Sunday Times carried the story of two Kindertransport children, Irene and Helga Bejach who were part of his family for over six years and who remained close until their deaths.
In August 1939, two scared children 10-year-old Helga and Irene, aged 12, were picked up by Attenboroughs’s mother Mary at a train station in London to start the last leg of their three-day journey from Berlin. Their Jewish father was facing internment and would later be killed at Auschwitz; their mother had already died of consumption. The plan was for the girls to stay with a family in the UK before continuing their journey to America, where they had relatives.
Attenborough, then 15, remembers noticing that they looked sad and ill – after weeks of privations in Nazi Berlin. “They were also nervous wrecks. Their house in Germany had been smashed by Nazis with guns and their father taken away.” The girls’ presence was accepted as a matter of course. It was not the first time that the family had offered a temporary home to refugee children: several Basque boys and girls had stayed for a few weeks two years before, in flight from the Spanish civil war.
Two waifs from what was known as the Kindertransport programme became part of the Attenborough family. Helga and Irene Bejach ended up living with the Attenboroughs for nearly seven years, going to the local girls’ grammar school and becoming much-loved “sisters” to the boys.
For Richard, who went on to make films about oppression in India and South Africa, the relationship was particularly formative. “It gave me an understanding of what it was to be Jewish, and taught me to loathe prejudice and persecution,” he says. “Frankly, I would never have been interested in making both Gandhi and Cry Freedom without that experience of the girls. They were just like our sisters,” remembers David Attenborough. “They simply became part of the family. We had some tensions, of course, but that’s family life for you. They ate their meals with us and went on holidays with us to Skegness and north Wales .
When they had arrived, Helga spoke a tiny bit of English, while Irene had just a smattering of French. Both cried a great deal in the early days, and wet their beds. As time went on, David gravitated towards Irene, who was academic, while Richard formed a close bond with Helga, who loved ballet and other forms of dance. As the war continued, the girls became increasingly anxious for news of their father. In fact, he had been taken first to Theresienstadt internment camp, and then to Auschwitz. “But it was only after the war, when the girls were still with us, that letters came to tell them that their father had died there,” recalls David.
In 1946 the sisters left to join their relatives in the United States, where they both settled and eventually married. Until they died – Helga three years ago and Irene in 1992 – they remained close to their “brothers. The sisters had also grown to love the boys’ parents (whom they called “Uncle” and “Auntie”.) “I would talk on the phone to both of them – at least once a month, certainly for the first 20 years after the war,” says Richard. “We would regularly send letters and cards for birthdays and Christmas,” recalls David.
Helga and Irene returned occasionally to England, though not quite as often. One incident in late 1959 sums up just how close they were to “Uncle” and “Auntie”. Samuel Goudsmit, who had become one of America’s most distinguished scientists since leaving his native Holland in 1927 for the US, had fallen in love with Irene and asked her to be his wife. Before agreeing, however, she insisted that he fly to England to ask Frederick for his permission to marry her. “It was as if the governor was her father,” recalls David.