The Real Story of How Hundreds of Young Holocaust Survivors Were Rehabilitated in Postwar Britain

Over 700 Jewish orphans were given a chance to rebuild their lives after the Shoah. But many details of how the group known as ‘The Boys’ came to England, and often later left, remained unknown – until now

Rosie Whitehouse
Rosie Whitehouse
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Some of "The Boys" arriving at the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia during the camp's liberation, May 1945.
Some of "The Boys" arriving at the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia during the camp's liberation, May 1945.Credit: Reproduction : Rosie Whitehouse
Rosie Whitehouse
Rosie Whitehouse

On her sunny balcony in Kfar Sava, Judy Pasternak, 56, shows me her most treasured possession: a battered, maroon-colored notebook that belonged to her father, Jacob Glicksohn. On its pages, neat, cursive writing tells the story of how the son of a cobbler from Czestochowa, Poland, survived slave labour, concentration camps and a grueling month-long train journey in freezing, open-top wagons with nothing to eat. Affixed to one page is an image of three teenage boys crouched in the corner of a wagon, not far from a corpse, taken a few weeks before the end of the war.

While on the train, Glicksohn had a dream in which his father told him his forthcoming birthday would be his best ever. On May 8, 1945, he turned 18 and was liberated from the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp-ghetto in Czechoslovakia by the Red Army.

Glicksohn wrote the diary in the spring of 1946, while recuperating at a supervised institutional residence in Loughton, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) northeast of central London. He had been brought to Britain in August 1945 by the Central British Fund (now World Jewish Relief) as one of some 300 young Holocaust survivors. After a period in northern England’s Lake District, the youngsters were sent to live in institutional shelters across Britain.

They were chosen from 2,000 young survivors in Theresienstadt and would go on to form a tight-knit friendship group known as “The Boys.” (Careworkers at the Central British Fund began to use the term not long after the youngsters arrived from Czechoslovakia, and the name stuck.) Although their story was told by British historian Martin Gilbert in the 1996 book “The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity,” many aspects of their story remained unknown – even to the group members themselves.

Judy Pasternak with her father Jacob Glicksohn's postwar notebook, at her home in Kfar Sava, Israel. Credit: Rosie Whitehouse

Unified group

In November 2018, I was approached by the ’45 Aid Society, the Boys’ own association, to find out more about the 731 youngsters who were eventually brought to Britain. For six months I scoured archives in London and Prague, and spent many hours talking to survivors and their families. To my surprise, no one had ever compiled a list of all the children brought to the United Kingdom in the program, nor asked how the initial 300 were selected to come to Britain.

A number of the child survivors brought to Theresienstadt by the Nazis in the closing days of the war had formed close friendships in the camps, but as yet they were not one unified group. It was the actions of three young men from Piotrkow, Poland, that would kick-start things. Sam and Isidore Rosenblat had survived the war, and became aware that there were many unattached and bewildered orphans wandering around the camp. They managed to house the teenagers in a separate barracks at Theresienstadt, with Sam and Isidore moving in to oversee the boys and girls. Isaac Finkelstein, who had survived with his younger brother Sevek Finkelstein (now Sidney Finkel), joined them. As a result, the group became a unified entity that could easily be transported as a unit.

As the repatriation of survivors to their homelands got underway in May 1945, BBC reporter David Graham arrived in Theresienstadt. His radio dispatches brought news of the survivors’ plight to the attention of the British public, just as the Jewish philanthropist Leonard Montefiore was asking the British Home Office to offer 1,000 Jewish orphans the chance of a new life in Britain.

It was agreed that Britain’s Royal Air Force, which was repatriating Czech servicemen who had served with the Allies, would fly the youngsters to Britain on the return flights, to be cared for by the Central British Fund. Edith Lauer, a former prisoner at Theresienstadt who now oversaw the care of all the youngsters there, was tasked with drawing up the list of 300 children (the total that could be fitted into the planes). She was to fly in the last of the airlifts with the youngest children.

Jacob Glicksohn's notebook featuring the photo of him and two other teenage boys in the corner of an open-top wagon, near a corpse, taken a few weeks before the end of the war in Europe, April 1945.Credit: Rosie Whitehouse

Forever grateful

Their story was told recently in the BBC drama “The Windermere Children,” which recounted the youngsters’ experiences as they started to rebuild their lives in the Lake District under the supervision of a team led by German child psychologist Oscar Friedmann.

It was a rescue mission that left the youngsters in awe and forever grateful to the British. Not one single member of the group I have spoken has a bad word for the Central British Fund, and Leonard Montefiore in particular.

