WWII Evacuee Returns to Millisle

Catherine Lynagh meets Robert Sugar, member of Co Down's Kinderfarm

Millisle’s unique Second World World history was recently retraced, when a former Jewish evacuee who grew up at the local Magill Kinderfarm, travelled from New York nearly 60 years on, to revisit ‘his country’ and childhood home.

Millisle acted as a safe haven for hundreds of Jewish evacuee children before and during the Second World War. As part of the UK wide ‘Kindertransport’, Magill’s farm on the Woburn Road Millisle, welcomed hundreds of children from across Europe. More recently, the children of Millisle Primary School made a short film about the Millisle Farm story, entitled A Kinder Place a Different World.

Aged nine, Robert Sugar was evacuated from Nazi occupied Vienna to the Magill Kinderfarm. This month, he travelled across the world to re-trace his memories and re-visit his old school.

In a heartfelt interview, Robert Sugar, said that after the war he felt homesick, for the town he called home for 10 years: ‘I didn’t feel like a refugee when I was here. In 1967 I was in London and was homesick for Millisle - and that felt unusual,’ he said. ‘In world history, as Jews, we have been excluded from the mainstream, but here in Millisle, we have been included in the local history and that is very special.

In the farm and the local community, there was not a bad moment or anti-Semitism throughout all those years. As a community we expected some unpleasantness in a new place, because of our background, we were used to it; but in Millisle there was absolutely none of that. The children in the school accepted us. They didn’t treat us like victims, we were just children to them. That sums it up really.’

Mr Sugar arrived in Millisle in 1938 as part of a group of 30 children and adolescents, who were brought to Britain by a variety of refugee assistance organisations. He has described Millisle, in past articles, as ‘his country’: ‘I was just a boy, and for me the farm was my country,’ said Mr Sugar. ‘Even now, in my heart I believe I grew up in a Jewish country.’

Mr Sugar explained, that on arriving at the farm, the older children were immediately put to work. The youngest, he said, were left to run free for a few weeks, and then marched out to the fields: ‘The farm rose and flourished for 10 years,’ said Mr Sugar: ‘Our cows always gave milk, our bees always made honey, our chickens always laid eggs, our harvests were always bountiful: hay, wheat, oats, barley, potatoes, beets, leeks, onions, carrots, peas, cucumbers and turnips.

‘We also built great buildings. The German engineer Mundheim and the Viennese engineering student Spielvogel designed two twin-gabled, two story buildings, they were solid, thick-walled and visible for miles around. We joked that they would last for all time and would be our monuments. In 1947, the children, now 17 and 18 years old and many without relatives, began to leave on uncertain journeys.

'The farm closed its doors in 1948. In the years since, our farm became a private legend among its many former residents. Who would have thought so many of us would have still be alive. Whenever two or three of us met, we talked of the farm as if it were a mutual fantasy.’

In Millisle Primary School, this month, Mr Sugar said he was moved by the efforts of the children who made the DVD representation of the Millisle farm story: ‘I think the film the children made is just wonderful, although I know I may be prejudiced; but I liked the way the children dressed up and looked as we did, they represented us very well,’ he continued: ‘I originally came back in 1989 because I heard the buildings, which the community built, were still standing.

'The buildings are very unique, even within the whole of the UK, so I was very interested to see if they still stood. I felt a real surge of emotion when I saw the farm. Knowing they were still there had such an effect on me, because they were so important to us. My last trip was caught short, because of the Troubles. I was aware of my children and the perceptions. So it is nice being able to come back and take it all in. Many of the others (other refugees on the farm) can’t understand my interest in Millisle. I suppose they don’t see it in the same light that I do.

'The older children went straight to working on the farm in the fields and weren’t educated. So some of them were happy to get out and forget about the farm. For me, as a historian, my experience always interested me as a story.’

Mr Sugar continues to hold seminars around the world, about his life-changing experience in Millisle’s Kinderfarm.