The Second World War impacted the lives of children to an extent not seen in previous conflicts. They were truly the innocent victims of war and ideology on a massive scale. Nowhere was this more starkly evident than in Nazi-occupied Europe. It has been estimated that some 1.2 million Jewish children perished as a direct result of the Holocaust, with only 11% of those living in Europe at the start of the war in 1939 surviving it.
Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) Party had come to power in Germany in 1933, with a pledge to `solve the Jewish Question’ in Europe. During the course of the 1930s, Germany’s half a million Jews were subjected to increasing persecution, excluding them from many areas of daily life and exposing them to officially sanctioned violence. This policy was brought into brutal focus on the 9th and 10th November 1938, when Jewish synagogues, shops, cemeteries and private property were attacked and vandalised across Germany, Austria and the German Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia. Jews were assaulted in their homes and on the street, with many being murdered in cold blood or thrown into concentration camps. This `Night of Broken Glass’ (`Kristallnacht’), as it was termed, accelerated what had already become a steady stream of Jewish emigration. By the time war broke out a year later, more than half of Germany’s Jews had become refugees in other countries.
Amongst those who found sanctuary in Britain were over 9,000 Jewish children, mostly from Germany and Austria, who left their parents and older siblings behind and travelled to this country as part of the `Kindertransport’ scheme. Organised by the Refugee Children’s Movement, this major undertaking saw some 10,000 unaccompanied children being rescued from Nazi persecution and placed with foster families or in refugee hostels in the United Kingdom between November 1938 and the outbreak of war in September 1939. The majority were Jewish, but the transports also included non-Jewish children whose families were deemed to be in particular danger from the attentions of the Nazis.
Among those Jewish children brought to safety by the `Kindertransport’ was 14-year old Edith Jacobowitz. Edith arrived in Northern Ireland with her younger brother Gert in June 1939, having left her home in Berlin shortly after both parents were arrested by the Nazis. Although her father’s shop had escaped serious damage during the `Night of Broken Glass’, he subsequently had to sell it at a considerable loss as Jewish businesses were forcibly `Germanised’. With that, the family’s main source of income disappeared. Edith’s education was disrupted when she was forced to leave her `German’ school and instead attend one for Jewish children only. The family was finally torn apart with the arrest of her parents in May 1939. Their names had been found in a notebook belonging to a Jew who had been caught trying to leave Germany clandestinely, this was enough to have them put into prison. With the help of relatives, Edith and Gert managed to secure places on the `Kindertransport’ scheme, having been guaranteed reception by the Belfast Refugee Aid Committee.
Edith spent the first few weeks of her new life in Northern Ireland in a refugee hostel in Belfast, on Cliftonpark Avenue. As a city girl, this was an urban environment she was essentially familiar with. However, her situation changed completely when she was then sent on to be part of a unique project in the heart of the County Down countryside – the Refugee Settlement Farm at Millisle.
Millisle Farm had been the brainchild of the President of the Belfast Hebrew Congregation, Barney Hurwitz, and local businessman Lawrence Gorman, the farm’s owner. Gorman leased the derelict farmhouse (known as Ballyrolly House), outbuildings and land to the Belfast Refugee Aid Committee for the purpose of accommodating and training young Jewish refugees who wanted to prepare themselves for a future life in Palestine as `chalutzim’, pioneers of modern agricultural methods as exemplified in the Jewish `kibbutz’ settlements. The farm also became a rural haven for other refugees like Edith and Gert, relieving pressure on the urban hostels and providing the children with basic skills that would be useful in later life.
Millisle was far from being a country retreat. When the first refugees got there in May 1939, their immediate task was to transform it from a derelict site into a fully operational farm with accommodation for up to 80 refugees. This formidable task was overseen by the farm manager, Eugen Patriasz, a Hungarian agronomist. Much had been achieved by the time Edith arrived a month or so later, but conditions were still challenging, as she later recalled:
“Our dining-room was an old stable, where the rain trickled in gently. The sleeping accommodation consisted of two large tents, into which camp-beds were put side by side. The following night we moved into a cowshed which had been whitewashed. The days were rather pleasant, that July before the war. If we had not been waiting for news of our loved ones, it could have been fun.”
It could certainly be very hard work. Edith had her hands full helping to look after the younger children on the farm, noting in her diary that they “are really not very easy”. She was also put to work in the fields, after which the “back and thighs feel as if they were broken”. All of the children carried out some kind of farm work according to their age and abilities, for which they received pocket money. When they were not working, they attended local schools to continue their formal education. In this and other ways, the refugee children very much became part of the local community.
In a short space of time, the Refugee Settlement Farm grew to be a full-scale self-sustaining enterprise. A wide variety of vegetables and cereals were grown on the seventy-acre site, which also housed cows, chickens and Clydesdale workhorses (whose labour was supplemented by a Ferguson tractor). The refugees set up a farm machinery repair shop, a dairy, carpenters’ and cobblers’ workshops, a laundry and kitchens. Everyone contributed their own skills and learned new ones in this hive of activity.
Overshadowing these mostly positive experiences was the concern for the fate of parents and family back in Germany. Edith’s parents were eventually released from prison and able to correspond with their children, but communications were precarious and separation took its toll: “I am so very homesick and would like to cry like a little child. Dear God, give me strength and courage. If I only had someone”, she confided to her diary. In June 1941, on the day German troops invaded the Soviet Union, Edith wrote that “the possibility of seeing my parents again is hopeless. These days there are no miracles. The only consolation is that they know us safe, and we know that they have that consolation”. Like most of the Millisle refugees, Edith lost her parents to the Holocaust. Her father Wilhelm Jacobowitz died in Dachau, her mother Else was murdered in Auschwitz. As another Millisle refugee later commented, “gradually, one by one, all the children of the farm became orphans”.
Edith spent several periods of time on the farm, interspersed with other jobs in Belfast including work in a garment factory and being a nanny (“I pushed the baby through the back streets of Belfast and read Dickens and Thackeray while she slept”). Her role caring for younger children in Belfast and on the farm helped form Edith’s wish to enter the medical profession. In September 1942, just before her 18th birthday, she became a trainee nurse at Ards District Hospital in nearby Newtownards. She qualified as a nurse in 1945, leaving Northern Ireland a year later to continue her studies as a midwife in England. This led to over twenty years working as a health visitor in Kent, where Edith settled with her husband and family. She later wrote: “It has been a very good life so far. My only regret is that my parents were not alive to enjoy it with us”.
The Millisle farm continued to operate until May 1948, when the last refugees left. During the course of its existence as a refugee farm it had been a home to well over 300 children and their adult guardians. Whilst relatively few actually went on to continue their agricultural work in Palestine, all who spent time at Millisle took with them experiences and memories of a very special place which stayed with them for the rest of their lives.