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Leicester Special Collections

Mary and her Humanitarian Contributions

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Welcoming Basque children to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1937 (Copyright: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums/Wikimedia Commons)

Evington Hall, 2011

Evington Hall today. (Copyright: Wikimedia Commons)

Refugees in Leicester

It appears that from an early age, Mary was heavily invested in causes that concerned themselves with an advocation for human rights and equality. Recounting his memories of his mother, Richard Attenborough described her as being ‘the most tactile, energetic and outspoken woman I’ve ever encountered… if she saw an injustice, she would not speak out against it but fight to put it right.’[1] This clearly is evident in Mary’s role as secretary of the local branch of the Basque Children’s Committee, one of several relief agencies set up to take in young Basque refugees who were fleeing from the onslaught of the Spanish Civil War, and disperse them in local group homes, or ‘colonies’. Leicester played its part in taking in the refugees, accommodating fifty children at Evington Hall. David Attenborough, in conversation with Richard Graves, mentions how his mother was active in the involvement of preparing for the arrival: ‘My clearest memories of this are of seeing my mother on her hands and knees scrubbing the floors of this disused house to make it ready for them.’[2]

The first young refugees arrived at Leicester’s Central Station in July 1937, with Mary and other members of the committee waiting on them and taking them to Evington in their cars. Within days, various Leicester citizens responded enthusiastically to the appeal of assistance, such as providing extra accomodation, clothing, food, and helping to provide a continuation of their education. Genuine efforts were made to make them feel part of the local community; refugees attended a summer camp with the Scouts, organised a football team, and were taught woodwork, gardening, handicrafts, and even a local exhibition was arranged to showcase their work.[3]

However, by 1938, the Basque countryside fell to General Franco’s forces, and there were conflicting opinions on for how much longer the children were to stay. Mary was adamant: ‘Either both parents are refugees, living in appalling conditions, or the mother is a refugee and the father a prisoner in Franco territory. We cannot send these children back yet, and undo all that we did when they were rescued from Bilbao.[4] Mary’s support was resoundingly for Spain’s Republican Government, even criticising a British government-appointed repatriation report which suggested that people should have no concerns about the treatment of the refugees by the new Nationalist Government, which had, only a year before, been responsible for the destruction of the Basque market towns of Durango and Guernica:

If we were to write to the refugee mother of one of our families at Evington and say that we had decided to send her children back to Bilbao into the hands of those same people who are holding her husband prisoner, it would not be of much comfort to her to be assured that…her children will be treated “with the utmost kindness”… If we can send back children to parents with homes to receive them, then we think that they should go, whether the parents are in Nationalist or Government Spain-but we will not deliver the children up to their parents’ enemies.[5]

At this time, however, the number of refugees continued to dwindle as Britain began to prepare for war against Germany, and the ‘colony’ at Evington Hall was soon closed down to become a convent. Mary would eventually continue her work with refugees, and by August 1939, two months before the outbreak of war, the family had taken in two young German-Jewish refugees from Berlin, Helga and Irene Bejach, whose experiences would prove to be a memorable period for the Attenboroughs.

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Helga and Irene Bejach in Leicester, 1939. (Copyright: Beverly Rich/University of Leicester Special Collections & Archive, Accession 2019/21)

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Irene Bejach's itinerary from the Kindertransport


Diary of Helga Bejach. (Copyright: Beverly Rich/University of Leicester Special Collections & Archive, Accession 2019/21)

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Tennis courts next to College House, c.1929 (Copyright: University of Leicester Special Collections & Archives)

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German Red Cross Telegram sent to Helga and Irene notifying their father's 'place of residence' at the Theresienstadt Ghetto. (Copyright: Beverly Rich/University of Leicester Special Collections & Archive, Accession 2019/21)


Letter to Mary from the Refugee Children's Movement, notifying her of Curt Bejach's death. (Copyright: Beverly Rich/University of Leicester Special Collections & Archive, Accession 2019/21)

A Safe Haven

With the ever-increasing threat of war looming in Europe and the onslaught of anti-Semitic pogroms in Germany, between 1938 and 1940, a decision was made by the British government to rescue some 10,000 children under the age of 17, and were brought to England on the Kindertransport ('Children's transport'). Upon arrival, many were placed in foster homes, schools, hostels and farms.[6]

Helga and Irene Bejach were among the many of these refugees who sought sanctuary in Britain during this troubled time. Their father, Dr. Curt Bejach had formerly been a Medical Officer for Health in Berlin; under the discriminatory 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws however, his Jewish heritage meant he was effectively dismissed from his post, and his three daughters, Helga, Irene, and older sister Jutta were classified as ‘Mischlinge’, or Jews of mixed heritage (their father was of Jewish faith, whilst their recently deceased mother, Hedwig, was not).[7] With the situation worsening after Kristallnacht in 1938, Curt began considering how to save his daughters by sending them out of the country.

Curt, who was part of a collection of Jewish academics that University College wished to ‘assist’ out of Germany, was put in contact with the Attenborough family in Leicester in May 1939, just as Mary was finishing with the Basque refugees.[8] The original intention was to lodge Helga and Irene (Jutta, at eighteen, was too old to ride the Kindertransport) with the Attenboroughs first, before booking tickets to New York to live with their uncle. However, the outbreak of war in September 1939 meant that, due to the presence of enemy submarines in the Atlantic, any trip abroad was no longer possible. Moreover, their father and Jutta, were now trapped in Germany.

Richard Attenborough recollected that the arrival of Helga and Irene brought about a huge change in their family’s life: ‘They brought into our ordered middle-class household of a wider and more dangerous world. It was their presence which allowed [Frederick] and Mary to show us an immediate and practical fashion that actions speak louder than words. And their enduring faith gave us all some understanding of what it means to be Jewish.’[9]  Helga and Irene quickly found a strong role model in Mary Attenborough; Helga in particular found Leicester to be ‘exciting’, saying of life at College House, ‘They were a most extraordinary family, really brilliant. As well as being intellectual Auntie Mary was wonderful at looking after the house, good at everything.[10] Further evidence of the Attenboroughs tolerance to all, is reflected by the family’s provision of a room in College House to allow their Jewish chambermaids to celebrate key events in the Jewish calendar; Irene and Helga were allowed to observe the rituals, making it their first contact with their Jewish faith.[11]

As mentioned on the ‘Arts and Culture’ page, it was Mary and Frederick who gradually encouraged Helga’s interest in dance, which was to become a life-long passion. Her diary, which she recorded her life in Leicester from 1944 to 1946, and is now in the care of the University of Leicester’s Archive and Special Collections, reveals a happy, spirited individual who has easily adapted to her new life in Leicester. The diary highlights her closeness with the Attenborough family, particularly Mary (whom she referred to as ‘Aunty’), her passion for dancing and playing tennis (the original courts were located next to College House), and occasionally, the odd comment on air raids or any war-related news.[12] Irene on the other hand, planned to take vocational training at De Montfort Secretarial College when she left Wyggeston Girls’ Grammar School at the end of July 1942.[13]

On the other hand, the situation for their father and sister had deteriorated considerably in wartime Germany. Their family home in Berlin was destroyed in Allied bombing raids, and Curt and Jutta had difficulty finding work owing to their Jewish heritage.[14] A telegram sent to Helga and Irene by Jutta, by way of the German Red Cross in September 1944, reveals the shocking truth; Curt’s ‘place of residence’ is listed as ‘Theresienstadt/Protektorat’.[15] As the Holocaust began to unfold, and the mass round-up of Jews across Europe began, Curt was deported to a Jewish ghetto in Theresienstadt in the modern-day Czech Republic in January of that year. What the sisters did not know was, at the time the telegraph had been sent, Curt again had been deported with 1,500 other prisoners, this time to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. By December of 1945, Mary received an upsetting letter from H. Bohmer of the Refugee Children’s Movement, in response to a possible query regarding the fate of the sisters’ father: ‘I am afraid being deported to Auschwitz means that very little or no hope at all is left that Dr. Bejach is still alive as this Camp has the sad reputation of being an extermination camp. I am sure you will see your way to break this sad news to the girls and I leave it entirely to your discretion whether you will decide to postpone it until after Xmas.[16]

