
"to take out of the streets all the fatherless children and other poore men's children that were not able to keep them and bring them to the late dissolved house of the Greie ffryers wch they devysed to be an hospital for them where they should have meate, drincke and cloths, lodging and learning and officers to attend upon them."
Mr Finch suggest that the 1 000 unaccompanied refugee children on Lesbos could be shared out between the UK's 500 boarding schools, two apiece. with the government, or charities (most of these schools are charities) footing the bill. Given the memoires of Roald Dahl and others some might dismiss this solution as further child cruelty, but it's probably better than the mud and misery of the camps. (Actually, the Windermere Camp featured an archetypal bullying PE master - so those refuges survived even that. One went on to captain the British Weight-Lifting team at the Olympics).
Since we have a government which determinedly puts its own and the interests of its backers first, what we seem to be lacking is philanthropists of the calibre of Leonard Montefiore to rescue some of today's refugees, and some of our reputation.