United Kingdom

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: The teenagers who survived Hitler's death camps

The Windermere Children

Rating:

Great Asian Railway Journeys

Rating:

When I visited Auschwitz a few years ago, what upset me most were not the symbols of indescribable evil, such as the heaps of human hair and boots, and the gas chamber itself, but a wall of sepia photographs.

They showed middle-class French families, posed in their best clothes. 

Mothers in these pre-war portraits were seated on chairs. Fathers stood beside them, perhaps with an affectionate hand on a shoulder.

Their children, in tweed knickerbockers or sailor hats purchased especially for the occasion, stood at their knees.

The horror was emphasised less than the humanity: we got to know seven teenagers and watched the well-meaning but futile attempts of psychologists and teachers to help them

The full enormity of what happened at Auschwitz is beyond comprehension, mine at least. It is literally too terrible to imagine.

But I recognised exactly who those French families were. There were portraits just like those in my grandparents’ photo albums.

Suddenly I felt as if I knew whose hair and boots had been preserved, and who had died in the gas chamber — who they were before being labelled ‘victims of Auschwitz’.

The Windermere Children (BBC2) achieved a similar effect by introducing us to some of the survivors of the Holocaust. 

At the beginning of the drama we heard the voices of five of these survivors, now in their late 80s and 90s. And they appeared at the end, still friends, as if to remind us that the Holocaust was only one part of their lives — and that this unspeakable war crime happened well within living memory

In 1945, 300 youngsters rescued in the liberation of the camps were brought to a former factory village in the Lake District. 

None of them spoke English, or knew of any relatives who had survived the Nazi exterminations.

Writer Simon Block’s one-off drama hinted at what they had endured, in snatches of conversation and glimpses of their nightmares. 

The horror was emphasised less than the humanity: we got to know seven teenagers and watched the well-meaning but futile attempts of psychologists and teachers to help them.

At the beginning of the drama we heard the voices of five of these survivors, now in their late 80s and 90s. 

And they appeared at the end, still friends, as if to remind us that the Holocaust was only one part of their lives — and that this unspeakable war crime happened well within living memory.

Writer Simon Block’s one-off drama hinted at what they had endured, in snatches of conversation and glimpses of their nightmares

The young cast were excellent, especially Pascal Fischer as the athletic Ben Helfgott, who went on to captain the British Olympic weightlifting team.

The older stars had less to do but look grieved and smoke fretfully. Though there were some famous faces, including Romola Garai as the art therapist and Iain Glen as the football coach, this production had a low-budget feel.

The ration-coupon clothes and awkward scenes shot through reeds at the water’s edge gave it the look of an Eighties independent British film.

No expense was spared for Michael Portillo on his Great Asian Railway Journeys (BBC2), which began in Hong Kong and continues all this week en route to Singapore.

A liveried Rolls-Royce brought him to the Hotel Peninsula, ‘the most luxurious hotel east of Suez’. 

Michael took full advantage — he was still scoffing his breakfast when the camera crew arrived for the next morning’s shoot. 

Highlight, though, was his visit to a traditional noodle factory in a cramped residential apartment block.

In a room barely bigger than a wardrobe, ankle deep in flour, a chef was kneading noodle dough by sitting on a horizontal bamboo pole the size of a drainpipe.

No expense was spared for Michael Portillo on his Great Asian Railway Journeys (BBC2), which began in Hong Kong and continues all this week en route to Singapore

Straddling the pole like a motorbike pillion, Mike couldn’t resist having a go. 

His tight green trousers looked as though they could split at any moment, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him having fun.

‘I hope no one comes in,’ he bounced, before sliding off the pole. ‘That was exhausting!’ 

You never got that with British Rail.

Yee-haw of the night

Hugh Laurie is famous for his American accent as Dr House.

But Surrey-born Kelly Reilly is a match for him on the cowboy soap spectacular Yellowstone (Paramount Network). 

You’d never guess she’s faking it.

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