Memory Quilts – Commemorating The Jewish War Orphans Taken In By Britain in WWII

Memories tend to be elusive and are by their very nature subjective and intangible. To capture them in a physical form – and to do them justice – is far from easy. However, that’s exactly what the creators of four very special Memory Quilts have done. These beautiful objects are so culturally important, in fact, that they’ve earned a public display in London’s Jewish Museum.

The memory quilts were created in order to commemorate the 1945 arrival in Britain of 732 war orphans, all Jewish and mostly from Poland. These children had no homes, no relatives and nowhere else to go. They were taken in by the British Government and given the opportunity to make new lives for themselves. Some of these orphans had come directly from Nazi concentration camps – the six youngest had been held in Theresienstadt, a camp in Czechoslovakia. These six children were placed with Jewish families and eventually adopted. Those orphans of school-going age were sent to boarding schools, while those in their late teens were housed in hostels, until they could be placed in suitable jobs – most were keen to get work as soon as possible. Some of these young people headed for London, while a few moved on further, ending up as far away as Israel, Australia and North America.

Most of the orphans were boys, so the 80 girls soon became known as “Honorary Boys.” It was not long before the creation of the “The Boys Club.” This was a networking system, established by the orphans themselves, as a support system and, in some ways, as a substitute family. Deprived of their own biological relatives, “The Boys” turned themselves into their own extended family. The Primrose Club, established at the London Hostel, was a base where meetings and a variety of social activities took place, and this gave many of the orphans a sense of belonging, allowing them to cope better with their new life. Ben Helfgott, the instigator of The Boys’ network and also the ’45 Aid Society said: “We came here naked … we’ve tried to build a family and inject into it a zest for life.”

In 2013 the ’45 Aid Society’s Second Generation (children and grandchildren of The Boys) were planning on how best to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1945 liberation. The concept of a collection of Memory Quilts – made up of a images from the original Orphans’ stories – was met with enthusiasm.

Here are just a few of the memories woven into the quilt.

Bela’s story, and those of the original 732 orphans, was woven into the Memory Quilts and put together by the Second Generation. Bela’s memory square is covered with embroidered bluebells around a Star of David, with her name at the apex. A girl’s head is shown looking at butterflies and birds. It “represents myself as a young girl alone, arriving in a strange country … the first thing I remember seeing when I came to England in spring were carpets of bluebells.” explained Joanna Millan (neé Bela Rosenthal) who is one of the 80 female “Boys.” Bela was three when she arrived in Britain. Liberated from Theresienstadt in 1945, she was one of a group of orphans taken to England in a Lancaster bomber. There Bela was adopted by a Jewish couple who changed her name to Joanna.

Solly Irving (b.1930) is the sole survivor of his family. His square shows a tree of life, with green leaves that symbolize the fact the family line continues through him as sole survivor, and continues further, through his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, to future generations.

Mala Tribich, is proud to call herself an “Honorary Boy.” She had been incarcerated in a ghetto, hidden by a Christian family and had survived time in two concentration camps. Liberated from Belsen in April 1945 and sent to Sweden, her brother Ben Helfgott, who was instrumental in the networking of ‘The Boys’, located her via the Red Cross and brought her to London. Aged 16 and knowing no-one else – Mala found the club “became my substitute family … life would have been much more difficult without ‘The Boys.”

Lili Stern Pohlmann had been sheltered by a German civilian and then placed in an orphanage until 1946 when she was brought to London to begin a new life. She was then 16 years old. She says: “I was in a foreign country and longed to be with my own people”. She went to boarding school and gravitated to the Primrose Club and “The Boys”. Here she found the comfort of a “family.”

These are only a few of the memories which have been captured in pictures and woven into the quilts. The four quilts are each approximately 2 metres high. There are a total of 156 colourful images, with each square relating a story and which have been sewn, embroidered, photographed painted or hand written. Each memory square serves as a reminder of lost families or communities, but is also a testimony to their strength, survival and continuity.

The Memory Quilt project was the brain-child of Julia Burton of the ‘Second Generation’ who is the daughter of one of “The Boys.” Burton and her team reached as many of The Boys and their families as possible, assisted them with translating their memories onto fabric and in spite of the obstacles, managed to represent every one of the 732 “Boys” on the quilts. Some squares have maps of the orphans’ countries of birth, with each one’s name stitched onto them. Elsewhere, a map of Poland has been shaped by the stitching of the 350 Polish orphans’ names. Even those orphans of whom nothing is known have had their names stitched within the borders of the quilts.

These Memory Quilts were first displayed on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of ‘The Boys’ liberation in May 2015, and proved so popular that they have also been exhibited at the UK’s Festival of Quilts, at the Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire and last year, at the Jewish Museum in London, reported Telegraph.

Burton hopes that a permanent home will eventually be found for these Memory Quilts. As well as showing the joy and the energy needed for this triumph over hardship and adversity, she says the project honors not just the difficulties the orphans’ overcame in Europe, but the futures they build for themselves in later life.

They are a fitting tribute to the lives that The Boys created,” says Burton. “They are a celebration of life.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE