Children visiting the museum this week were given the chance to read a letter which was written to them by Ruth, now aged 81, who came to live on the farm in 1939. In the letter Ruth outlines her journey to Northern Ireland, her experiences on the farm, and how thankful she is for the farm which save the lives of so many Jewish refugees.
About the Jewish Refugee Farm in Millisle
Children began arriving at the farm in the summer of 1939. At the time there were just a few rundown barns, an old stone farmhouse which was called Ballyrolly House, a cowshed and an old stable.
The fields were cleared, grain and vegetables planted, Ballyrolly House was made habitable, wooden huts were built for use as dormitories, and eventually showers, flush toilets, a recreation room, offices, workshops, storage rooms and a small synagogue, constructed.
Up to 80 people, including the children, lived and worked on the farm at any one time. The day started with religious worship in the farm’s synagogue, then English lessons in the morning, followed by sports and games, and work on the farm in the afternoon.
In all, from the first arrivals up until its closure in 1948, over 300 adults and children are believed to have passed through it. All, even the youngest, worked and received payment. Many of the children attended local schools and several local people were employed alongside the refugees, teaching them farming skills.
In Millisle and Donaghadee the local farmers, shop keepers, churches, police and schools were great friends to those living on the farm, providing help with whatever was needed. At Millisle Primary School, local pupils helped the refugees to learn English.
The refugees got on very well with the locals who accepted their invitations to evening concerts at the farm. Franz Kohner (the farm’s financial administrator) played the violin at Sunday evening concerts.
The farm thrived. By October 1940 it had two Clydesdale workhorses, seven cows, 2,000 chickens, and 16 acres of vegetables, with much of the remainder of the land in cereals. With government grants and money provided by the Dublin Jewish congregation, a Ferguson tractor was acquired in 1941.
The farm supplied local troops in the area with food. Adults and teenagers from the farm joined local Red Cross and ARP units. Several boys joined the Air Training Corps at Donaghadee.
The farm had outstanding harvests of vegetables, potatoes, wheat, oats and barley. It kept beef and milk cattle, chickens and bees. Local farmers were generous with advice and equipment.
The farm had its own laundry, tool shop, shoemaker, carpenter, brick mason and plumber. Three weddings and several bar mitzvahs were held in the farm synagogue during the war.
After the Belfast Blitz in 1941, several Belfast Jewish families came to stay at the farm in Millisle as their homes in Belfast had been destroyed. Later in the war, Jewish soldiers serving with American units joined the community for Passover.
At some time in mid 1945 those living on the farm learnt the fate of the families they had left behind in Nazi governed Europe; almost all of the children had become orphans. Most of them remained in Millisle until the end of the war in 1945, and a number stayed on until it finally closed in May 1948.
The children who passed through Millisle farm over 70 years ago are now grown up and are widely dispersed in Great Britain, the United States, Canada, etc., though a few of the former residents still live in Northern Ireland. Many of them still have warm memories of life on the farm. Although times were hard, especially as they waited for news from their families, they were grateful for the chance of life that it provided for them.
A plaque is displayed in the Belfast synagogue; it was erected by these former refugees, and it expresses their heartfelt thanks to the Belfast Jewish community for their help and support during the Second World War.
Millisle provides Northern Ireland with a link to the Holocaust. Throughout the war, a refugee community whose families were falling victim to the Holocaust contributed significantly to Northern Ireland’s war effort. On Holocaust Day, we think about those who farmed at Millisle and the support provided by Belfast’s Jewish community and by the refugees’ new neighbours in rural Co. Down.