However, the British government was not quite as generous as many might believe. As had been the case with the Kindertransports that brought thousands of imperiled Jewish children to Britain between 1938 and 1940 – not a penny of taxpayers’ money was given toward the children’s recuperation. Money to care for the youngsters, some of whom were toddlers, had to be raised privately and came largely from the Jewish community.

A scene from the BBC's "The Windermere Children."Credit: BBC

The youngsters were issued with visas – and there were strict stipulations on who could receive them. The children admitted to the United Kingdom had to be orphans under the age of 16. There were 40 children under the age of 12 among the 300 who arrived in August 1945, but the vast majority were teenage boys who, like Glicksohn, lied about their age. (They had no identification papers to prove otherwise.)

Researching the story of the Boys, I have heard on countless occasions from the survivors and those involved in caring for them that there were only 80 girls in the group. But when I made a list of their names from their easily identifiable Displaced Persons numbers, it revealed that 190 of the total number of children brought to the United Kingdom were in fact girls. Where the 80 number came from remains a mystery.

The Boys who arrived in 1945 were cared for in 30 institutional shelters, many in large manor houses scattered across the country. The warden and housekeeper played the parental roles and meals were taken together in the dining hall, offering some semblance of family life.

The Central British Fund was determined to integrate the children into British society as quickly as possible. Montefiore wanted his charges to look like English gentlemen, and they were issued with suits from the high street clothing retailer Burton, identical to those given to discharged British soldiers. The girls were given secondhand dresses and women’s suits.

Learning English was a top priority, as the Central British Fund planned to resettle the children in Canada and other dominions of the British empire. Even more important, it was the only way they could find out who the children were and what their hopes were for the future. Glicksohn and his fellow teenage survivors in Loughton were given a Polish-English dictionary and a copy of the Jewish Chronicle, and basically left to their own devices.

They were also encouraged to take up a hobby. Glicksohn chose stamp collecting – a choice that would change his life: One day, in an effort to improve his English, he translated a small ad in the Jewish Chronicle from a Margaret Raphael, a young Jewish lady in Burma (now Myanmar) who was looking for someone she could exchange stamps with. The letters led to a long-distance love affair, an invitation to Rangoon and then a wedding.

Jacob Glicksohn pictured in the United Kingdom, date unknown. Like many of the other Boys, he would not make Britain his home and eventually moved to Israel with his family in 1970.Credit: Reproduction : Rosie Whitehouse

Lifelong friendships

Like many others in the group, Glicksohn would not make Britain his home – primarily because the visas given to the youngsters were for only two years. No sooner had they learned English and acclimatized to their new home than they were on the move again – to places like Canada, the newly established State of Israel, Argentina, Colombia and the United States.

Despite this, the Boys forged lifelong friendships and, when they had children, they became an extended family that stayed in touch through the ’45 Aid Society. Founded in 1963, it was not just a social organization but a way of supporting members who had fallen on hard times. However, many of the group would die young due to illnesses related to their Holocaust experiences. For example, when Fischel Kampel died of leukemia in 1965 at age 35 in north London, the doctors told his wife the illness had been brought on by his exposure to dangerous chemicals in a forced labor camp.

The society also publishes an annual journal, which played a key role in Glicksohn’s life. Although most of his family perished in the Treblinka extermination camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, Glicksohn had managed to stay with his older brother Manuel until they were separated in 1943, his daughter Judy Pasternak relates. Although Jacob looked for his brother after the war, he did not know that Manuel had changed his name to Mendel in memory of their youngest brother, who was 7 years old when he was murdered by the Nazis. Nor did Manuel know that his brother had changed the spelling of his name from Jakub Glikson to Jacob Glicksohn.

In 1968, Pasternak says, one of the Boys was reading a copy of the ’45 Aid Society journal in a bar in São Paulo, Brazil. He left it on the bar when he went to the restroom. Mendel Glikson happened to be sitting at the bar and started flicking through the newsletter. He pointed out a picture to a friend, saying that if his brother had survived he would have looked like that. At that moment, the owner of the journal returned and was happy to tell Glikson it actually was his long-lost brother. The brothers were reunited a year later in Brazil.

“The Boys were everything to my father, and when we came to Israel in 1970 they did everything to help him,” says Pasternak. “One of the Boys, David Hirschfeld, gave me a puppy,” she adds.

The Glicksohns’ first family home was on Habanim St. (“Boys St.” in Hebrew), block 5, apartment 8 (for May 8), in Kfar Sava. Jacob Glicksohn “chose it without seeing it, as he felt the address was a lucky sign,” Pasternak relates. Sadly, Jacob died at age 59, but his daughter recalls that not long afterward, one of the Boys arrived from London with an envelope full of cash for her widowed mother.

