Next month, the BBC plans to air a docudrama, titled The Children, about some of the roughly 700 young Holocaust survivors who came to Britain in the aftermath of World War II. Rosie Whitehouse writes that the complete story is rather different from the “redemptive, feel-good tale” being advertised:
After the war the British government offered a home to 1,000 Jewish orphans. But only 731 visas were issued: many of the youngsters point-blank refused to accept the offer from the country they had come to see as an enemy. The orphans wanted to travel to Palestine, but the British, in control of the Mandate territory, were blocking their route with Royal Navy patrols.
This did not deter the Jewish teenagers. They rejected the British visas to join thousands of others attempting to enter Palestine on illegal immigrant ships. A hundred youngsters tried to break through the British blockade on the Josiah Wedgwood, a former Canadian corvette. The survivors joined battle against the Royal Navy sailors who had boarded their illegal immigrant boat on the high seas off the Haifa coast, pelting them with potatoes and tinned food.
Meanwhile the Jewish Brigade, a British military unit recruited from Jews living in the Land of Israel, offered a different choice to a group of young survivors in Italy:
Just like “the Boys,” [as they were known], who came to Britain, the teenage survivors in Italy were taken to hostels to recuperate. Their new home was the stunning Villa Bencistà in Fiesole, above Florence. . . . The Jewish soldiers helped [them] rebuild their lives, filling their charges with a love of Palestine and a deep Zionist commitment, but also giving them a wider education.
None of this is likely to appear in The Children. The Villa Bencistà cannot be considered a British triumph. It was, however, a humanitarian one.