In 1939, one hundred Jewish adolescent strangers were wrenched from their families and, too young to appreciate the ultimate sacrifice which their parents were making (in most cases never to be reunited again), were thrust together in a manor house in a remote part of the Devonshire countryside. Within this disparate agglomeration were teenagers hailing variously from the mean streets of 2nd district, Vienna; well-heeled Bohemians from Prague and Teplice – replete with trunks containing riding boots and silk shirts – and middle-class Berliners.
They were nominally represented by an array of Jewish youth groups ranging from Hashomer Hazair to Haboni, with no knowledge of British life and unable to speak English. They were, for the most part, left to their own devices with minimal supervision and given no formal education. But many were forced to work as cheap labour for local farmers, under the pretext that they were being given agricultural training for when they would emigrate to Palestine. For most, however, this opportunity would never materialise.
Welcome to Bydown House, the stately Georgian pile in deepest, darkest Devon. The Jewish Refugee Committee in Bloomsbury took over this empty, part derelict building in late 1939 to house nearly one hundred refugee youngsters from Central Europe with the intention of preparing them for kibbutz life in Palestine. Amongst them, there were at least 20 youths who came on Sir Nicholas Winton’s trains. In reality, whilst some of the youth leaders made it to Palestine, most of the residents never got there.
The Wiener Holocaust Library holds a collection of papers, formerly in the possession of one of the youth leaders, Fred Dunston (Fritz Deutsch), which documents some of the organisational issues, but more importantly, contains material produced by some of the residents themselves.
Lack of funding; poor communication between the head office in London and the centre in Devon; inadequate organisation; hurried selection; absence of preparation and training all contributed to what was ultimately a doomed project. As a result, the centre was closed down after about 18 months and the residents were either selected to go to other centres or started to live independently in London and elsewhere.
Life-long friendships were forged at Bydown and some of the staff were remembered with great affection. Fridolin Moritz Max Friedmann (1897-1976), director of Bydown and a renowned educationalist, had been headteacher of the progressive school Landschulheim Caputh in Brandenburg, until the Nazis removed him from his post. He had a reputation for being very dedicated and greatly concerned for his charges. He would go on to teach at Bunce Court school from 1946-1948. Likewise, one of the youth leaders, Eric Lucas (1915-1996), was much loved for the ways in which he was able to relate to them and was described as a great raconteur. Lucas managed to get to Palestine in the summer of 1945.
Ultimately, whilst the project may not have been regarded wholly as a success, it did manage to provide a safe haven for one hundred young refugees, many of whom would have gone on to have their own children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Thousands of descendants saved from the Nazi extermination machine. No mean achievement.