From Aliyah to ‘I’m A Celebrity’: Gwrych Castle’s Secret Jewish History

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Nathan Abrams reveals the forgotten Jewish history of Gwrych Castle.

One thing that has been missed in the excitement of the announcement that Gwrych Castle in Abergele, north Wales is hosting I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here is the location’s Jewish history.

During the Second World War, Jewish refugee children were housed in Gwrych Castle after arriving on a Kindertransport. The castle served as a training institute for those preparing for Aliyah.

As recounted in Dr. Cai Parry-Jones’ book, The Jews of Wales, of the twenty Youth Aliyah centres established throughout Britain between 1939 and 1945, one of them was set up in the north Wales location. It was acquired on 28 August 1939, after the castle’s owner, Lord Dundonald, offered it rent-free for use by the Jewish refugee children. Three days later the Gwrych Castle Agricultural Training Centre, as it became known, was opened, on 31 August 1939, with a total of 180 children in its care.

Most of the children belonged to the Youth Aliyah organisation, but around sixty were members of Bachad, a pioneering Zionist youth group formed in Germany and led in Britain by German refugee Arieh Handler.

Bachad’s aim was to prepare young Jews for life on a religious kibbutz in Israel. The children spent their day between agricultural work and study.

Gwrych also hosted the first ever national gathering of Bnei Akiva, a worldwide religious Zionist youth movement, in December 1940, as well as Arieh Handler’s wedding.

Of those born there was Daniel Sperber, in 1940, to Rabbi Shmuel and Miriam Sperber. Sperber, who lives in Jerusalem, is Professor Emeritus of the Naftal-Yaffe Department of Talmud at Bar Ilan University in Israel.

At that time, North Wales was also a refuge for individual evacuees, families, and family businesses from North London. Jewish groups and schools found sanctuary in there as it was less likely to be bombed.

Isidore Wartski, the Jewish mayor of Bangor at the time, took an interest in the castle project made an official visit in February 1940. He stated: 

I am very impressed by the manner in which Gwrych Castle, with its 190 young men and women refugees is being conducted; they are maintaining excellent relationships with their neighbourhood.

The small Jewish community of Llandudno took an active involvement in the Hachshara centre and the Kindertransport. Its Jewish women in particular were at the forefront, playing a key role. Their fundraising efforts benefited the castle’s Jewish community. In January 1940 the Llandudno Women’s Zionist & Welfare Society raised £104 1s from local subscribers and gave this, as well as a collection of items of clothing, to the Gwrych project. In May 1940, a member of my own extended family, Mrs. Sonabend (of London but who had relocated to Llandudno) personally raised £144 from her own circle of friends. She donated £117 to the castle project and the remainder to the Ladies Guild for Refugees.

In early 1941 the Keren Hayesod Campaign (the War Appeal of the Palestine Foundation Fund) raised over £40,000 in under a month to support young Jewish people towards Aliyah, and on 23 March 1941 a representative of the Zionist Federation visited the castle with a view to offering support from this campaign.

The community of Llandudno also tried their best to assist in the settlement of young Jews. For example, Mr. & Mrs. Rafhael Rosenberg of Llandudno fostered 5-year-old Eva Oesterrreicher, one of the Czech children saved by Sir. Nicholas Winton. 

The hachshara centre at Gwrych Castle was abandoned by 1941. The remaining children were transferred to other places. Thus, the Jewish connection was severed.

It’s quite a long journey from an aliyah training centre to a reality show setting.


I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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Peter Lawson
3 years ago

Fascinating Nathan! Thanks for this latest revelation of secret Jewish history.

Reply to  Peter Lawson
3 years ago

Thanks Peter!

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