Several books and films have told the story of the 10,000 Jewish children who were spirited out of Europe during World War II on Kindertransport trains to safety in Great Britain. Lesser known is the smaller post-war British mission to rescue Jewish orphans who had survived concentration camps and help them reclaim their lives. The story is the subject of the PBS drama “The Windermere Children.” The title is a reference to a lake in the Lake District of England. The refugees lived there for four months in 1945.
“It’s a redemptive story about these children coming out of a horrendous experience,” screenwriter Simon Block told the Journal. He said his challenge was to strike a balance between history and drama, and endeavor to accurately represent the collective and individual experiences of those involved. Scenes paint disturbing images of life behind barbed wire, depicting the traumatized children trembling in their beds and stealing bread even though there was plenty.
“We didn’t want it to be a miseryfest but we didn’t want to soften it,” Block said. “Windermere was fantastic for the children during the day because they could run around free and take part in activities. But at night, many of them succumbed to horrible nightmares that persisted later in their lives. In the camps, it was survival at any cost, and that doesn’t translate well to society, where you have rules. They had to learn a whole new way of life at Windermere.”
Another challenge was that the Windermere survivors — who today number less than 30 of the original 300 — are elderly, “with recollections that aren’t always consistent. They were only at Windermere for four months, so their memories of it aren’t as clear as their memories of the camps and what happened to them,” Block said. “It was a question of combining their stories in a way that was accurate but allowed different stories to be told in parallel.”
The appeal of the project, he said, was both the little-known piece of history and its relevance today. “It came to my attention at a time when there was a lot of debate in the U.K. about what to do about child refugees from Syria. This [film] shows what can be done if you regard child refugees not as a threat but as people who need help.”
Most of the research had been done before Block was brought on board the project in late 2016, when interviews with survivors continued. Filming took place in 2017 and 2018 in Northern Ireland, standing in for the similar landscape of the real location, a busy tourism destination. (Also, the Calgarth Estate, where the children lived, was demolished in the 1960s.)
“Windermere was fantastic for the children during the day because they could run around free and take part in activities. But at night, many of them succumbed to horrible nightmares that persisted later in their lives.” — Simon Block
Actors Thomas Kretschmann (“The Pianist”), Romola Garai (“Atonement”) and Iain Glen (“Game of Thrones”) play the adult counselors in charge and Polish-speaking actors were recruited for the young survivor roles. Some of the real people whose stories are portrayed in the film appear at its end and we learn that they went on to lead productive and sometimes illustrious lives in England, Israel and America. One survivor became the captain of the British weightlifting team in two Olympics and was knighted in 2008. “Even the ones who have passed away have left children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Block said. “Their legacy has survived. There was a reunion in Prague a few years ago and hundreds of people came.”
A London native and son of London-born parents whose forebears came from Lithuania and Belarus, Block grew up in a “fairly secular” Jewish home, attending synagogue on the High Holy Days and “barely making it through” his bar mitzvah with the aid of a rabbi-recorded haftarah portion. “I’m interested in my heritage to an extent. I’ve been involved in projects about Jewish people that have come my way,” he said, including a stage adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel “Everything Is Illuminated.”
Block began his career in the theater and segued to television and film projects, the World War II series “Home Fires” and the Ben Kingsley film “The Physician” among them. “I like the collaboration aspect of theater but there’s also something very exciting about going onto a film set that your script is responsible for. They’re re-creating what you’ve imagined,” he said. “You get different things from different mediums.” He currently has several new TV projects and one film in early stages of development.
Block hopes those who watch “The Windermere Children” appreciate it both as a story of redemption and its larger message about the value of welcoming refugees. “The approach of the British government then toward refugees stands in stark contrast to the approach now, in this country and all over the world,” he said. “The number of refugees is much larger now and the feeling is negative: ‘We don’t want them here. They take up too many resources.’ [The U.K.] had to be pressured to let any in.”
He noted the patriotism and appreciation of the Windermere refugees, who have given back to Great Britain “for taking them in and giving them the opportunity to renew their lives. You don’t have to be scared of people who want to live in your country. I think that’s a good message to convey.”
“The Windermere Children” premieres April 5 on PBS.