New archive shares insight to Attenborough refugees’ life

An archive of previously unpublished photographs, documents and letters from the family of Helga Bejach, one of the two orphans adopted by the Attenborough family in Leicester during the Second World War, has been loaned to the University of Leicester.

This small, but significant collection is of special importance to the University, given its connection with the Attenborough family; Frederick Attenborough was the former Principal of University College Leicester, and resided with his wife Mary, and their sons, Sir David, Lord Richard and John Attenborough in College House, which remains on campus to this day.

The archive documents Irene and Helga Bejach’s experiences before and during the war, and their life in Leicester after they were adopted by the Attenborough family. The sisters arrived in the UK in August 1939 aged 10 and 9, lived with the family for seven years before leaving for New York to join their family there.

Professor Nishan Canagarajah, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester said:

“We are immensely proud of the legacy of the Attenborough family, whose history is woven into the fabric of our University today – they truly embodied our ethos of what it means to be a Citizen of Change.

“Our University values are built on sacrifice, kindness, and a sense of duty – all of these can be traced back to the Attenboroughs. We’re proud to be a University of Sanctuary, welcoming asylum seekers and refugees onto university courses and providing financial and personal support, and using the power of education to transform lives.

“The Attenboroughs' legacy lives on strong within our walls to this day, and will continue to lay the foundation for our future generations of scholars at Leicester.”

The collection was provided to the University on long term loan from the family of Helga Bejach, with the kind assistance of Richard Graves, the biographer of Mary Attenborough.

It will also be of significant importance to the research and teaching of the University’s Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide.

Recently the University of Leicester hosted an online exhibition celebrating the life of Mary Attenborough, as part of a project run by four students on the MA Museum Studies programme. Titled Mary Attenborough: The Hidden History, it celebrates the 'hidden history' of Mary Attenborough; the humanitarian, advocate for equal rights, supporter of arts and culture, matriarch of the famous Attenborough family, and Leicester resident from 1932-1951. 

The University of Leicester was founded as a living memorial to the sacrifices made during the First World War, and will be marking its centenary year in 2021, celebrating the power of education to shape positive change in the world.