Kate Middleton Shares Poignant Chat with Holocaust Survivors: 'We Spoke Like a Couple of Friends'

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Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge arrives to embark on a boat trip on Lake Windermere
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge arrives to embark on a boat trip on Lake Windermere

Tim Rooke/Shutterstock Kate Middleton meets with Holocaust survivors

Kate Middleton is continuing to shine a spotlight on the darkest chapter in modern history — and lift up those who survived it against all odds.

On Tuesday, the Duchess of Cambridge visited the U.K.'s famed Lake District, which provided refuge for Holocaust survivors in the aftermath of World War II.

The royal, 39, joined a boat trip with two of the Windermere Children, a group of 300 Holocaust survivors who were brought to the Lake District in 1945 to help them recuperate following the atrocities they experienced in concentration camps and the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Europe.

"She was absolutely delightful," Ike Alterman, a 93-year-old survivor from Poland who was a prisoner at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Theresienstadt, told PEOPLE. "We laughed, she asked questions and she wanted to know the answers. We talked about her kids and my kids, and how we love the lakes. I have two girls and two grandchildren. I told her what happened to me during the war and when I arrived and how I progressed in business later."

He added, "I didn't know what to expect, but we spoke like a couple of friends. She was so down-to-earth."

Arek Hersh, 92, was also joined by the Duchess on the boat. A survivor of Auschwitz, he lost his parents and his brothers and sisters — in total 81 members of his family perished. He settled in Leeds, Yorkshire, and worked as a mechanic and, in later years, as a landlord for students in the city. He is featured in the 2020 film The Windermere Children and the documentary The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words.

"It was very nice. She was very interested," he told PEOPLE. "It brought back happy memories of being on the lake." Still, "It took some years to get rid of the whole situation. I lost everybody, my parents, brothers and sisters."

Kate, he recognized, "can't help me as far as that's concerned. I talked to her and her husband [Prince William] in London, and we discussed certain things. I told her my point of view. The outdoor life here helped a little bit but it wasn't everything."

His wife, Jean, added that the Windermere Children didn't know English. "Arek had many, many years of nightmares," she said. "They were all very small. They couldn't believe how beautiful this place was. He says he literally felt himself growing here."

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge arrives to embark on a boat trip on Lake Windermere
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge arrives to embark on a boat trip on Lake Windermere

Alamy Stock Photo Kate Middleton chatting with Holocaust survivors on September 21, 2021.

"This is a happy day," she added. "Arek has had some lovely moments through his teaching about the Holocaust. It isn't because he's meeting important people — he's met the Queen — but because he's met some wonderful ordinary people too. Our life is very rich. Meeting the Duchess is obviously is a nice honor."

Last year, Kate highlighted some of the incredible stories of survival amid the Nazi occupation of much of Europe when she photographed Holocaust survivors and their grandchildren.

Following the boat ride, Kate spent about an hour talking to the families of the survivors.

"I really felt that she was listening and engaged and genuinely interested in our stories. This wasn't a 'by the way I'm meeting these people today' but her genuinely showing she cares," David Shannon, whose uncle and aunt were Holocaust survivors, told PEOPLE.

"She is using her position of influence to engage with survivors and their families," said Shannon. "But what about the future generations? When we talked with her, that was what we discussed."

He noted, "The concentration camps are the end of the process, not the beginning. It's important that people learn about tolerance and about right-wing nationalism. I felt she gets that and her part in the process."

Angela Cohen, whose father, Morris Malinicky, was the eldest of six children and the only survivor in his family, told PEOPLE, "He never felt he was a victim. He was a survivor.

Cohen, whose son is prominent U.K. lawyer and TV personality Judge Robert Rinder, adds, "I made a program with Rob when we went back to Treblinka [concentration camp in Poland] where my family died. Seven million people watched that."

She continued, "The sad thing is that the story is as relevant today as it was then. Knowing that Kate is helping get the story out there means everything it should do and more. The saddest thing is that with anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia and bullying because of homophobia, for example, so much of this is just as relevant today."

Cohen leads the 45 Aid Society, which was set up by Holocaust survivors so they could look after each other, give back to their adopted country and teach lessons about the Holocaust. "The Holocaust is part of my DNA," she says, "and I have to be out there teaching my family's story."