No-one could imagine the wartime horrors endured by 16-year-old orphan Arek Hersh before he came to live in Manchester in 1946.
Taken by the Nazis at the age of 11, he survived the ghettoes of Poznan and Lodz in Poland before being transported to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
After the war, in the summer of 1945, he was among 300 children flown to a resettlement camp in the Lake District. Like so many Holocaust survivors, his family could not be traced.
When he arrived at the Calgarth Estate camp, Arek simply could not comprehend what he saw. He could not take it in. The bleakness and horror of the concentration camps had suddenly been replaced by the beautiful valleys and mountains of the North West.
He and his fellow survivors were bowled over by the warmth and welcome of ordinary British people after years of unremitting persecution by the Nazis.
“It was as if we had been taken to another world,” he said. “A friendly world, a beautiful world. After everything we’d been through, we could not believe it.”
The heart-rending yet inspirational story of the Windermere orphans is now being retold in the lost daily journal of Marie Paneth, who taught art therapy at Calgarth. The journal was only recently rediscovered in the US Library of Congress during research for the 2020 feature film The Windermere Children.
It has now been published under the title Rock the Cradle. In the journal, Paneth records how her lessons helped rebuild the shattered lives of the children in her care – and the poignant challenges she faced along the way.
The name ‘Rock the Cradle’ reflects Paneth’s belief that the character and resilience of children is formed by the unshakable bond formed with their families from the cradle.
The Auschwitz children were denied that bond in the most brutal way.
Before the children came, the Calgarth camp housed workers from the nearby Short’s flying boat factory at White Cross Bay on the shores of Windermere.
The oprhans were slightly in awe of Marie Paneth. Standing more than 6ft tall, she was a woman of great intellect and physical presence who mingled with the cleverest minds in Vienna and New York before the war.
She corresponded with Sigmund Freud and worked with renowned child psychologist Heinz Hartmann before teaching art to children in the London Blitz of the 1940s.
Rock the Cradle includes some of the actual paintings created by the children Paneth taught in Windermere – trees with blue and red leaves because anything green could not be imagined in the greyness of Auschwitz.
Many of the children painted secondary ‘ghost’ images or ‘negatives’ of the pictures they created as they could not trust the present or the future, such was their ingrained doubt and despair.
It is the little things Paneth recalls about the children that are so moving. They were usually late for lessons because everything under the Nazis had to be done to the whistle. They reveled in the freedom of being tardy.
And they washed – even showered – as often as possible. When asked why, they said any kind of spot or imperfection in Auschwitz could have been mistaken for illness – and that would have meant execution.
All the clothes brought in by the Red Cross were too big as the children’s growth had been stunted by years of malnutrition. Arek said he had to spend the first three days at Calgarth in his underwear.
Born in Sieradz in central Poland, Arek was taken to a camp in Poznan at the age of 11. He remembers getting a job cleaning the commandant’s office.
He was then sent to the Lodz ghetto for two years and then transported to Auschwitz. Arek was 14 but lied that he was 17 to be accepted for work and avoid being killed. He was at the concentration camp for seven months.
One of his most vivid memories was the terrible sight of smoke continuously rising from the gas chambers and ovens.
In January 1945, he was transferred to Buchenwald and then to the Theresienstadt resettlement centre after Russian troops liberated the concentration camp. He was flown to Carlisle and on to Calgarth.
After six months in Calgarth, Arek was among 20 boys who went to live in a hostel on Princes Road. He fondly remembers trips to the seaside and one special visit to see the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
A shopkeeper made all 20 boys identical suits in Navy blue for the concert. “We all looked exactly the same”, said Arek. “I’m not sure people could believe it!”
Arek then moved to Manchester where he did electrical work. Along with another 18-20 boys, he stayed at a hostel in Singleton Road, Prestwich, for about 10 months. After Liverpool and Manchester, Arek set up his own property management and letting company in Leeds. He married and has three daughters.
Arek still lives in Leeds, where his spirit shines as bright and undiminished as ever.
Rock the Cradle is now available on the iNostalgia website at the introductory price of £9.99 plus postage and packing.