Sir David Attenborough

Of course, everyone reading this post is likely to have heard of David Attenborough in one way or another – he is a hugely well known British naturalist and campaigner for protecting the environment.

During the Second World War, Sir David’s parents cared for two Jewish refugee girls. One of the girls, Helga Bejach, had the dream of becoming a dancer and she was able to attend the Ginner-Mawer School of Dance and Drama when it was in Boscastle, Cornwall.

As a young boy, living in a nice, quiet house with his parents and two brothers, it must have come as a shock for David Attenborough to suddenly find himself with two new ‘sisters’ who had left their own home under such terrible, violent circumstances. However, David Attenborough welcomed Irene and Helga as his siblings and is still in touch with their descendants today.

But how did Sir David come to have two refugee German Jewish girls living in his house, being cared for by his parents? It was because of something called Kindertransport, which was a rescue mission to help children like Irene and Helga escape the brutal Nazi regime in the months before the start of World War Two.

In the run up to the war, many countries were reticent to take in large numbers of Jewish refugees, even though their lives were being made unbearable by the brutal Nazi regime acting under the instructions of Adolf Hitler. Discrimination and murder were increasingly common simply for being Jewish.

However, the British Government eventually changed its mind after the dreadful events of Kristallnacht; a single night of such awful and terrible violence agains Jews in Germany that Britain agreed to take part in Kindertransport (‘kinder’ being German for children). On that single night, 9 November 1938, there was a massive wave of violence against Jewish people and ninety-one Jewish people in Germany were murdered; 30,000 more were dragged from their homes and sent to concentration camps; and 267 synagogues were destroyed. Hundreds of Jewish shop windows were smashed to smithereens and the shattered glass covered everything like a layer of crystals, giving rise to the name Kristallnacht (crystal night).

Over a period of several months, Kindertransport saved the lives of 10, 000 Jewish children under the age of 18 by bringing them out of Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland. Sadly, the children had to travel without some of their family members as older siblings and parents were not allowed to go with them. Once in Britain, each child needed a sponsor to look after them as the Government did not fund their care.

Two of the children who were rescued were sisters, Irene and Helga Bejach, and their sponsors in Britain were Mr Frederick and Mrs Mary Attenborough – David’s parents. Their older sister had to remain in Germany with their father (their mother had died some years previously); she survived the war, but they never saw their father again as he was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he died. The Attenborough family took the frightened girls to their hearts, and treated them as part of their own family. Just seventeen days after Irene and Helga had arrived in England, war broke out.

The sisters lived with the Attenborough’s for seven years and during this time, Helga said she would like to be a dancer. Mary Attenborough sought advice and was told that although Helga could dance, she would never be good enough to make a living from performance. This didn’t put Helga off – she wanted to dance, and dance she did. The Attenborough’s helped her to enrol at the Ginner-Mawer School of Dance and Drama which had evacuated to Boscastle in Cornwall – far away from the bombs and the carnage of war.

The Ginner-Mawer tuition was a full-time, three year course, covering all aspects of dance and drama and the students took lodgings in the village where they were looked after by various land-ladies.

I don’t have confirmation (yet) as to when Helga started at Ginner-Mawer or whether or not she completed her three years, but she did keep a diary and the attached photo shows the cover of it, with the Ginner-Mawer name written in ink (source: Daily Mail, Mail On-Line web page, 7 December 2020).

The Mail On-Line article gives information about the Attenborough’s and how they cared for Irene and Helga. Sir David recently hosted a reunion of family members and descendants of both families. Helga’s papers have been lodged with Leicester University and I will try to find out if they are accessible on-line. I have also written to Sir David to see if he recalls anything about Ginner-Mawer. I will let you know how I get on!

Author: Janet Fizz Curtis

Janet Fizz Curtis is trained in the Irene Mawer Method of Mime and Movement and is now writing a book about the life of Irene Mawer.

2 thoughts on “Sir David Attenborough

  1. Miy mother Joan Frances Biggs trained at the Ginner- Mawer School in the 1920’s and went on to teach classical Greek Dancing. During the Second World War she also taught Ballroom dancing as and where she was asked. She would compose dances and if there was a school performing a pantoa mime she would be asked to teach pupils to perform in Christmas show, etc. She had a natural grace even into old age, which was partly natural and partly what she had learned from the Ginner-Mawer School.

    1. Hello Susan. Thank you so much for getting in touch and I was very interested to hear about your mum. I have a little mini-series of blog posts about what the Ginner-Mawer students went on to do, I would be really pleased if I could say a few words about your mum. If you would like me to do a post, just let me know and we can swap some details. Thank you again for getting in touch (p.s. I am always thrilled when someone finds the site, how did you come across it, please?)

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