The year was 1945. The war was over, and the horrors of the concentration camps had become known. The almost total destruction of Jewish families and Jewish communities was beyond comprehension. And then there were the children – a handful of kids who had survived the worst – their parents shot, often before their eyes, their homes and lives a distant memory. What to do with them now? Great Britain decided to take in 1,000 war orphans, but in the end, only 732 could be found alive. And this is where we meet an incredible heroine, Alice Goldberger.
The children were sent to different orphanages in England, and Alice happened to be matron of the Weir Courtney home in Surrey. Alice was herself a German Jew, who had fled to England in 1939. The children, most being ages eight to twelve, arrived in December of 1945, half-starved and deeply fearful. They were different nationalities and spoke different languages, but all were severely traumatized by their wartime experiences. Some had spent the war in hiding; some had survived concentration camps; others had been subjects of Dr. Joseph Mengele.
Imagine if you will the magnitude of the task before Alice – how to help them heal, how to build a future for them. She felt the answer lay in the normal experiences of childhood. She created a real home where the children played games and read and painted. The budding family went for long rambles together in the countryside and horseback riding. Alice dealt with their tears and fears and understood all too well the ongoing terror of the “bad men.” Each child’s birthday was celebrated with great pomp, and for the younger children who didn’t know their birthdays, she chose one and it became their special day ever after.
The birthdays eventually became bittersweet. The children were required to leave at age 21 and every passing year brought more goodbyes. Weir Courtney closed in 1957, when the last of the children hugged Miss Alice and began their lives in the outside world. Yes, you read that correctly… 1957. Our incredible heroine had devoted 12 years of her life to children who simply had no one else.
Alice Goldberger lost her own family in the Holocaust and had no children of her own. But as the years passed, the kids of her very special kids called her not “Miss Alice” but “Granny.”