Whittingehame House

 

On 25 July 1848 Arthur James Balfour was born in Whittingehame House, near Stenton, with an auspicious future ahead of him. Entering the House of Commons as a Unionist MP in 1874, between 1902 and 1905 he was to be Prime Minister, and later serve as Foreign Secretary from 1916-1919. Eventually he was to become the 1st Earl of Balfour. It was, however, in November 1917, during his term in the Foreign Office, that he was to make the Balfour Declaration, a statement of British support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. After his death on 19 March 1930, his remains were returned to his birthplace and buried in the grounds of Whittingehame.

It was against this background that his nephew and heir, Viscount Traprain, conceived the idea of utilising Whittingehame House as a haven for Jewish refugees from the growing anti-Semitism in Europe. The government had already decided that up to 5,000 children would be permitted exile in Britain. Once they turned 18 they would be forced to leave. It therefore became vitally important that the refugee children in Britain were taught the skills they would need to support themselves when they left this country. There was a great demand for trained workers throughout the Empire, Dominions, South America and Palestine, the latter being at that time a British Protectorate on behalf of the League of Nations. Consequently, Whittingehame House and the estate were leased to Whittingehame Farm School, a non-profit organisation formed for the purpose not only of academic education, but also of tuition in the skills required to make a living after emigrating.

The school opened in January 1939 with an initial intake of just 51 children, although this quickly rose to 96, the normal establishment reaching around 160. A syllabus was prepared covering general education, agriculture and horticulture, including such subjects as farm management, animal nutrition, soils and manures, agricultural book-keeping, carpentry, dyke-building, marsh draining, pest and disease control, fruit and vegetable preservation and forestry as well as special instruction in English and Hebrew. The pupils received scientific training from a specialist staff of teachers, under the headmaster, Charles Maxwell, and carried out practical land work on the estate and neighbouring farms under the supervision of Lord Traprain's and the various farms' grieves. In all, the course at the school lasted a total of two years. Between January 1939 and September 1941 some three to four hundred children passed through the school with many, varied backgrounds.

It was estimated that the cost of maintaining and educating each pupil for two years would be at least £100. The required annual running costs for the school were, as a result, in the order of £15,000 and this was sought from the Jewish public. However, the school was unable to cover the cost of transporting children from the continent and this was generally met by the parents of the children, many of whom were never to see their mothers and fathers again.

Life at Whittingehame did not solely consist of learning, however. Recreation consisted of football, table tennis and chess. During the summer of 1939 Lady Balfour had her forester fell trees to dam the river with which to make an open-air swimming pool. In winter this pool was used for furtive skating against all the rules!

Treatment by the British authorities was not always favourable for these refugees. In May 1940, following the German invasion of the Low Countries, many of the staff and older pupils of the school were classed as 'enemy aliens'. As a result 36 were taken from Whittingehame House under armed guard and interned at Lingfield race course alongside German seamen, many of whom were ardent Nazis. In August 1940 the Home Secretary revoked the order and the pupils and staff were allowed to return to Whittingehame.

One of the pupils who studied at Whittingehame was Harry Nomburg, whose story makes incredible reading. He was sent by his parents to Britain, leaving Berlin on 21 May 1939, which happened to be Mother's Day. He was never to see either of his parents again; they were destined to become victims of the Holocaust which would claim countless, millions of lives. After undergoing the course at Whittingehame Farm School, Harry was interned for three months as an enemy alien. A little while later, in July 1942, he joined the British Army, serving in the Pioneer Corps.

Volunteering for the Commandos in February 1943 Harry received his green beret and a new name, Harry Drew. He was assigned to No 3 Troop, No 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando. This troop consisted almost entirely of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria, with some Hungarians and Greeks, and all faced great risks at the hands of the Gestapo in the event of their capture.

Harry was to have a distinguished career in the Commandos. Although a member of No 10 Commando, he was also to serve on attachment with No's 3, 6 and 12 Commandos at various stages. It was with the latter unit that Harry took part in a 10-man cross-Channel reconnaissance in August 1943. It was on the morning of 6 June 1944, D-Day, that Harry was to see more concentrated action as he waded onto one of the Normandy beaches. Dashing across the beach to the sound of bagpipes, he found himself at the side of the man in charge of the Commando Brigade, Lord Lovat! Harry Nomburg was to continue to see action as the campaign continued through Belgium and the Netherlands, eventually emigrating to the United States after the war.

Not all the Whittingehame children were to have quite the same war as Harry Nomburg. Many of the children were eventually to find their way to Palestine, which even then was seen as the Jewish homeland. Consequently, following the establishment in 1948 of the state of Israel, there remain a sizeable number of ex-pupils of Whittingehame in the Holy Land with many fond memories of their time in East Lothian. One ex-pupil was to write 50 years later: "Whittingehame I consider the happiest year of my life in retrospect: the camaraderie, simplicity, and last unaffected and carefree year of my youth, the Chaluzik spirit with its enthusiasm, singing religious services, dancing and emerging puberty."