Young Jewish orphans and refugees arrive in Northern Ireland

On 24th February 1946, a Douglas Dakota plane touched down on an airfield in Northern Ireland. Onboard were 25 Jewish refugees, survivors of Nazi persecution.

On 24th February 1946, a Douglas Dakota plane landed at Sydenham Airfield in East Belfast. At the controls was Flight Lieutenant Alexander Appleby of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. His crew consisted of Wing Commander Carey, Flight Lieutenant J. Reid, Flight Lieutenant Patrick Flynn, and Warrant Officer Selwyn Jones.

Onboard the flight were 25 young survivors of concentration camps in occupied Europe. Having sat quietly, bundles of nerves, these teenagers had made the long journey from Prague in the former Czechoslovakia. The 7.25-hour flight was rough. The temperature was cold. The noise in the back of the plane was loud. But, this was nothing compared to the horrific conditions these young people had endured in recent times.

Flying Officer A.A. Appleby R.N.Z.A.F.

Imperial War Museum Photo: CH 14719 (Part of the Air Ministry Second World War Official Collection). Flying Officer AA Appleby of Auckland, New Zealand with his Wireless Operator Flying Officer J.W. McCullough of Glasgow, Scotland.

Most of the young people on the Belfast-bound flight were orphans. Many had lost their entire families, murdered by Nazis in concentration camps in occupied Europe. Accompanying them on the flight was Miss R. Fellner – Secretary of the Jewish Refugee Central Committee based in London, England.

The young Jewish refugees were mostly in their early teens. This first flight brought 13 girls and 12 boys aged between 12 and 16 years old. Among them were two sets of twins and several pairs of siblings. Most would not have known what lay ahead of them at the end of the journey from Prague.

A welcome party from the Belfast Jewish Community awaited the arrival of Appleby’s plane. Among those gathered at the East Belfast airfield were Leo Scop, Maurice Solomon, and Barney Hurwitz. Scop was the Chairman of the Millisle Refugee Settlement. Maurice Solomon was Treasurer of the same institution. Barney Hurwitz was the President of the Belfast Jewish Community. All three were well-known and highly respected members of the local Jewish community. All had been instrumental in offering aid to Jewish refugees throughout the Second World War.

Throughout history, the Irish have become known as a welcoming people. In 1946, this was in evidence as a host of women laid on refreshments in advance of the arrival of the young refugees and the aircrew. There were hot drinks, sandwiches, and buns. Mrs. Scop, Mrs. H. Peres, Mrs. M. Coppel, Mrs. G.N. Wallace M.B.E. (Vice Chairwoman of the Women’s Voluntary Service in Northern Ireland) were on hand to ensure a warm welcome. Other volunteers from the W.V.S. helped out at the airfield including Mrs. Martin, Mrs. Winnington, Miss Broderick, and Mrs. F.C. Wallace (St. John Ambulance).

Each young person then received a kitbag containing emergency clothing and toiletries. The Northern Whig newspaper recorded some of the subtle nuances that came into consideration:

The greatest care had been taken in their choice for these children, who – unlike ordinary boys and girls – are shy of bright colours or gay patterns. Anything distinctive – stripes, checks, or colours – recall to them the distinguishing marks of the concentration camps. And so, these Polish strangers will wear sober, rather dull clothes until time eliminates their associations with brighter ones.

Staff Writer, Northern Whig on 25th February 1946

With sandwiches, buns, cups of tea, toiletries, and new clothes, the young people were ready to continue their journey into Ulster. The next stop would be the small coastal village of Millisle, Co. Down.

Buses brought the young people to Millisle. There, the Jewish Community had established a Resettlement Farm some years before. At the site at Ballyrolly House, the Union Flag fluttered to welcome the young refugees to Northern Ireland. On the gates into the farm, bunting, a selection of Jewish emblems, and a welcome banner hung in anticipation of their arrival.

The Resettlement Farm had been in use for several years. Older members of the community there had been hard at work preparing for the arrival of the refugees from Prague. A meal of soup, fried egg, potato, cabbage, pudding, and coffee awaited them at the end of the day. The day had begun in Prague with an apprehension of the unknown. It ended in rural Northern Ireland with full bellies, a warm welcome, and the singing of traditional national songs.

More new arrivals would land at Nutts Corner, Co. Antrim on 25th February 1946 and at Sydenham Airfield, Belfast on 27th February 1946.