In ‘The Windermere Children,’ Holocaust Survivors Find Hope and Healing

Sala (Anna Maciejewska), Arek (Tomasz Studzinski), Juliusz (Lukasz Zieba), Ike (Kuba Sprenger), Sam (Marek Wrobelewski), Salek (Jakub Jankiewicz), Ben (Pascal Fischer) and Chaim (Kacper Swietek) in 'The Windermere Children.' (Courtesy of Wall to Wall Media Limited)

Surviving the Holocaust is not an experience that runs close or even parallel to COVID-19 confinement. The virus isn’t discriminating against individuals based on their religion, political beliefs or sexual orientation. It’s not singling out enemies of the state or locking anyone up by force. Nonetheless, the pandemic has engineered a frightening set of tensions in our private and public lives. We’re all watchful of the people we meet in the grocery store, wary of making one fatal misstep lest we catch the disease.

Although sheltering in place isn’t yet equivalent to living through a war, the sense of an ongoing, external threat does make it easy to identify with the characters in The Windermere Children, premiering April 5 on PBS. Based on a true story, this affecting drama is set in the northwest part of England shortly after World War II.

The United Kingdom created a temporary sanctuary near the idyllic backdrop of Lake Windermere for nearly 1,000 children who lived through the Holocaust (the reasons why the U.K. did this are left largely unexplained in the film). The Windermere Children begins in the middle of the night with a busload of new arrivals. For the sake of smart and economic storytelling, the film narrows its focus onto a small group of adolescent boys.

Salek (Jakub Jankiewicz) in 'The Windermere Children.' (Courtesy of Wall to Wall Media Limited)

When they disembark, the camera closes in on the children’s mistrustful expressions. One says the process of lining up and filing into the barracks reminds him of the death camps. The main characters are Polish; their inability to speak or understand English contributes to their sense of disorientation. A boy named Salek (Jakub Jankiewicz) is too terrified to even leave the bus. It is only when Oscar (Thomas Kretschmann), the sanctuary’s director, takes a calm and caring approach with Salek, that we know the group is in good hands.

Rather than filling the screen with depraved Nazis, The Windermere Children concentrates on the damaged psyches of the survivors. That damage is fully apparent in moments like the children’s first breakfast, when they grab frenziedly at the pieces of fresh bread on the table and stampede out of the dining hall, used to years of deprivation and fighting for the tiniest scraps of sustenance.

Oscar (Thomas Kretschmann) and Marie (Romola Garai) in 'The Windermere Children.' (Courtesy of Wall to Wall Media Limited)

The four months of rehabilitation look like they’re taking place at an ordinary summer camp with soccer matches, jump rope and swims in the lake—but the underlying weight of trauma bears down on everyone, not just the survivors. In the classroom of officious child psychologist Marie (Romola Garai), children begin to express their inner turmoil with paint on paper. She is completely unprepared for the images that emerge and her own emotions crack through her professional demeanor.

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While the children are slowly liberated by walks through the woods, bicycle rides, newfound camaraderie or handfuls of clean clothes, the audience is always aware of their scars.

Wojciech Szepel, the cinematographer responsible for the 2017 remake of Howards End, captures the beauty and melancholy of the Cumbrian landscape around Lake Windermere. He does especially well with scenes set in the dark. The children can’t sleep; they frequently have nightmares. When one of the boys wakes at night and wanders outside in his bare feet, the filmmakers thoughtfully construct a scene devoid of extraneous, explanatory dialogue. Oscar is in the distance, smoking a cigarette, watching over his troubled, wandering charges. We understand that, despite their experiences and grievous losses, these children are truly being cared for.

George (Philipp Christopher), Jock (Iain Glenn), Arek (Tomasz Studzinski) and Sala (Anna Maciejewska) in 'The Windermere Children.' (Courtesy of Wall to Wall Media Limited)

Set 75 years in the past, The Windermere Children makes a brief nod to the contemporary persistence of xenophobia and anti-Semitism—and the moral necessity of combatting such hatred. The confrontation happens on a trip to a nearby town for ice cream, when a group of English teenagers begin to mock the foreign refugees. In a shocking moment, the teens even raise their arms in a Nazi salute. While the other chaperones usher the children inside the shop, Oscar approaches the locals with ice cream cone in hand, calmly shaming them into admitting their behavior was obscene.

It’s a heartening yet aspirational scene that points its finger directly at 2020 audiences. Who will stand up for the dignity of others and be the Oscar of our present moment?

'The Windermere Children' premieres Sunday, April 5 at 10pm on KQED 9. Details here.