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The Sedge Fen community

Just before the declaration of war in 1939, a number of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe were offered jobs by Chivers, the well-known jam makers.  They would be working at the farm owned by Chivers on Sedge Fen.  This is about five miles from Lakenheath, an isolated spot with a school, chapel, and a few farm houses.  Chivers’ farm and processing plant was linked to the main Ely/Mildenhall railway line by a private branch line which transported their produce.  Before the war, Chivers had cleared out most of their fruit trees to make way for vegetable production.  The refugees would be growing chicory, celery, onions and cauliflowers in the rich, dark soil. 

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Of the thirty four named refugees I have found in my research, twenty four were young men – mostly single and in their 20s.  They worked on the farm as labourers.  Some were members of Habonim, a Socialist-Zionist group originally set up in London in 1929 to train young men to be farmers in the hoped-for state of Israel.  It is not known how or why the others were allocated to the farm.

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Most originally came from Germany, Austria and Poland, where they had had a wide variety of previous occupations, from skilled manual workers (locksmiths, stocking manufacturers, upholsterers) to clerical workers.  None, as far as I can tell, had a background in agriculture.  They were not from the same social background as the very middle-class professionals who were being given refuge in Newmarket at the same time, their nearest Jewish neighbours.

During the course of the war, Jewish refugees came and went from Sedge Fen.  A number joined from similar farms elsewhere in England (which were few and far between).  Others left when they were interned as enemy aliens.  And yet others came there for the first time after their release from internment.

Just a tiny handful of refugee children lived on the farm.  One was Stella, daughter of Sucher and Lola Orbach.  She had been born in Germany in 1928.  She went to Sedge Fen primary school – her name is there in the school attendance book - before going on to Ely Grammar, travelling daily by train.  She took herself out of school aged fifteen to learn book keeping, shorthand and typing in Cambridge, where she lived in a refugee hostel – all funded by a Jewish refugee organisation.  If you are curious to know more about Stella, her life story is told on the refugee voices website hosted by the Association of Jewish Refugees.  (https://www.ajrrefugeevoices.org.uk/RefugeeVoices/Stella-Shinder)

Stella’s family seems to have played an important part in the group’s religious life.  For example, her father, Sucher Orbach, prepared for Yom Kippur 1941 by getting the billiard room at Sedge House ready for three services which he then led.

This mention above of Yom Kippur on Sedge Fen comes from the local newspapers which also reported on the many social events when refugees and local people got together.  There were whist competitions, dances, fetes and even football matches.  In October 1941, we are told that the Chivers’ Jewish Settlement vs Burnt Fen Home Guards match ended in a draw – which was probably just as well!

Cultural events were also held.  As well as general knowledge quizzes, there were talks, debates and even mock trials.  One of these, quite appropriately, tried a fictional case of stolen onions.  Another refugee, Dr Wolf, gave a talk on Czechoslovakia.  Panels of locals and refugees debated issues of the day in a Brains Trust or Question Time format. 

Plays were written and produced by the refugees and links were made with Austrian refugees in Cambridge.  As a member of Young Austria later wrote:

‘Our group in Cambridge also had good contact with an isolated group of Austrian and German emigrants on the Chivers’ estate in Sedge Fen, led by the brothers Karl and Fritz Wehsely. We sent speakers there and our friends from Sedge Fen delighted us with artistic programs.  Once in Cambridge, for example, they performed scenes from the “Young Medardus” by Schnitzler’ (an Austrian patriotic play).

The Viennese Wehsely brothers mentioned above were prominent members of the community.  Both arrived at Sedge Fen in 1941 or thereabouts after internment - Karl in Australia and Fritz in Canada.  The brothers both got married in England to fellow refugees and both had babies during their time at Sedge Fen.  Locally, they are still remembered as members of Lakenheath Home Guard and are featured with their photos on the Lakenheath Heritage Group’s website.

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After the war, Karl and his young family returned to Austria.  Fritz and family seem to have stayed in England.  Karl continued his interest in agricultural engineering and was awarded a doctorate in agriculture in 1966 by an East German university.  He and his family were lifelong members of the Austrian Communist Party.  His wife died in 1968 and he died five years later.  Two of their grand-daughters are prominent politicians today in Vienna.

What happened to the community after the war?

Karl Wehsely and family were unusual in returning to Vienna.  Some of the Sedge Fen refugees settled in London, others went to USA.  Others I can’t trace.  No-one seems to have stayed in this corner of Suffolk.  And in 1950 the Sedge Fen estate was broken up into twenty seven lots and sold.