Holocaust survivors ‘come home’ to Essex hostel

Sir Ben Helfgott, Jan Goldberger and Harry Spiro – ‘The Loughton Boys’
Photo: Melissa Page

Earlier this month, Holocaust survivors Harry Spiro, Jan Goldberger and Sir Ben Helfgott had the opportunity to make a nostalgic visit back to Holmehurst Hostel in Loughton which had been their home after the war.

The three men, who are now in their mid-90’s, were part of a group of Jewish children who were taken out of Theresienstadt Concentration Camp after its liberation and brought to the UK. They were initially taken to an old RAF base in Windermere in the Lake District to recover and rehabilitate after their traumatic experiences. Many know of this group, known as ‘The Boys’, but less well known are the ‘Loughton Boys’, a group of children who were transferred from Windermere to Holmehurst Hostel in Essex.

Harry Spiro was one these ‘Loughton Boys’ and was only 15 when he was liberated from the camps. Being back at the property after more than 75 years brought back many memories recounting how the hostel gave him and the other boys were given the chance to regain the childhood they had lost at the hands of the Nazis.

“It was a fantastic place and became our home. It was so different to what we had been used to and we were to have fun and play and do the things we had never had the chance to do before – we could just be children again.”

The house, which was home to 26 Jewish children between December 1945 and January 1947 is now privately owned by Wendy and Richard Higgins. The couple hosted an afternoon tea at the house for survivors and their families as well as other guests including other the Lord Lieutenant of Essex and local MP Dame Eleanor Laing.

Richard and Wendy Higgins, the current owners of Holmehurst House
Photo: Melissa Page

Prior to the event at Holmehurst hostel, guests visited an exhibition entitled ‘The Boys: Holocaust Survivors in the Epping Forest District’, at the nearby Epping Forest District Museum. The exhibition was curated by Dr Ellis Spicer, who spent time interviewing survivors and researching other accounts to tell the stories of the children that had stayed at Holmehurst House. Educational resources from this exhibition have been made available to schools and it is hoped that the exhibition, which ran at the museum from July to September 2021, may become a touring exhibition at a later date.  

Angela Cohen, chair of the 45 Aid Society which was set up to help Holocaust survivors and teach about the Holocaust spoke about how each one of the group had made a home for themselves, as well as a living and a family despite what they had endured. Her son, TV personality Robert Rinder spoke passionately about the meaning of sanctuary and how Holmehurst had been just that to the children who had lived there.

‘The Loughton Boys’ with Angela Cohen and her son, Robert Rinder
Photo: Melissa Page

Rabbi Odom Brandman, minister of the nearby Buckhurst Hill Chabad, was also at the event and he spoke about the ‘special connection’ he felt that there was between the local area’s current Jewish community and those young survivors who had lived there so many years before. He ended his speech by blowing the shofar ahead of Rosh Hashonah.

Rabbi Brandman of Buckhurst Hill Chabad
Photo: Melissa Page

The event was not only a chance for survivors and their families to visit Holmehurst and reminisce, but also to celebrate the recent installation of a Blue plaque at the property recognising three different events of historical significance.

In 1940, it was originally the place where Sudetenlanders who had fled the Nazis met to establish the Loughton Declaration. Their plan was that after an Allied victory in World War II, Czechoslovakia should be re-established as a federal state with Sudetenland as a nation within that federation. It was later used as a safe house for anti-Nazi VIP’s before finally becoming a home to child Holocaust survivors after the war.

One of the guests attending the event had travelled all the way from Florida to honour her late father who had been a ‘Loughton Boy’. Robyn Frydman remembered that her father Gerson Frydman who was known as ‘Jeff’ always spoke fondly about his time at Holmehurst House and she felt that being able to visit herself was ‘a very special experience’.

‘The Loughton Boys’ with their families at Holmehurst House
Photo: Melissa Page



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