We have listened to many stories about trees over the last eighteen months, but today the story we heard was far more moving than we had expected.
Trevor Avery had been in touch to say he had something he wanted to show us, and it involved a tree. We met him this morning, in the grounds of The Lakes School in Troutbeck, close to Windermere in the Lake District.
It took about an hour to reach the tree. First we talked and slowly wandered, stopping regularly to look at what was around us – the relatively flat playing fields – while Trevor told us what used to be here. He showed us photographs of the Calgarth Estate that stood here during the years of the Second World War. This was an estate built for workers at the Short Sunderland Flying Boat Factory that was constructed amongst the trees on the shores of Windermere to make the aeroplanes (factories in Kent had become too vulnerable to bomb attacks). The factory, and the estate, were never intended to be permanent fixtures.
The estate was dismantled in the 1960s. As a temporary dwelling place for factory workers and their families it holds one history, but there is another. At the end of the war, in 1945, the British government pledged to give homes to a thousand children who had been liberated from concentration camps. Three hundred came to Calgarth Estate; some were as young as four. Their history is a complex one that stretches back before 1945 and forward to the present. It’s a history that is being discovered and shared by Trevor and a small team at the Lakes Holocaust Action group, which continues to interview survivors (whose numbers are dwindling) and sustain a support network for them. The group has set up a permanent exhibition in Windermere library.
Trevor showed us a photograph of children reading and writing beneath an oak tree in the summer. These were the children who had come as orphans from the camps. Trevor walked us to the stump of a long-dead oak. Standing at about seven foot tall it is bare and hollowed out. It may or may not be the tree from the photograph but the location suggests that it is. For Trevor it has become a symbol and each time he visits it, he deepens his own connection with this place and his commitment to the project. ‘It’s never been a dead tree to me,’ he told us ‘it’s got this halo of memories around it.’ The best way to share his story, and the story of the children who lived here, is through his own words – so click on the audio link below:
Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. Trevor will be back here, but not to stand with the stump of an oak that sheltered children whose short lives had involved unimaginable trauma by the time they arrived here. Trevor will be joined by some of those children who are now in their eighties, by other supporters, by children from the school, and by local MP Tim Farron, to install a commemorative plaque. Five years ago Trevor planted an acorn. This wasn’t just any acorn – it was an acorn gathered from an oak woodland in Auschwitz. A photograph taken in the summer of 1944, in a time when the horrific camp was overflowing its ‘capacity’, shows families waiting beneath these oak trees. It seems that they were unaware precisely what they were waiting for – being told in all likelihood that it was their turn to go into the showers. The reality of what was happening was and is still too horrific to believe.
The parent tree of the acorn that Trevor poked into a pot of earth still stands. It shares the same earth that these families waited on, a tree that sheltered them in their last living moments. Trevor tended the small sapling, and watched it grow. He then passed the task of planting it to one of the children, who he has come to know well in adulthood.
On 15 August 2015, 70 years to the day since he arrived as a fifteen-year-old boy at Calgarth, Ben Helfgott planted the young oak in the school grounds. It has survived the nibbles of rabbits and deer, and a lengthy submersion in the flood waters of Storm Desmond, and stands small but strong on a spot where, according to old photographs, a larger oak once stood. Tomorrow, on Holocaust Memorial Day, a plaque will be unveiled at the tree. Among the inscription will be the words spoken by Ben recently, to a standing ovation, in Carlisle cathedral:
“I learned in the concentration camps that we must turn away from hatred and we must spend our lives in the pursuit of peace and tolerance.”