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Bringing children back to life

Kuba Sprenger in The Windermere Children (PBS)


Bringing children back to life

Poignant PBS films show efforts to help children traumatized by the Holocaust

Few images from World War II are as heart wrenching as those of Jewish child survivors of the Holocaust. A new PBS movie, The Windermere Children, and an accompanying documentary, The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words, tell the poignant, redemptive story of some of those youth.

It’s best to watch the movie first. It masterfully draws viewers back to August, 1945, when the British government, prodded by Jewish philanthropist Leonard Montefiore, agrees to give refuge to child survivors of the Nazi regime. Three hundred of them arrive in the dead of night at a rehabilitation camp near Lake Windermere in northwest England. 

Without over-sentimentality, the film captures the children’s gradual transformation over four months from fear and constant nightmares to growing optimism and personal development.  

Watching a child’s astonishment at having his own room, a bed with clean sheets, and limitless food, reminds us of what deprivations the children endured. Scenes of a young boy flying barefoot through the woods with joyful abandon, and others of children spontaneously riding bikes in their underclothes re-create what must have been sheer delight for these survivors.

The teacher and psychiatrist in charge, Oscar Friedmann, himself a German-born Jewish orphan who survived Sachsenhausen concentration camp, never raises his voice. When the children frantically grab bread from the tables and dash to hide it, the doctor orders more, saying, “Let them see it will never run out.”

He treats them with compassion, but not coddling: “Don’t grab whatever you want from the world because you think your suffering entitles you. … Earn your place in the world.”

The documentary supplements the film beautifully, giving depth, detail, and context. Survivors, now adults, share memories of Windermere and how it changed their lives. Historic photos and colorized footage of the children, some of whom were liberated from camps the night before Nazis were to exterminate them, authenticate each emotional interview.

We learn Windermere staffers were volunteers, including the coach who encouraged physical development and used soccer as a bridge to the townspeople. He identified one boy as having great athletic potential; this young man later captained Britain’s 1956 and 1960 Olympic weightlifting team and was knighted in 2018.

Several Windermere practices stemmed from Freudian psychology. Freud’s sister, on staff, used the new idea of art therapy to encourage children’s expression. Neither film promotes psychotherapy, nor do they explore faith deeply, although a young rabbi leads prayers to provide children a Jewish context. Some children later disavow God, unable to reconcile suffering with His existence.

These two unrated productions not only provide powerful reminders of World War II realities and repercussions, but they exemplify the transformative power of love, even for the most wounded.

—This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Leonard Montefiore’s name.