How I'm a Celeb's Gwrych Castle housed Jewish children in WWII

How Wales’s Gwrych Castle used in I’m a Celeb was home to more than 200 Jewish children who had escaped the Nazis as part of Kindertransport scheme before start of WWII

  • From 1939 until 1941, castle was a safe haven for around 200 Jewish refugees 
  • Was largest of around 20 Jewish agricultural training centres that came to UK
  • Castle was used in 2020 and 2021 series of I’m a Celeb due to Covid pandemic 

To millions during the coronavirus pandemic, it became known as the new temporary home of ITV’s hit show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here. 

The grade-I listed Gwrych Castle near Abergele in north Wales hosted the programme in 2020 and 2021 amid the travel restrictions imposed in Queensland, Australia, where celebrities usually fly to take part in the series. 

But, more than 70 years ago, the castle was put to a much more important use amid the unfolding horrors of the Second World War.

From 1939 until 1941, the castle was a safe haven for around 200 Jewish refugees who had fled Nazi-occupied Europe as part of the Kindertransport scheme. 

It became the largest of around 20 agricultural training centres – known as hachsharot in Hebrew – that relocated to Britain from Germany during the war. 

Now, a new book has told the full story of the role the castle played in sheltering vulnerable Jewish children during the Holocaust.

Andrew Hesketh, the author of Escape to Gwrych Castle: A Jewish refugee story, told MailOnline that the children had ‘been through hell and back’ and their time at the castle represented a ‘sense of moving from darkness into light’ as they rebuilt their lives.

From 1939 until 1941, Gwrych Castle near Abergele in north Wales was a safe haven for around 200 Jewish refugees who had fled Nazi-occupied Europe as part of the Kindertransport scheme.  Above: Six of the teenagers at the castle

The grade-I listed Gwrych Castle near Abergele in north Wales hosted I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here in 2020 and 2021 amid the travel restrictions imposed in Queensland, Australia, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic 

The Kindertransport was the name given to the scheme backed by the British Government to get children out of Nazi Germany and other occupied nations before war broke out in 1939. 

Nearly 10,000 mostly Jewish children came to the UK from Germany itself as well as Poland, Australia and Czechoslovakia. 

Once in the UK, most of these children went into foster homes.

But several hundred then ended up at the Jewish agricultural centres which were set up with the intention of preparing children for when a Jewish state in Palestine had been established.

Use of Gwrych Castle – which was built in the early 19th century – had been offered for free by its owner, Lord Dundonald, because it was in very poor condition. 

It had not been lived in by his family since 1924 and there was no electricity. 

After the centre at the castle opened in August 1939, just days before war began, children initially slept on hard floors before donations from Marks & Spencer and the local Baptist church improved living conditions. 

The water supply was not powerful enough to provide for 200 people and so children would have to carry pails of water up from the kitchen to their washrooms.

Children, all of whom were aged between 14 and 17, divided their time between doing agricultural work for free on local farms and studying.

Educational programmes, which were led by a rabbi, developed the children’s religious understanding. 

The 2020 series of I’m a Celeb – the first that took place at the castle – was won by Giovanna Fletcher. Above: Giovanna Fletcher is seen with Ant and Dec in the castle after being crowned the winner

The castle is seen during the freezing winter of 1939-1940. The Jewish teenagers arrived there in September 1939

Jewish teenagers are seen digging a drainage ditch on the Gwrych estate during their time at the castle

Erich Roper (bottom right, kneeling) is seen with his fellow refugees at Gwrych 

The wedding celebrations of Arieh Handler and Henny Prilutsky at the castle in December 1940

A group of teenage girls in the dining room at Gwrych, where they remained until 1941

Adi Better (kneeling left) and Henry Steinberg (kneeling centre) are seen with friends in the castle forecourt. Two girls play a trick on the boy on the right by waving their fingers behind his head 

In their spare time they enjoyed playing football and table tennis and having parties. 

