Ballyrolly House operated as a Refugee Resettlement Farm from 1938-1948. The story of the farm in Millisle, Co. Down remains a little-known story outside of its locality.
Situated on the outskirts of the village, Ballyrolly House became known as “The Farm”. It lay about 20 miles from Belfast, Co. Antrim.
In the late 1930s, Jewish children escaping persecution in Europe came to live on the remote, disused farm on the Ards Peninsula. Along with these Kindertransport Children were older members of Zionist youth groups and some adults.
In May 1939, Barney Hurwitz, Leo Scop, and Maurice Solomon of the Belfast Jewish Community leased the derelict 70-acre farm in Millisle, Co. Down. The farm belonged to local man Lawrence Gorman and he and Hurwitz signed the lease over a drink in Mooney’s Bar, Cornmarket, Belfast, Co. Antrim.
Arrival at the Farm
The first children arrived at the farm during the summer of 1939. On their arrival, they found Ballyrolly House to be a dilapidated stone farmhouse. A handful of derelict barns and outbuildings surrounded the old property where flax was once bleached as part of the linen industry.
Despite arriving in the summer, the first night was one of heavy winds and torrential rain. They stayed in tents which leaked, leaving them cold and wet in what was to be their new home. The next night, they moved into a newly whitewashed cowshed. An old stable served as a makeshift kitchen. Before latrines had been dug, the only facilities were outdoor privies.
Members of the Belfast Jewish Community and local residents helped to make the farm more habitable for the young refugees. Older children cleared fields while the younger ones gathered stones and uprooted weeds. Adults tilled the earth, planting grains and vegetables. In time, the farm would run like a kibbutz-style co-operative. Even the youngest children worked on the farm and received a shilling per week. This would later rise to half a crown.
Before long, they built long wooden huts as dormitories and bedrooms. A cleaned out cistern and the installation of a rotary hand pump enabled showers and flushable toilets. Once settled, the fledgling Jewish community built a recreation room with billiards and table tennis. There were offices for administration and a synagogue for worship.
One of the final buildings was a large twin-gabled structure that included a cow byre, workshops and a place to store what few valuables the refugees owned.
Life in Millisle
At any given time, up to 80 people lived on the Millisle refugee farm. Over 10 years between 1938 and 1948, around 300 adults and children passed through the farm.
When not working on the farm, the Jewish children attended the nearby Millisle Primary School. After the age of 14 years old, they would move on to secondary schools such as Bangor Grammar School, Bangor High School, and Regent House Grammar School. Others attended night school in the nearby coastal town of Donaghadee, Co. Down or joined the Scouts, the Red Cross, or the local Air Training Corps.
The manager of the farm was Eugen Patriasz, a Hungarian with a degree in agriculture from the Universty of Vienna. Before moving to Millisle, he had little practical experience. The farm administrators were Franz Kohner and Edith Kohner. The Kohners were from the Sudetenland and came to Northern Ireland with their two young children. They looked after the day to day running of the farm, buying supplies, managing rations and controlling the blackout. This inexperienced team received help from friendly locals who taught them some farming skills.
By October 1940, the farm had 2 Clydesdale horses, 7 cows, 2,000 chickens. There were 16 acres of vegetables and cereals. The fields produced oats, barley, wheat, carrots, sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes, onions, turnips, and maize. The residents at Ballyrolly acquired a Ferguson tractor in 1941 with the aid of government grants and a donation from the Dublin Jewish Community.
With the farm at full production, they operated a dairy where some of the children churned cream and butter. Others worked in the kosher kitchen, sewing room, laundry, or repair workshop. Among the roles filled on the farm were a carpenter and a shoemaker.
Leisure time at Ballyrolly
Although initially suspicious of their German-speaking neighbours, the people of Millisle grew to be friends with the small Jewish community. The farm received visits from members of Jewish communities in Belfast and Dublin. Some of these visitors volunteered on the farm during the summer months.
Children on the farm would play football with the locals or go swimming at Millisle Beach. Occasionally, they would hire a rowing boat and spend the evenings fishing for herrings.
On the farm, they enjoyed ping-pong, billiards, and card games. Occasional concerts and dances were held. A transistor radio tuned to the BBC service and a wall map allowed them to track the latest news from the war. Many of the older children feared the possibility of a Nazi invasion of Ireland in 1940. For lighter listening, there was a gramophone that played classical, swing, and jazz. Some of the older residents would enjoy a game of German or Austrian Monopoly.
The children at Ballyrolly House rarely heard from their families. With the outbreak of World War Two, postal services from Europe ground to a halt. An occasional letter smuggled through the United States of America or Switzerland would reach Northern Ireland. For the most part, updates came from Red Cross messages limited to 14 words. Many of the children heard nothing from their loved ones for many years, if ever again.
It would be 1945 before the older children saw the horrors of the Holocaust. Newsreel pictures of the liberation of the Nazi camps flashed across the screen of the Regal Cinema, Donaghadee, Co. Down.
From time to time, the children enjoyed trips to Belfast, Co. Antrim for shopping or recreation. Some were lucky enough to visit families in Dublin, Ireland. In general, travel during World War Two was not easy. There was much administration required and fuel was in short-supply and heavily rationed. Short journeys by foot, bicycle or in a horse-drawn cart were the norm.
After the War
The Jewish Resettlement Farm at Ballyrolly House closed in May 1948. Some refugees were still there although many had left at the end of the war. Some of the teenagers had joined the British Army’s Pioneer Corps, some got jobs in the local area, some went on to further education at Queen’s University Belfast. Edith Jacobowitz studied nursing and went on to work at Newtownards Hospital.
After the end of the Second World War, many of the Millisle refugees found they were orphans. Some had their entire families killed in the Holocaust. A lucky few would find relatives in the United Kingdom, United States of America, and Canada. Most left the safety of Ballyrolly House, Millisle, Co. Down ready to face a post-war world on their own.
Residents at the Millisle Farm
Erwin Jakobi was a musician from a medical family in Austria. He was responsible for the health and welfare of the refugee children at Millisle, Co. Down.
Edith Kohner, her husband Franz, and two young children came to Northern Ireland as Jewish refugees escaping Hitler's Nazi persecution in Czechoslovakia.
Franz Kohner was a Jewish refugee who escaped to Northern Ireland from the Sudetenland. There, he took on an important role on a refugee resettlement farm.
Ruth Kohner made a life in Northern Ireland after escaping to Millisle, Co. Down in 1939 due to Nazi persecution of Jews in her homeland of Czechoslovakia.