Dr. Curt Bejach perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz on October 31st, 1944.[17]

After the war, plans were resumed to enable Helga and Irene to go to America. In a letter to their uncle, H. Bohmer singled out the care and hospitality that the Attenborough’s had given, stating that the girls had ‘every reason to be thankful to Mr and Mrs Attenborough for all the care and excellent education they have provided for the girls.’[18] Eventually, Irene and Helga were able to travel to the United States, and were eventually joined by Jutta. They never forgot the kindness and care that the Attenboroughs had bestowed upon them, maintaining contact with their ‘second family’ for the rest of their lives.

Through these acts of immense kindness and hospitality, Mary was a force for good, taking in refugees from countries disfigured by war, intolerance, and genocide, sheltering and nurturing them in a country considered to be a safe haven. It is for this that her legacy remains strong, and her humanitarian spirit embodies the inclusiveness of Leicester itself, and the ideals of the ‘Citizens of Change’ that the University promotes today.


This section of the exhibiton cannot have been made possible without the aid of local historian Richard Graves, with his brilliant article on the Basque refugees in Leicester, and the moving story of Helga and Irene Bejach. For those who wish to learn further about the Basque refugees and the Bejach sisters, we would definetely reccomend reading Richard's articles which you can access online at the Leicester Historian.

'Leicester's refuge for Basque children from the Spanish Civil War', Leicestershire Historian, 2016/17, (

'From Berlin to New York via Leicester: The long journey of the Attenboroughs' adopted sisters (Part 1), Leicestershire Historian, 2014, (file:///C:/Users/jacke/Downloads/Leicestershire%20Historian%202014%20-%20Graves%20article%20(1).pdf)

'From Berlin to New York via Leicester: The long journey of the Attenboroughs' adopted sisters(Part 2)', Leicestershire Historian, 2015, (file:///C:/Users/jacke/Downloads/Leicestershire%20Historian%202015%20Graves%20article%20(1).pdf)

Page written and researched by Jack Evans


[1] Richard Attenborough, Diana Hawkins, Entirely Up to You, Darling (Hutchison, Great Britain, 2008), p.99

[2] Quoted in Richard Graves, ‘Leicester’s refuge for Basque children from the Spanish Civil War (Part 1), Leicestershire Historian, No. 52 (2016), p.6

[3] Quoted in Ibid., pp.7-8

[4] Quoted in Ibid., p.9

[5] Quoted in ‘Children in Leicester’, International Brigade Memorial Trust, Issue 10, February 2005, p.4

[6]'Kindertransport and KTA History' Kindertransport Association', <>

[7] Richard Graves, ‘From Berlin to New York via Leicester: The long journey of the Attenborough’s “adopted sisters” (Part 1)’, Leicestershire Historian, Vol. 50 (2014), pp.5-6

[8] Graves, 'From Berlin to New York via Leicester: The long journey of the Attenborough's "adopted sisters" (Part 2)', Leicestershire Historian, Vol. 51 (2015) p.37

[9] Attenborough, Hawkins, Entirely Up to You, p.

[10] Graves, ‘From Berlin to New York’, p.37

[11] Ibid., p.37

[12]Acc 2019/21, Diary of Helga Bejach, University of Leicester Special Collections & Archives

[13] Graves, From Berlin to New York, p.37

[14] Ibid., p.39

[15] Acc 2019/21, Letter from Jutta, Sep. 1944, University of Leicester Special Collections & Archives

[16] Acc 2019/21, Letter from H. Bohmer to Mary Attenborough, Dec. 1945, University of Leicester Special Collections & Archives

[17] Graves, From Berlin to New York, p.37

[18]Quoted in Ibid., p.40

Humanitarian Contributions