A short case study of unaccompanied Jewish child refugees to Northern Ireland during the Second World War

Many thanks to Dr Pamela Linden Aveyard for her guest blog post in recognition of World Holocaust Day 2023, which takes place on 27 January. A small exhibition of Special Collections & Archives materials for Holocaust Memorial Day can be found in the display cabinets on the First Floor of the McClay Library.

This blog looks at the lives of two children, Edith and Gert Jacobowitz, who came to Northern Ireland in one of the Kindertransports and remembers their mother and father who were murdered in the Holocaust.

THE KINDERTRANSPORT, 1938-1939 (HU 88872) Peter Needham, a half-Jewish Czech boy (second from the left), and other children at Prague Airport before departing on a ‘Kindertransport’ flight to Great Britain organised by the Barbican Mission, 12 January 1939. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205184255

In December 1989, the Belfast Jewish Record reported on the planting of 20 trees in the Jerusalem Peace Forest in the name of the Belfast Jewish Community, sponsored by Edith Bown (née Jacobowitz) and her brother Professor Gerald Jayson (né Gert Jacobowitz). They described the act as ‘a belated thank you to Messrs. Hurwitz, Solomon and Scop and the Jewish Community of Belfast for looking after us children on the Millisle Farm 50 years ago’.[1] After the arrest of their parents, Wilhelm and Else Jacobowitz, in Berlin in May 1939, Edith and Gert moved in with their aunt, ‘Tante’ Hertha. Edith, aged 14, was tasked with continuing the correspondence started by her mother with the Belfast Jewish Refugee Committee.[2] The Jacobowitz family’s connection with Belfast came about through a business connection. Wilhelm Jacobowitz owned a haberdashery shop in Berlin, and a supplier of nightdresses to his business had a sister in Belfast, Mrs Woolf.[3] Arrangements were made for Edith and Gert, who was then aged 10, to leave Berlin on a Kindertransport on 20 June 1939. The children travelled first by train to Utrecht in the Netherlands, before embarking on to a ship at Hook van Holland, that sailed for Harwich, England. From there, they travelled by train to Liverpool Street Station, London, before another train journey to Liverpool, where they sailed to Belfast. Edith and Gert were greeted on their arrival by Barney Hurwitz, President of the Belfast Hebrew Congregation, who, Edith recalled in her memoir, ‘gave us a bear hug and in Yiddish welcomed us to freedom’.[4]

The British government’s refugee policy was extremely restrictive for adults seeking to leave Nazi-occupied Europe. The vast majority of the 10,000 children who arrived on the Kindertransports were separated permanently from parents, older siblings, and other members of their extended families. This was the case for Edith and Gert, whose parents Wilhelm and Else Jacobowitz were murdered in the Holocaust, along with all their aunts, uncles and many of their cousins.[5] Letters from Edith’s family and friends show that their father was deported to Auschwitz in May 1942.  Their mother moved between camps, and in 1943 was sent to Auschwitz. A family friend, Martha Bussinius, who smuggled food, clothing and medicine to Edith’s mother and aunts, while they remained in Berlin under the dangers of Nazi rule, described how she discovered Else Jacobowitz had been deported.

Everything had to be ready when the day of arrest came. From curtains, Mutti and Tante Hertha had bags made, so they were easy to carry. Much thought went into it…I had promised to get Mutti warm shoes and stockings and something to eat…Sunday, in the early hours, I made my way to Mutti, dear Sister Edith, and when I came to the door, I found it sealed. I went up into the loft of the house, sat on the steps and cried bitterly.[6]

Edith’s correspondence demonstrates the pain and stress she endured as a teenager, navigating the war years in a foreign country without her parents. The diary she kept during her time in Northern Ireland, as well as the letters she sent and received during that period, provide an important insight into the challenges faced by unaccompanied refugee children. Despite the concerted efforts of the local Jewish community, resources were stretched by the arrival of hundreds of refugees within a few months. Conditions in the Belfast Jewish Refugee Hostel at Cliftonpark Avenue were often cramped and challenging with outbreaks of measles and headlice. In Edith’s diary, which she wrote between 21 September 1938 up to March 1941, she records how she and her brother were first homed in the hostel, with about 25 other children.[7] Edith briefly attended a local school, and confided to her cousin Inge that the school teacher there was antisemitic.[8]

After school finished for the summer, Edith and Gert, along with the other children in the hostel, were sent to stay at the Refugee Settlement Farm in Millisle, County Down. The Refugee Settlement Farm (or Millisle Farm as it was often referred to) was established in May 1939. The project was initiated by Brit Chalutzim Datiim (Union of Religious Pioneers), or Bachad as it was also known. Bachad was a religious Zionist organisation established in Germany during the 1920s, which aimed to train young Jewish people in pioneering skills such as agriculture, in preparation for making ‘aliyah’ to Eretz Israel. Farms were set up across the United Kingdom and the venture in Northern Ireland was confirmed when a lease was signed between Barney Hurwitz, President of the Belfast Hebrew Congregation, and Lawrence Gorman, a local farmer, on a seventy-acre seafront farm in County Down[9]. When the first ‘chalutzim’ arrived at the farm they had no water supply and no proper sanitation and the property required many months of work before suitable dormitories and onsite plumbing were available to the children and adults who arrived during 1939. Edith Jacobowitz recollected her first impressions of the Millisle Farm when she arrived in the summer of 1939:

I had looked forward to living in the country, as I had really no idea what it was like. City children imagine all sorts of idyllic situations. It rained all day, as we arrived on a sea of mud. Our dining room was an old stable, where the rain trickled into gently. The sleeping accommodation were two large tents, into which camp beds were put side by side. The ladies of the Committee party tucked us in gently with a hot water bottle, and bade us good night. Outside was a howling wind and rain as we dozed off. In the night we woke up, at least I did, to find I was soaking wet. The tent leaked. The boys’ tent had packed up somewhat sooner and in the early hours of the morning all of us were huddled in wet clothes in the dining room. The following night we moved into the cow stable. This was much better as it had been whitewashed the day before. Any wet paint descending during that night was ignored, as it was warm and dry….As the weeks went by, the farm became more habitable. Old buildings were patched up, and the old farm house became the centre for cultural activities If we had not been waiting for news of our loved ones, it could have been fun. All of us lived in the hope that they would be able to leave Nazi Germany before the gates finally closed. Alas, the time ran out and on the 3rd September 1939 the war for many of us, had not just started, but become a sign of defeat. We knew that whoever had not left the continent or had had a visa stood little chance of coming out. I remember standing at the bottom of the farm house steps listening for the news bulletin. We were supposed to be in bed, but who can sleep, when they are homesick, hate the country of their birth and almost mourn for their loved ones.[10]

In October 1939, Edith became unwell and returned to live in the Refugee Hostel in Belfast while Gert remained on his own at the Millisle Farm. Her illness lasted most of the winter and resulted in her having to leave the job she had secured at Barney Hurwitz’s business in Belfast. Edith’s letters to her family in Germany during this period record how lonely she felt at the hostel which, she recorded in her diary ‘is not so nice as on the farm. In a big room eight girls sleep. It looks like a hospital. It is always cold’[11]. In particular, Edith’s diary and letters reveal her homesickness, how deeply she missed her mother, and the stress she felt over whether she would remain in Belfast and work or return to the farm to be with her brother and the friends she had made.[12] In February 1940, Edith started to work unofficially as a nanny to the Levey family, looking after two young children. Although Edith’s letters to her Uncle Hans reveal that she would rather have been enrolled at school, the employment provided small, if brief opportunities, for Edith to expand her knowledge of English literature.

As a nanny I received five shillings per week, from which I had to pay half to the hostel. Try as I wanted, I could not save, though I managed to give my brother a little pocket money. The Committee of the hostel complained that I was using too much shoe leather, but I assured them that I was very happy and at the same time prayed that the reason for this would not come out. I had discovered the literature of this country in a small bookcase in my employer’s sitting room. This had been covered in dust when I arrived. I suppose that the books were a wedding present, to me they were a godsend and in some ways an open door. I used to perform my duties as quickly as I could and then take the baby for a walk. I was very keen on that walk in all weathers. A bottle of milk or water, as the case may be, wrapped in a clean nappy, but under my coat hidden Dickens or Thackary [sic]. We used to go through the side streets of the neighbourhood, I always fearful that someone would spot me, while I was reading. As soon as the baby made a noise, she was sucking her bottle. These walks took as long as possible, even in bad weather. As the weeks wore on, I was able to understand the language better.[13]

Despite receiving an official permit to work for the Levey family as a domestic servant in June 1940, Edith opted to move out of the hostel and join the community of children and ‘chalutzim at the Refugee Settlement Farm, where she could be reunited with her brother and enjoy more teenage company. Her account of life at Millisle as recorded in the Belfast Jewish Record details the newly built recreation room used by the residents in the evenings after their work, including evening classes, twice-weekly concerts of music on a gramophone and celebrations of high days and holidays. Edith’s move from Belfast to the farm, and a pre-existing guarantee with the Belfast Jewish Refugee Committee, meant that she was allowed to enrol in school. She attended Millisle Elementary School and took domestic lessons at Donaghadee Technical. Edith developed an interest in nursing and was encouraged by the farm manageress to order the Nursing Times and apply to hospitals for placement. She commenced her nurse training at Ards District Hospital in September 1942 and qualified in 1945. The following year, she left Northern Ireland for England to specialise in tropical diseases where her nursing career included Midwifery and Health Visiting.[14]  Edith bequeathed her correspondence, diaries and other precious items to Imperial War Museums. A blog on her experiences of the Refugee Settlement Farm, featuring photographs of her time there, can be accessed on the IWM website.[15]

In July 2006, the Belfast Jewish Record published an account by Gerald Jayson (ne Gert Jacobowitz) of his time at the Millisle Farm, accessible here. Gert spent most of his first year at the Refugee Settlement farm without the regular company of his sister Edith. His sister was permitted to visit him the week prior to his eleventh birthday, and she described the occasion in her diary as wonderful.[16] Gert spent eight years on the farm, attending Millisle Elementary School for the first four years where, having no English, he was taught alongside ‘the baby infants’. Like all the other residents, Gert took part in the working life of the farm, where he remembers the hay making and potato picking seasons as particularly busy times. These detailed recollections of life on the farm are positive while reflecting the reality of wartime existence for both Jewish refugees and the local population. The boundaries of the Refugee Settlement Farm were both a physical and intangible marker between the refugee residents and local non-Jewish population. Gert recollected how woodland belonging to a Mr Beresford bordered the Refugee Settlement Farm.