Nearly half had come from Great Engeham Farm in Kent, having been sent there after arriving in the UK just weeks or months earlier.

A further 31 were fresh from the last Kindertransport train to depart before war broke out. 

The teenagers who lived at the castle had been hand-picked by Erwin Seligman, who was a member Bachad, the Zionist youth organisation responsible for the training centres. 

Mr Hesketh said: ‘These young people, who had been through hell and back, came to Britain totally lost, but there is a sort of sense of moving from darkness into light.

‘Once they get established, there is a sense of hope and optimism. That is a key part in the story. 

‘There was a future. These guys established it. That is the key message. Perseverance.

‘Talking to the descendants, that was something they were all very proud of.

‘That these young people had established something that worked in a situation that looked impossible.’

Arieh Handler, who died aged 96 in 2011, was the director Bachad and spent much of his time at Gwrych, where he got married in 1940. 

He had helped organise the evacuation of children from Nazi-controlled areas in Europe.  

His grandson Aviv, who lives in London, told MailOnline: ‘He talked about the castle fondly. 

‘He talked particularly about how he got children out [of occupied areas]. 

‘And about how he wandered from community to community to initially get visas for children to come out.’

Speaking of Mr Hesketh’s book, he added: ‘My grandfather didn’t tell us everything. It is a great piece of work, it certainly told me things I didn’t know.’ 

Gwrych Castle’s grand entrance hall – complete with wood paneling and fire place – is seen above in the early 20th century

The grand marble staircase, which Arieh and his wife descended as part of their wedding celebrations

The castle’s dining room is seen decked out with ornate tables and chairs as well as a harp

Arieh had been the last surviving witness to David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of the state of Israel in Tel Aviv in 1948. 

One of the children at the castle, Herman Rothman, gave his recollections to the Imperial War Museum in 2008. 

He told how the children were split into groups based on their ages.  

He said: ‘We were put about eight to ten children per room… almost as soon as we arrived we were put into groups.

‘A group was of children who were usually about 16 or 17 years of age. The B group was approximately 14 and 15 and the C group was 14 and less. 

‘I think 13 was the minimum age they permitted you to be there.

‘Simply because I spoke English fairly well I was promoted into the A group. 

‘I wasn’t particularly happy because all my friends were in the B group.’

He added: ‘After a couple of weeks we started working on land which belonged to the estate. And some of us had to go and work in farms in surrounding areas.

‘We were collected very often, taken to work on these farms and then brought back say two O’clock, four O’clock or six O’clock in the evening back to the castle.’ 

The centre had to be closed in 1941 because of the amount of investment that the castle needed to make it properly habitable in the long-term.

The teenagers there were instead offered an alternative location in Birmingham by the famous Cadbury family.

It was much cheaper to run and maintain and did not need any significant investment. 

Many of the boys in the group went on to serve in the British armed forces, while others went to Palestine and remained there after the state of Israel was established in 1948. 

Gwrych remained empty for the rest of the war and was then sold. 

Escape to Gwrych Castle: A Jewish refugee story, by Andrew Hesketh, was published in June by Calon

It was opened as a visitor attraction later in the 1940s and was later used as a training and entertainment venue, including for jousting events. 

However, it closed to the public in the late 1980s and went into severe decline.

It was bought by a property developer in 2007, with plans to turn it into a hotel.

When the firm went bust, the building was sold to the current owners, the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust, and re-opened to visitors. 

The 2020 series of I’m a Celeb – the first that took place at the castle – was won by Giovanna Fletcher, whilst Danny Miller triumphed in the following year’s competition.

The campmates had to be removed from the castle in November 2021 when a tree came crashing down during bad weather caused by Storm Arwen.

The fiasco forced ITV to air compilation clips instead of the live shows could not take place. 

Escape to Gwrych Castle: A Jewish refugee story, by Andrew Hesketh, was published in June by Calon. 

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