Polish-born Hirschfeld (née David Hirszfeld, in 1929) had survived six forced labor and concentration camps, and was one of the first of the Boys to volunteer to fight in the Haganah (the underground, pre-independence army of Mandatory Palestine’s Jews). He did so without telling his brother Moniek – the only other member of his family to survive the Holocaust – as “it was an illegal activity and I didn’t want to influence him to take a similar risk,” he later wrote in a statement for the historian Martin Gilbert. “It might be difficult to understand why people like us who were barely saved from extermination would volunteer,” he added, explaining that it was “essential for the Jewish people to have a place of their own, where they can protect themselves and have their own armed forces.” In his book, Gilbert wrote that 40 of the Boys fought in Israel’s War of Independence.

Lodz-born Mendel Silberstein, now 93, also survived six forced labor and concentration camps during the Holocaust. He would go on to serve in five Israeli wars as a medical officer, starting with the 1948 war. I met him in his Tel Aviv apartment last March, where he proudly showed off pictures of himself wearing his Israel Defense Forces uniform with other members of the group. He stopped and inquired, “How is my English after all these years? I rarely speak it.” He then turned the page of his photo album to reveal the same image as that sitting in Glicksohn’s old diary – the three young men cowered together in the open-top wagon. “The group was my family,” he said.

Mendel Silberstein while serving in the Israeli army in the late 1940s.Credit: Reproduction : Rosie Whitehouse

Rocky relationship

“The Windermere Children” focuses on the stories of the survivors who eventually settled in Britain. It glosses over the fact that, days after the liberation of Thereseinstadt, when the Red Cross asked the Boys where they wanted to start a new life, the overwhelming majority replied “Palestine” (according to their files at the Central British Fund and International Tracing Service, which is now known as the Arolsen Archives). Many opted for an escape route to Britain in the hope of being fast-tracked to Mandatory Palestine, which was then part of the British empire. Gilbert noted in “The Boys” that many were also learning Hebrew during their initial years in Britain. And my research shows that, while it is impossible to state a precise figure, less than half of the Boys eventually settled in the United Kingdom.

In fact, the story of the Boys is not just one of rehabilitating concentration camp victims, but of the rocky postwar relationship between the United Kingdom and Jewish communities in Britain and worldwide as its empire collapsed. While the British Home Office was offering visas to Jewish children to rehabilitate in the United Kingdom, the Foreign Office was maintaining the strict limitations imposed on Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine in the White Paper of 1939.

As Glicksohn wrote in his diary in the safety of Loughton in 1946, survivors – many of them young children – were desperately trying to make their way to Mandatory Palestine on overcrowded immigrant ships. These were raided by the British Royal Navy and the refugees interned in Atlit detention center, near Haifa. Many of the Boys who were lucky enough to discover a relative had survived the war would locate them festering in displaced persons camps in Germany and Austria, unable to get visas to travel anywhere.

Glicksohn’s journal also contains photos of the first mass demonstration by the Jewish community in Britain, held in London’s Trafalgar Square. It followed the arrest of the Jewish leadership in Mandatory Palestine during Operation Agatha in June-July 1946, when the Jewish insurgency began to claim the lives of British soldiers. It tested the loyalty of British Jews, those who were caring for the Boys in institutions across the country and the survivors’ relationship with their new home.

The July 1946 demonstration in London's Trafalgar Square by the Jewish community, following the arrest of the Jewish leadership in British Mandatory Palestine.Credit: Reproduction : Rosie Whitehouse

Although the British government offered 1,000 visas to child Holocaust survivors, only 731 places were ever taken up – and not the more commonly quoted 732. During my research, I discovered that two children ran away from the final transport heading for the United Kingdom in June 1946, while a boy managed to sneak in and take one of the places.

It was widely believed by the survivors that the remaining 269 visas went unused because no more children could be found to fill the quota. But Central British Fund papers held in the London Metropolitan Archives tell a different story.

In Germany, the Central British Fund faced considerable opposition to bringing young survivors to Britain from Displaced Persons camps following the first successful airlift. In October 1945, a transport of 120 child survivors from Munich was almost prevented from leaving by the Committee for the Liberated Jews in Bavaria, who wanted all orphaned child survivors to be taken to Mandatory Palestine. The children were only allowed to leave after a rabbi intervened, members of the Boys told me, arguing that if the children had been promised they were being taken to Britain, it was important that this pledge be kept. (Many youngsters still believed that this was the fastest way to reach Mandatory Palestine.)

A scene from the BBC's "The Windermere Children." It was widely believed that 80 girls were among the group of 731 youngsters rehabilitated in Britain, but the actual number was 190. Credit: BBC

In Bergen-Belsen, the Central Committee of Liberated Jews stopped a transport of over 200 children leaving for Britain when they teamed up with rabbis in the Displaced Persons camp who did not want to see the children placed in non-Jewish homes – as had been the case with children brought over by the Central British Fund on the 1938-1939 Kindertransports.

