21 January 2020

Remembering the many
Irish victims of Auschwitz
75 years after the Holocaust

The Nazis planned to exterminate 11 million Jews in Europe, including 4,000 Jews in Ireland … a list on display in Auschwitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of yesterday afternoon [20 January 2019] at a reception in the House of Lords to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau and to launch resources for Holocaust Memorial Day next Monday [27 January 2020], which will be marked in many churches and at a public commemoration in Dublin on Sunday [26 January].

A series of memorials in a variety of languages in Birkenau commemorates 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, but we should not think that the Holocaust was something that was a far distance from Ireland, for the Nazis were planning to extend their genocide to Ireland too.

One exhibition in Auschwitz shows that the Nazis planned to exterminate 11 million Jews in Europe, including 4,000 in Ireland.

Until recently, it was known that two Irish citizens– Ettie Steinberg and her son Leon – died in Auschwitz. But recent research has shown that Ephrem and Lena Saks from Dublin were also murdered in Auschwitz, and that Isaac Shishi from Dublin and his family were murdered by the Nazis in Lithuania

The historian Conan Kennedy has researched the sad story of this mother and her child, and in recent years her story was the subject of a 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. The family moved to Ireland in the 1920s and 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, 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 house to house in France, and by 1942 they were living in an hotel in Toulouse.

When the Vichy puppet regime began rounding up Jews in southern 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 a train window. A passer-by found the postcard, posted it, and it 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.

Research by Dr David Jackson, presented in Dublin last year shows how Isaac Shishi, Ephraim Saks and his sister Lena Saks, were all born in Ireland, but their families returned to Europe when they were children.

Isaac Shishi’s family came from Lithuania to Ireland in 1890, and he was born in Dublin on 29 January 1891, when his family was living at 36 St Alban’s Road, off the South Circular Road. He was murdered along with his wife Chana and their daughter Sheine were murdered by the Nazis in Vieksniai in Lithuania in 1941.

Ephrem and Lena Saks were born in Dublin on 19 April 1915 and 2 February 1918. Ephraim Sacks was murdered in Auschwitz on 24 August 1942. Lena was murdered there in 1942 or 1943.

Starvation … a sculpture in Auchwitz by Meiczyslaw Stobierski (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But there is yet another chilling story from Auschwitz that challenges any complacence we may have the potential consequences of the Holocaust for Ireland.

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 to Dublin, he predicted with smug confidence that the Luftwaffe’s blitz of London would 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. Léon had rescued many of Joyce’s original manuscripts in 1940 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.

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 in 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.

Throughout European cities, from Berlin to Thessaloniki, Krakow, Bratislava, Prague, Vienna and Venice, I have seen places where the German artist Volker Spitzenberger has laid tens of thousands of Stolpersteine or stumbling stones outside the former homes of victims of the Holocaust.

They have become the world’s largest decentralised monument to the Holocaust.

We need to start laying some Stolpersteine in Ireland to mark where Irish victims of the Holocaust once lived.

Bishop Sarah Mullally of London, Bishop Michael Ipgrave of Lichfield and Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism at yesterday’s reception in the House of Lords (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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