07 November 2016

Coming face to face with death
in Auschwitz and Birkenau

Hope against adversity … a fading rose on the fence at Birkenau; behind is one of the watchtowers and a train wagon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I spent a traumatic day today [7 November 2016] visiting the concentration camps in Auschwitz and Bikenau, where about 1.5 million people were annihilated by the Nazis in German-occupied Poland between 1940 and 1945 during World War II.

During my visit to Birkenau, I saw a series of memorials in a variety of languages commemorating the victims of the Holocaust who were murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Over 20 languages can be read on separate plaques, including English, Greek, Italian, Romanian, French, Russian, Hebrew, Polish and German. They represent the variety of languages spoken by and nationalities among the victims.

There is no plaque in Irish, however, although at least two Irish citizens died in Auschwitz – Ettie Steinberg and her son Leon.

The historian Conan Kennedy has researched the sad story of this mother and her child, and more recently her story has become the subject of a new play, Ode to Ettie Steinberg, by Deirdre Kinahan. The story begins in the former Czechoslovakia, where Ettie was one of the seven children of Aaron Hirsh Steinberg and his wife Bertha Roth.

In the 1920s, the family moved to Ireland, and they lived in a small house at 28 Raymond Terrace, in ‘Little Jerusalem’ off the South Circular Road in Dublin.

The seven Steinberg children went to school at Saint Catherine’s School, the Church of Ireland parish school on Donore Avenue, off the South Circular Road.

Ettie later worked as a seamstress in Dublin before her marriage. Her sister Fanny Frankel later recalled in Toronto that Ettie had ‘golden hands’ and that she was an excellent and creative seamstress. Other people who could remember Ettie said she was a ‘beautiful girl and tall and slim with wonderful hands.’

Ettie married Vogtjeck Gluck, originally from Belgium, in the Greenville Hall Synagogue on the South Circular Road in Dublin on 22 July 1937. They later moved to Antwerp, where Vogtjeck’s family was in business, and they set up home in Steenbokstraat 25 in Antwerp.

A year or so later, as World War II was looming on the horizon, they moved to Paris, where their son Leon was born on 28 March 1939. But they continued to move from place to place in France, and by 1942 they were living in an hotel in Toulouse.

When the Vichy puppet government began rounding up Jews in the south of France at the behest of Nazi Germany, Ettie, Vogtjeck and Leon were arrested. Back in Ireland, her family in Dublin secured visas that would allow the Gluck family to travel to Northern Ireland. But when the visas arrived in Toulouse, it was too late. Ettie, Vogtjeck and Leon had been arrested the day before.

As she was being transported to the death camps, Ettie wrote a final postcard to her family in Ireland and threw it out of the train window. A passer-by found it and posted it, and the postcard found its way to Dublin. It was coded with Hebrew terms and read: ‘Uncle Lechem, we did not find, but we found Uncle Tisha B’av.’

Ettie’s family understood her tragic message very well: Lechem is the Hebrew word for bread and Tisha B’Av is the Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Steinberg family tried desperately to find out what had become of their daughter, their grandson and their son-in-law, writing desperately to the Red Cross and to the Vatican.

Ettie’s sister-in-law, Freda Steinberg, who had married Ettie’s brother Solomon, recalled some years ago: ‘In August 1947, Solly and I were in a kosher restaurant in Prague, where we met many survivors. One of them told us that they had escaped from Antwerp together with Ettie and family and made their difficult way to the south of France, where they slept in different houses most nights.’

There was a period of relative quiet at one time and so Ettie decided that she would stay where they were. Unfortunately, she did not heed the advice of friends.

Ettie, her husband and their son were taken first to Drancy, a transit camp outside Paris. The Glucks were then deported from Drancy on 2 September 1942 and arrived in Auschwitz two days later, on 4 September 1942. It is assumed that they were put to death immediately.

Ettie’s young brother, Joshua Solomon (Solly), went to school in Wesley College, Dublin, before going on to Trinity College Dublin. He graduated the same year his sister died in Auschwitz. Later he would move to Israel and become a professor in Haifa.

The ‘Gates of Hell’ … the entrance to Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

But there is yet another story from Auschwitz that is a challenge to any complacence we may have about that dread-filled and frightening place.