As a result, the Central British Fund returned its attention to Czechoslovakia, where the story of the Boys shines an interesting light on the history of the crucial years between the end of the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel.

Breaking point

In his elegant sitting room in Tel Aviv, art collector and gallery owner Meir Stern reflects on his story as one of the Boys. He arrived in Britain in June 1946, on the last transport of child survivors organized by the Central British Fund. He was fleeing not just the horrors of the Holocaust, but rising Czech nationalism, anti-Semitism and the threat of Stalinism.

Meir Stern at his home in Tel Aviv, February 2019.Credit: Rosie Whitehouse

In postwar Czechoslovakia, it was difficult for Jews to get assistance from the state, and priority was given to Jews who had declared they were of Czech or Slovak nationality in the 1930 census. Meir’s mother, who had survived Auschwitz with her children, had managed to register as Czech but was still frightened for her family’s future.

Stern was brought up in the remote Carpathian Mountains, in the eastern tip of Czechoslovakia. In July 1945, the region was officially ceded to the Soviet Union. Stern, his mother and three sisters were among almost 20,000 Jewish Carpathian survivors who had sought refuge in western Czechoslovakia.

The Czechoslovak authorities, reluctant to oppose Soviet demands, were considering repatriating the Carpathian Jews – which would have left them unable to practice their religion. Stern, like most Jewish children in the Carpathians, had been educated entirely in Hebrew at the Munkács Hebrew Gymnasium (the town is now known as Mukachevo, in Ukraine). Unlike many of the Boys, he has still his school reports and class photos: He and his friends can be seen wearing blue velvet caps with the 10 commandments inscribed on them.

Children from the Munkács Hebrew Gymnasium in Czechoslovakia.Credit: Reproduction : Rosie Whitehouse

“In the spring of 1946,” Stern recalls, “my mother spotted a notice in a Prague synagogue that said orphaned Jewish children were being taken to Britain. She decided to register me and my younger sister Elsa.”

By this point, though, the Central British Fund’s resources were being stretched to breaking point. The initial transport of 300 youngsters from Theresienstadt had been followed by another 120 youngsters from Munich in October 1945. Three further transports arrived in the United Kingdom in spring 1946, one by ship from Gdansk, Poland, and two from Prague. Furthermore, the organization was still supporting many of the original Kindertransport children in Britain and also assisting desperate Jewish communities in need of help across war-ravaged Europe.

There was no government assistance and there was little money to spare for charitable causes in postwar Britain. A ragtag group of sickly Jewish teenagers were not attractive candidates for donations in the way the innocent, teddy bear-clutching little children on the Kindertransports had been eight years earlier.

Mendel Silberstein, right, walking through the streets of Tel Aviv in 1948.Credit: Reproduction : Rosie Whitehouse

Resignation threat

When Stern arrived in Britain, he recounts, “They put us in the Jews’ Temporary Shelter in London’s East End. It had four floors of dormitories and was normally used as a home for destitute adults.” This wasn’t the high-end recuperative care shown in “The Windermere Children” – and it certainly was not what the philanthropist Montefiore had in mind for his “boys.”

At a committee meeting on June 3, 1946, Montefiore said he would resign if the Central British Fund committed itself to “mass immigration” and the housing of children in large units. He believed it more important for the Boys already in the United Kingdom to receive proper care rather than provide inadequate care for several hundred more. The committee agreed with him and the transports came to an end. All efforts were now directed at getting “leave to remain” for those who wished to stay in the United Kingdom and helping those who did not find a new home abroad.

A month later, on July 4, the Kielce pogrom would see the start of a new Jewish refugee crisis as thousands of survivors – including hundreds of orphans – fled Poland, intent on finding a new home in Mandatory Palestine. That same month, the British decided they had no choice but to intern those trying to enter Mandatory Palestine illegally, in Cyprus. Hundreds of orphaned Holocaust survivors spent months in terrible conditions on the island, as both the British government much of the rest of the world looked the other way.

Many of the Boys have spoken publicly of their enduring thanks to the Central British Fund and the opportunities they were given. All those I have interviewed say it was the beginning of a new life, and that they were given a future they never thought they would have. Says Meir Stern: “I was naughty, and I didn’t want to study. I was also ill and had been in a sanatorium. My mother hoped by sending me to Britain that they might something of me – and she was right!”

Rosie Whitehouse is the author of “The People On The Beach: Escape from Europe After the Holocaust,” to be published by Hurst in September 2020.

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