The lost boys of the Villa Bencistà

Boys who survived the Holocaust were scattered by chance and design, often finding curious refuges

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Young Jewish refugees at a camp near Windermere in Cumbria, 1946 (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the summer of 1945, a group of young Holocaust survivors, kitted out in suits donated by Burton, the men’s outfitters, were learning to be English gentlemen in a gloomy country mansion on the shores of Lake Windermere. In January, to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, the BBC will screen The Children, a new docudrama based on their story. The advance publicity promises a story of unparalleled friendship and survival, a “redemptive” feel-good tale. Yet the truth behind the group that has become known as “the Boys” is far more complicated—and Britain’s role in their fate rather less positive.

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. Despite promises that they would lift the restrictions on Jewish emigration to Palestine, Clement Attlee’s new Labour government kept the strict pre-war quotas that had been implemented to avoid antagonising the Arabs who controlled Britain’s crucial oil supply.

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.

While researching the story of “The Boys” and the survivors of the Josiah Wedgwood, I meet Jack Bursztain, who died in 2012, in the virtual world of Holocaust testaments. He was born in the Polish industrial city of Lodz in 1927, was incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto and survived not only Auschwitz, but three death marches. The US Army liberated him and other survivors from Gunskirchen camp.

Yechiel Aleksander was also one of “The Boys”, and, now 97, he told me how after the liberation, as soon as he was well enough to leave the hospital where he’d been treated for malnutrition, he was turned out onto the streets to fend for himself. He soon joined Bursztain and with their friends the two 17-year-olds lived a feral existence, setting up a base in the railway station in Graz, in southern Austria, where they had found temporary shelter.

“We went out in groups of eight to 10,” Bursztain told me. “We stole potatoes, selling them for cigarettes and then selling the cigarettes on the black market.” They stole everything they needed and dressed in German uniforms that they found in a storehouse. (Bursztain remembered ripping off the hateful Nazi insignia before he and his friends would don the uniforms.)

“We did not listen to anyone, not that anyone offered to help. Then one day soldiers from the Jewish Brigade came and saved us,” Aleksander remembered.

A British army unit of Jewish recruits from Palestine that had fought its way through Italy, the Jewish Brigade had, after the end of hostilities, disregarded orders and crossed into Austria to help Holocaust survivors. Aleksander recalled how his friends admired these soldiers, with Stars of David painted on their guns and jeeps. In June 1945, as the Brigade took the youngsters to a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Graz, one soldier, Yehuda Tobin, wrote home: “These boys . . . were 10, 11, 12 when the war broke out. They ‘spent’ most of the [last] five to six years in ghettos, concentration camps, forests, on the run . . . Fear grips me when I think about those young boys. What have they not endured?” 

It was in the DP camp the British offered the group UK visas. “We all said ‘No!’”, Aleksander told me. “We only wanted to live among Jews.” The Jewish Brigade soldiers and the Zionist organisations that led the survivors agreed: the orphans’ new home should be Palestine. 

The Brigade took the boys illegally across the border to Italy in their British army trucks. Bursztain was still wide-eyed as he remembered that moment, decades later. “It was the first time in my life I ever ate a cherry tomato. First time in my life I have seen white bread that the Anglo-Saxon world eats.”

Just like “the Boys” 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. Bought by the Simoni family in 1925 and turned into a hotel, the villa boasted a breath-taking panorama of the Tuscan countryside, and a series of opulent rooms, including one that had served Arnold Böcklin, one of Adolf Hitler’s favourite painters, as a studio.

The Italians, according to Aleksand-er, welcomed the survivors with open arms and did everything to help them. (When I asked him what Italy meant to him, he jumped up from his chair: “Amore! Civilizzazione!”)

Simone Simoni, now 90, was 16 years old in 1945 when the teenage survivors arrived. He recalled how the group cut down a large cypress tree to make a flagpole: “Every morning they raised the unofficial Israeli flag and sang a patriotic song.” 

The Jewish soldiers helped Aleksander and his friends rebuild their lives, filling their charges with a love of Palestine and a deep Zionist commitment, but also giving them a wider education: Aleksander learned Italian and recalled an expedition to see La Bohème; at Yom Kippur the teenagers were taken to Florence’s huge Moorish-style synagogue. In particular, Aleksander remembers Arieh Avisar, the Jewish Brigade soldier who ran the house. As a British serviceman, Avisar received alcohol rations, which he sold to raise cash for the boys’ food. At 20-something he became a father figure, Bursztain said: “He taught us how to be a real mensch. He taught us reading, writing and arithmetic and above all he sat us down and listened to our problems.”

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.