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From Hitler's Holocaust to a farm in Millisle

IN February 1946 a transport plane took off from war-ravaged Prague on a special mission. Its destination was Nutts Corner airport, outside Belfast.

IN February 1946 a transport plane took off from war-ravaged Prague on a special mission. Its destination was Nutts Corner airport, outside Belfast.

On board were over 100 children, squatting patiently and silently on the floor. The flight by all accounts was noisy, bumpy and cold but the children were used to much worse conditions. On their way to Northern Ireland were some of the few surviving orphans of Auschwitz concentration camp.

The pilot, Denzil Jacobs, recalled the reception which greeted them at Belfast airport.

Somehow the local Jewish community had received advance warning about the flight and turned up in large numbers. A fine tea was laid out on a table, and a somewhat embarrassed crew, together with the children, were embraced as conquering heroes.

The children well deserved the accolade. Against the odds they had survived the unspeakable evil of Nazi genocide.

Hitler's Holocaust had consumed six million Jews, and historian, Sir Martin Gilbert, estimates over a million of the dead were children.

The scale of the killing, even in the appalling context of the Second World War, is beyond comprehension.

One and a half million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz; many hundreds of thousands at Treblinka; and of three million Jews alive in Poland before the war, only one in 10 survived. The child survivors often owed their escape to looking older and tougher than their years. At selections for extermination only the fittest were consigned to slave labour, the rest (including the elderly, young and infirm) were gassed. Most of the slave labourers were themselves worked to death, alongside gypsies, prisoners of war and others, and many succumbed to disease or starvation.

One of the children brought to Northern Ireland was Victor Greenberg, a 16-year-old veteran of Auschwitz. From Nutts Corner, Victor and the rest of the children were whisked off to a refugee farm at Millisle, Co Down.

Victor recalled his first meal in Northern Ireland.

Bread was brought to the table and one of the boys asked how much they were allowed to eat. The unbelievable response was "as much as you want." The children spirited away the bread to hide under their bedclothes. "Who knows when we will be able to eat again," they reckoned.

The local people of Millisle were by then well used to having refugees in their midst. What was known locally as Gorman's farm, located just to the south of the village, had been a haven to German, Austrian and Czech Jews since 1939. But nothing could have prepared them for the sight of the young concentration camp survivors; all of them physically and mentally scarred by their experiences.

Victor Greenberg remembered the daily regime at Millisle. The day started with religious worship in the farm's synagogue and the morning was taken up with English lessons. In the afternoon the children played sports and games, and the sturdier were expected to do their share of market gardening. The fresh food (much of it grown on the farm) and exercise "helped to develop our bodies, which we desperately needed." No doubt the bracing fresh air rolling off the Irish Sea also helped.

THE highlight for the children was being let loose in the bright lights of Donaghadee. The local cinema proprietor allowed the refugees cut price admission, and pocket money was squandered in the amusements. Greenberg never forgot the day he was taken to Belfast to choose the pattern for a Burton's suit.

For some of the children the trauma of losing parents and siblings, and of the unspeakable brutality that they had witnessed, hit harder in later life. But incredibly many of the Millisle children went on to live useful and well-adjusted lives.

Wilem Frischmann was on the flight from Prague. He qualified as a structural engineer, and was instrumental in the construction of some of London's best known landmark buildings (for which he was awarded the CBE).

Most of the Northern Ireland contingent had grown up in very religious homes in Eastern Europe. It was decided to move them on to the larger Jewish communities in England.

There they could receive a religious upbringing more in line with what they would have received at home, had Hitler not intervened.

But their first taste of freedom in Ulster was never forgotten. In the early 1980s the late MP, Harold McCusker, ventured into a New York jewellery shop to buy a present for his wife.

He was taken aback when the shopkeeper crossed the counter to greet him: "You are from Northern Ireland!" he exclaimed in a heavy continental accent, "tell me is Donaghadee lighthouse still as beautiful as ever?" Alex Friedman, jeweller, of 47th Street, had also passed through Millisle.

- The inspiring story of the orphans who were brought to the United Kingdom in 1946 (including those who came to Northern Ireland) is told by Sir Martin Gilbert in his book The Boys, Triumph over adversity, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

- To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, on Sunday, January 27, Queen's Film Theatre will present special screenings of "Into the Arms of Strangers; Stories of the Kindertransport" the Oscar winning documentary by Mark Jonathan Harris. The film will be shown at 3pm and 7pm on Sunday and will be introduced by Dr David Warm from the University of Ulster who will give a brief talk on the film and the child refugees sent to Millisle during World War II.

Belfast Telegraph