Leeds-based Holocaust survivor Arek Hersh talks about BBC drama The Windermere Children

Of his time in the Lake District in 1945, 91-year-old Arek Hersh can reminisce about watching Judy Garland in Meet Me in St Louis, locals beeping him for riding gifted bicycles on the wrong side of the road, and taking dips in the water with his new friends.
Arek Hersh showing his tattoo from Auschwitz. Picture: Simon Hulme.Arek Hersh showing his tattoo from Auschwitz. Picture: Simon Hulme.
Arek Hersh showing his tattoo from Auschwitz. Picture: Simon Hulme.

The unspeakably awful horrors he had experienced during half a year in Auschwitz-Birkenau – one of numerous Nazi camps and ghettos he was forced into between the ages of 11 to 14 while also losing 81 family members – were only months behind him.

-> Leeds to mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2020 with civic commemorationOn Monday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the story of an initial cohort of 300 child refugees who fled to England, including Leeds resident Mr Hersh, will be told in the BBC drama The Windermere Children.

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The occasion marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, after which World Jewish Relief, then known as the Central British Fund for German Jewry, eventually rescued 732 child Holocaust survivors by bringing them to the UK.

Survivors and cast members feature in The Windermere Children. Photographer: Helen Sloan/BBC.Survivors and cast members feature in The Windermere Children. Photographer: Helen Sloan/BBC.
Survivors and cast members feature in The Windermere Children. Photographer: Helen Sloan/BBC.

Mr Hersh is portrayed in the show by Tomasz Studzinski as part of a cast starring names such as Romola Garai, and the story is based on the first-person testimony of survivors.

Speaking yesterday about the show, Mr Hersh said: “It was very much how it happened. When we arrived the Red Cross got clothing for us. Boys and girls gave us bicycles and we started driving on our own side of the road. Some cars came around the corner and started tooting their horns: ‘Why do you drive on the wrong side?’”

He remembers watching the Judy Garland film at the local cinema - he sings The Trolley Song cheerfully while speaking to The Yorkshire Post – exploring mountains and how “wonderful” the food was after prolonged work and starvation in the camps.

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The Harewood great-grandfather could not speak openly about his memories for 50 years until finally publishing a book in 1995, A Detail of History, and now teaches people about the Holocaust “none-stop”. He said: “When I started writing my book I used to write two lines a day and put it down, I just couldn’t carry on.”

On September 1 1939 the German army attacked his country. The Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre, based in Huddersfield, details that after he and his immediate family walked around 40 miles to stay with relatives in Łódz, towards 1941 Mr Hersh was taken to the Otoschno camp, near Poznan, which was run by the SS.

He was returned to a Łódz ghetto in 1942, but the Nazis liquidated this in 1944 as the Soviets advanced, and Mr Hersh was put on a goods train to Auschwitz.

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The young man took advantage of a commotion on arrival by moving into a line with healthier-looking people who were being put to work, instead of those being led straight to their deaths.

On January 18 1945, prisoners were marched to Buchenwald, before in April Mr Hersh and 3,000 others were sent to Theresienstadt, which was liberated by the Soviets.

Mr Hersh was taken to Prague that August, from where he flew to England.

-> The Yorkshire Post says: Never forgotten - vital to remember HolocaustThere was a reunion with his older sister, Mania, in 1947.

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She had escaped to the Soviet Union and was in Ulm, Germany, two years after the war before moving to America. She died about five years ago.

Mr Hersh, a former electrician and property renter, said: “She was married with a child and it was wonderful. We met at the railway station and it was a dark night and I was with her for about two weeks.”

He met his second wife, Jean, at a dance in Leeds in his early 30s and has three children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

"The only thing I hope and pray is that the world should be quiet and very peaceful," he said.

The Windermere Children airs on BBC Two at 9pm on Monday.