You did not enter those woods, even for a lost ball, because it was laid down by the grown-ups that a Jewish refugee from the Nazis must not aggravate the neighbours. We might be sent back to Germany.[17]

Gert later attended Regent House Grammar School in Newtownards, and while there became a member of the Army Cadet Corp, read the English classics, took the Junior and Senior Certificates, and in his words ‘gradually turned into a little English gentleman’. In 1947, Gert persuaded the Belfast Jewish Refugee Committee to support his application to Queen’s University Belfast, where he studied Chemistry. He subsequently gained a PhD from the University of Durham in 1955 and became a Professor of Physical Chemistry at Liverpool Polytechnic.[18]

Edith Bown-Jacobowitz and Gerald Jayson’s detailed accounts of their time in Northern Ireland provide important insights into the impact on refugee children of forced separation from their parents. Discussions of the Kindertransport initiative in the media sometimes present a self-congratulatory account of British humanitarian success. The reality is much more nuanced and measuring its success by survival alone does little to recognise the loss and stresses suffered by unaccompanied Jewish child refugees to the UK during the Second World War. As Professor Jayson wrote, ‘You are lucky to be alive. I couldn’t understand that. I thought, and felt, that it was natural to be alive, even if there were Nazis and you had been sent to a Refugee Settlement Farm’.[19]

[1] Belfast Jewish Record, XXXVI, 36th Year, No. 2, December 1989,  ‘Millisle Remembered’, page 19, (https://cdm15979.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15979coll24/id/2040/rec/1) (20 January 2023).

[2] Edith Bown-Jacobowitz, Memories and Reflections: A Refugee’s Story, p.26.

[3] Belfast Jewish Record, 52nd Year, No. 4, July 2006, pp.3-5, ‘Millisle Farm’ by Gert Jacobowitz, (www.digital-library.qub.ac.uk) (20 January 2023). See also Memories and Reflections, page 46.

[4] Memories and Reflections, p. 35.

[5] Details of the murders of Else Jacobowitz (nee Gutman) and Wilhelm Jacobowitz in the Holocaust can be found in the List of Jewish victims from the Memorial book Victims of the Persecution of Jews under the National Socialist Tyranny in Germany 1933 – 1945 prepared by the German Federal Archives, (https://yvng.yadvashem.org/) (20 January 2023).

[6] Memories and Reflections, pp.97-99, Martha Bussinius, Berlin, December 1947, to Nurse E. Jacobowitz, Farnborough Hospital Kent.

[7] Memories and Reflections, p. 43.

[8] Memories and Reflections, p. 45.

[9] County Down Spectator, 13 May 1939. 

[10] Belfast Jewish Record, 39th Year, No. 3, April 1993,  pp. 12-13,’Copy of BBC Talk in 1962 by Edith Bown (nee Jacobovitz)’, ( www.digital-library.qub.ac.uk) (20 January 2023).

[11] Memories and Reflections, pp57-58.

[12] Memories and Reflections, pp. 59-61. Diary entry 26 November 1939, Belfast, ‘Today I felt so very homesick. Mutti, I long for you. You are the only one who loves me without asking anything. It is so long since I had a kind word from you: ‘Eidthchen, my big daughter’ My mother my dear little mother.’

[13] Belfast Jewish Record, 39th Year, No. 3, April 1993,  pp. 12-13,’Copy of BBC Talk in 1962 by Edith Bown (nee Jacobovitz)’, (www.digital-library.qub.ac.uk) (20 January 2023).

[14] Royal College of Nursing Oral History Collection online catalogue, T/379, Interview with Edith Bown (nee Jacobowitz), (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/N16235668) (20 January 2023).

[15]  ‘Edith Jacobowitz and Millisle Refugee Farm’ by Senior Curator Stephen Walton, (https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/edith-jacobowitz-and-millisle-refugee-farm) (20 January 2023).

[16] Memories and Reflections, p.59.

[17] Belfast Jewish Record, 52nd Year, No. 4, July 2006, pp.3-5, ‘Millisle Farm’ by Gert Jacobowitz, accessed via www.digital-library.qub.ac.uk.

[18] AJR Refugee Voices website, Gerald Jayson, (www.ajrrefugeevoices.org.uk/RefugeeVoices/Gerald-Jayson) (20 January 2023).

[19] Belfast Jewish Record, 52nd Year, No. 4, July 2006, pp.3-5, ‘Millisle Farm’ by Gert Jacobowitz, accessed via www.digital-library.qub.ac.uk.