The Windermere Children (The Windermere Project). By Keith White

I am not sure whether the 2020 film The Windermere Children, directed by Michael Samuels, and based on The Windermere Project has become one of the resources for those seeking to help children who have experienced trauma.  But while watching it recently, it was a powerful reminder that all children who are placed in some form of alternative or substitute care have suffered trauma, not least loss of, and separation from, kith and kin.  We can conceive of some sort of scale of trauma with the likes of the children who suffered in the holocaust, and of children from war zones suffering most, but watching the film for the first time reminded me that it is only a matter of degree: the essential dynamics and challenges are the same.

After forty years of seeking to help children and young people at Mill Grove there were several aspects of the Project represented by certain scenes in the film that struck home.

For those who are new to the Project, it began in 1945 immediately after World War Two, was intended to last two years, and sought to care for and rehabilitate 300 children and young people, who had just been liberated from concentration camps in Poland.  It was supported by the Central British Fund for Jewish Relief.  Spearheaded by Leonard Montefiore, who had also been involved in the Kindertransport initiative, it was an act of charity, underpinned by genuine empathy and love. Montefiore was a gifted organiser, who having arranged for a coalition of nations and bodies to make the Windermere Project possible in the first place, then chose with consummate care a team to head it up.  He wanted gifted professionals who would understand the challenging and radical nature of a venture that would test them individually and collectively beyond reasonable or predictable limits.

Dr. Oscar Friedman, the leader chosen was a psychiatrist and teacher, from Berlin. He was an orphan who had himself escaped Nazi persecution, during which time he lived in a concentration camp and was beaten up. In time the children discovered that he was in some ways like one of them.  They later recalled that he never raised his voice.  And he always listened to what a child or young person was trying to say. The aim he set for the Project was that each child should be seen as an individual and be encouraged to develop their own character.  They needed to learn to stand on their own two feet, and to be prepared to take their place in society. He saw that the time would come when they could no longer rely on charity or pity.

To achieve this what children needed was genuine experience of choice and freedom. After the brutal regimentation of the concentration camps, there were boundaries such as shared mealtimes, but otherwise, there were as few rules at Windermere as possible. Each had a bed with sheets!  One former child commented: “I started living”.  As a psychiatrist Friedman found that he never engaged in formal one-to-one sessions with the children and young people.  They weren’t at that stage, and so he didn’t attempt it.  He did not encourage his team to attempt conventional counselling either, sensing that insight and healing would come by other means.

Though not engaging in conventional psychiatry, he was able to use his experience, wisdom and knowledge, to build a team, and establish boundaries not only within the life of the newly formed community, but in relation to the surrounding villages, farms and neighbours.  This meant helping his team to understand the extent of the traumas the children had experienced and were going through.  He encouraged one of the children to leave the camp without explanation and without conditions knowing that would be the child’s first experience of freedom.  In the film this is depicted dramatically as he waves on a boy furtively trying to get out of the camp. Difficult to encapsulate the significance of that moment when the boy realised a newfound trust and freedom to explore the natural world by himself.

Mediated relationships with the surrounding community, required all his psychological insight and ability.  Had these relationships soured seriously the healing process would have been set back.  He managed to retrieve a stolen dog; to find a way of acknowledging stolen goods, including eggs without reprisals or punishment.  He knew that the children were nowhere near the stage of taking responsibility for such actions: they were in a different mode. He handled a group of teenagers mocking the Windermere children with Nazi salutes in a masterly way. It was a brilliant example of applied group psychology.

He inspired and supported a team of volunteers that pioneered innovative ways of responding to trauma that were being developed in Germany. There was interaction with Anna Freud and her colleagues in Hampstead, particularly in relation to the six youngest children.

Marie Paneth, the art therapist, was a friend of Anna Freud, and she was allowed to operate without prescriptions or restrictions, complete freedom.  It was crucial that the children only came when they wanted to do so, and that there was no comment on what they painted.  The examples of their paintings given in the film were horrific in their symbolism and implications.  This was a pioneering approach because there was no art therapy to speak of in the UK at this stage.  She was guided by her own intuition in responding to exceptional grief and repressed anger; holding the face of one child, and allowing another to rest her head on her shoulder.  Such actions are the quintessence of sensitive and professional responses and decision-making.  They are about gut reactions.  Significantly no word was spoken, so the boundaries of the art therapy sessions were maintained despite these deviations from standard practice.

Windermere was selected, not only because there happened to be a disused War Factory available, but because the initiators of the Project believed in the restorative quality of the beautiful world.  Somehow some of the deepest emotional and spiritual healing would be enabled through direct contact with the nature.  Looking back the survivors described Windermere as “The Promised Land”. Interactions with the natural world were the setting of some of the most insightful and emotional interactions and discoveries.  The lake.  They loved being together beside it, and often swimming in it. And exploring the mountains. Who can explain why running through woods, diving into water, rowing across a lake, climbing a crag, is so full of potential for healing, self-knowledge and relationships?

The sports teacher, Jock Lawrence, was in some ways out of his depth, but his genuine desire to help and inspire the boys came through.  And he was, like his colleagues ready to learn with and from the young people: to admit his mistakes and apologise.  His use of the term “son” in relating to the boys was obviously gauche and inappropriate in this situation, but they found a way of communicating this to him, and he was ready and willing to adjust and move on.  He helped them to develop physically and in confidence. Winning football matches against local teams was hugely significant to them.  In the process he became very close to them, and helped to shape some of their lives and careers.