The Irish chargé d’affaires in Berlin at the time was William Warnock, who held strong anti-British views. In a breach of diplomatic protocol, he had publicly applauded Hitler’s triumphant Reichstag speech in July 1940. In a dispatch sent to Dublin that year, he also predicted with smug confidence that the Luftwaffe’s blitz of London would soon have a ‘shattering effect on the morale of the self-centred and self-satisfied British.’

Warnock also advised against seeking the release of James Joyce’s Jewish friend Paul Léon from Auschwitz. In 1940, Léon had rescued many of Joyce’s original manuscripts when Joyce fled the Nazi occupation of Paris. These manuscripts included the only known drafts of the ‘Ithaca,’ ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ and ‘Penelope’ episodes in Ulysses.

The fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford,2016)

Warnock was asked by Dublin to intervene ‘in case there is danger that Léon be shot.’ But Warnock claimed that the real danger was that such intervention might affect Ireland’s ‘good relations’ with Nazi Germany. The authorities Dublin deferred to Warnock’s judgment, and Léon was executed in Auschwitz in April 1942.

Eventually, Dublin realised that Warnock’s sympathy for Hitler and the Nazis was damaging to Irish interests. In late 1943, he was replaced by Con Cremin, whose view of Nazism appears to have been a good deal more critical. Cremin sent reports back to Dublin of the Nazis’ genocidal treatment of Europe’s Jews, and even tried – albeit unsuccessfully – to rescue some of them.

Sixty years later, the Irish Government paid €11 million to acquire the Joyce manuscripts.

Plaques in over 20 languages recall the mass murder of 1.5 million people at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

A few days in Kraków in
the heart of mediaeval Poland

Paintings by Marc Chagall decorate the lobby in the Hotel Kazimierz II in the Old Jewish Quarter in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I arrived in Kraków late last night [6 November 2016] on a flight from Dublin, and I am spending the next few days in the Old Jewish Quarter this beautiful mediaeval city in southern Poland.

This is my first visit to Poland, and I am staying for three or four days in the Hotel Kazimierz II on Starowiślna street in the Kazimierz district.

I plan to visit Auschwitz today [7 November 2016] and the Salt Mine in Wieliczka tomorrow [8 November 2016], and during the week I hope to explore the Old Jewish Quarter, which is right on my doorstep at this hotel.

With this planned visit to Auschwitz and plans to explore the Old Jewish Quarter of Kraków this week, I was surprised to walk into the hotel last night and find myself surrounded by the colours of paintings by Marc Chagall (1887-1985).

Many of the rooms are also decorated with reproductions of sketches by Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907), the Polish playwright, painter and poet, who was also an interior and furniture designer.

Most monuments in the Kazimierz district and Krakow’s Old Town are within walking distance of the hotel, and after dinner in a Jewish restaurant last night I strolled in the dark and the rain around some of the side streets and cobbled squares and by the Remuh Synagogue and the mikvah bath.

On the way in from the airport, I caught a glimpse of the Royal Castle on the hilltop of Wawel, which is just 15 minutes’ walk from the hotel. I am told Oscar Schindler’s factory is 25 minutes away. The hotel is also 2 km from Kraków's Main Square and 3 km from Krakow Plaszow train station, and from the sounds outside my window this morning I imagine the network of tramlines is going to make moving around Kraków easy too.

Kraków was the European Capital of Culture in 2000, and the historic centre of the city is a Unesco World Heritage Site. This is a typical European mediaeval city, with streets running perpendicularly and parallel to one of the the biggest and most beautiful market squares in Europe. Kraków was left virtually untouched during World War II, and so many of its great monuments, including 120 or more churches, stand as monuments to European culture.

The Kazimierz district where I am staying is particularly notable for its many renaissance buildings and picturesque streets, as well as the old Jewish Quarter here in the north-east part of Kazimierz. This corner of Kraków has an outstanding collection of monuments of Jewish sacred architecture that is unmatched anywhere else in Poland.

Kazimierz was founded in the 14th century to the south-east of the city centre on the banks of the River Vistula, and soon became a wealthy, well-populated area. Today, Kazimierz is a well-visited area, popular with tourists and experiencing a boom in Jewish-themed restaurants, bars, bookstores and souvenir shops.

Join me in my walks around Kraków and my travels through this part of southern Poland over the next few days.

Paintings by Marc Chagall in the hotel lobby (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)