A special education with its own curriculum was developed.  Most of the youngsters had not known any formal education for six years. And they were keen to learn.  Speaking and writing English was what they wanted to do more than anything.  They were encouraged to learn what they wanted to do, for example playing the piano. They worked hard outside of school hours, working at books under trees. They knew that they had to learn to stand on their own two feet, and that this started in the present not at some later date.

The rabbi was a crucial figure in a community where Montefiore wanted there to be a Jewish context for the children.  Some had lost any faith or trust in God, but open discussion, as in the rabbinical tradition was encouraged, with no holds barred.

But now we come to the heart of the matter.  Despite the exemplary boundary keeping and facilitation of Dr Friedman, the expertise and commitment of his team, the real action took place in the relationships between the children. It was through their conversations, their silences, their shared experiences, their anger, despair, the way in which their resentment was expressed, and in some way absorbed or deflected, that a process of healing developed.  They could say what they really felt on occasions to each other.  They had all lost their closest relatives without exception, and when the news of this arrived officially in the post things took a darker turn.  But their shared grief was somehow held by the place/community and by their bonds and bonding.

The indication of how far they had come was indicated by the arrival of the brother of one of the boys, Salek.  He was the only surviving relative of the children who appeared in Windermere.  How would the others react, given that this reunion was a powerful and poignant reminder of their own loss?  The film showed several of them smiling in empathy.  That was a pivotal moment, a tipping point.  The long-lost brother, the one who was feared dead, was alive again, and he was welcomed to the party as it were, by those whose brothers and sisters would never return.

The group of six young children were the subject of a study by Anna Freud and a colleague.  The children functioned as a tight-knit family.  They felt for each other, cared for each other.  If, for example they had a nightmare, they didn’t go to grown ups but helped each other out.  Because of the loss of their families, they had to be in a group.  This group was some sort of safety net.  Through careful recording, notes were shared with Anna Freud.  And psycho-therapeutic meanings of behaviour were identified.

This reading of where the true healing lay is not simply that of a professional intuiting what might be going on: the reflections of the significant players in the story in their later lives confirmed this.  Having lost their blood relatives, this group became their family.  For many of the children who were part of the Windermere Project, it was something that worked, and for which they have been truly thankful.

And this is what we need all those responsible for responding to the needs of traumatised children (that is all children who have suffered some significant loss of attachments), whether directly or as policy makers, to learn to hear.  Sadly, despite the testimony of so many children that they have found acceptance and healing in groups such as this, the myth continues: residential care is the last resort.  If family rehabilitation is not possible for whatever reason, then the best alternatives are always adoption or foster care.  There are no ifs and buts: this is a binary way of characterising the choices.

All my professional life I have listened to children, and to adults reflecting on their childhoods in different forms of care.  The fact is that some have had positive experiences in each form (family, adoption, foster and residential care) and some have had horrendous experiences in each of these forms of care.  The evidence is robust.  So why is it that we cannot listen carefully enough to ask which they feel is most appropriate and why?

“It was like a family: a family affair” reflected one of the children much later in life. The choice of words is significant.  For some reason professionals are resistant to the application of a label such as “family” being applied to settings very different from conventional nuclear families or households.  I still meet those who tell me their stories of being part of the family of a large UK children’s charity decades after one of its CEOs had explained to me that this was not appropriate.   And I have virtually daily reminders of the bonds that have been established between those who have lived at Mill Grove.  It is not a case of one size fits all.

You may find it hard to believe, but when I reached this point of the draft of this article, I received the following email from a retired teacher who had lived at Mill Grove as a child:

“I hear that you celebrated a special wedding anniversary last year. Congratulations! I’m so sorry that I wasn’t able to be at your celebration, although [N] filled me in and told me how she met up with so many of our contemporaries while she was there. I was so happy when she contacted me to tell me that she had met up with a bunch of people who we hadn’t seen for a very long time. For me, since I was 13, a long time ago!! I have since been able to swap numbers with them all and am hopefully going to be able to meet up later this year. I can tell you: this has been one of the best things to have happened to me in a long time. When I left Mill Grove…at the age of 13, I put on a huge amount of teenage bravado and pretended that I was happy to leave. But actually the wrench away was enormous and so I’m so thrilled to have made contact with so many friends/siblings? (How do you describe the relationship which we shared?) and really can’t wait to see them all.”

For whatever reason or combination of reasons, her words will never begin to disturb the myths and ideologies of those professionals and policy makers that know better than her, and all like her. My sense is that a Eurocentric pride still prevents well-meaning professionals from listening to the voices from the margins (the professionals see themselves as at the centre), seemingly completely unaware that in many countries and situations there is no way in which adoption or foster care is possible or appropriate.  For the avoidance of doubt, I am not an advocate of one form of care over another.  Rather, that we should seek to listen to and understand children in responding to their situations and needs without doctrinaire commitments and be willing to unlearn accrued dogma when the evidence contradicts them.

Why then can we not see that what happened at Windermere was not only one of the only options available, but also possibly the very best setting that there could have been given the tragic backgrounds of the children?  Had they all been adopted or separated into different foster care settings, then wouldn’t the very heart of the healing process would have been destroyed?  And yet we seem incapable of learning.

I have pondered this long and hard, as you can probably imagine.  My conclusion is that there seems to be a myth in every society that family is best, and that therefore any alternatives that seem to be better for whatever reasons, are treated, consciously or unconsciously as unthinkably subversive.  And that what was in vogue a decade or so ago, labelled “evidence-based practice”, is itself a myth.

But for those who can listen, the Windermere Project has not only much to teach, but much to inspire and enjoy.

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