07 June 2020

World War II and the Holocaust ended
75 years ago and must be remembered

Patrick Comerford

The Covid-19 pandemic ‘lockdown’ is being lifted gradually, and some people are now holding out hopes for a short getaway at the end of this summer or rebooking their holidays into next year.

Earlier this year, before the pandemic took its grip on Europe, I managed to spend a few days in Valencia in Spain and had two visits to London for USPG meetings and interfaith work.

However, a planned visit to the Anglican Church in Myanmar on behalf of USPG was the first trip that was cancelled. This was followed by cancelling a short personal retreat in Lichfield, abandoning plans for Greek Orthodox Easter in Crete, and the cancellation of the General Synod in Dublin in May.

These disappointments were followed by the cancellation of visits to Italy, Poland, and Greece. I particularly wanted to see Warsaw and visit the site of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Jewish uprising near the end of World War II.

‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ … the gates of Auschwitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This is the second time circumstances have cancelled a planned visit to Warsaw. Now I am wondering whether I am going to get beyond Limerick or Dublin for the rest of this year.

I never took up playing golf – it is a bit wearisome now to joke that I am too young to play golf – and so quick, short city breaks, thanks to cheap flights with Ryanair, are my alternative to golf, and they have provided many topics for this column in the Church Review.

In my own way, I have compensated myself by occasional blog postings that offer ‘virtual tours’ of a dozen sites, such as the churches of Athens, Cambridge, Lichfield, Rome, Tuscany and Venice, the churches, monasteries and restaurants of Crete, or Sephardic synagogues across Europe.

Holocaust anniversaries

The names of the concentration camps surround the Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark in the Pinkas Synagogue, Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On a much more sober note, I have also been blogging about the commemorations of the 75th anniversaries of the end of World II and the end of the Holocaust in 1945.

In a way that is typical of the worst sort of bias, the Daily Mail allowed its ‘Brexit’ prejudices to overcome historical accuracy and impartial journalism when one souvenir offer referred to VE Day on 8 May as ‘Britain’s Victory over Europe Day.’ There was almost no discussion in newspapers of this sort of the end of the Holocaust.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In recent years, I have visited the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Birkenau and Sachsenhausen, the Holocaust memorials in Berlin, and the former Jewish ghettoes in many European cities. In addition, I found that telling the stories of the concentration camps at Theresienstadt and Ravensbrück involved telling the stories of members – albeit very distant members – of the Comerford family.

I began this year with a visit to the House of Lords for the launch of resources by the Council of Christians and Jews to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Over the following weeks, the 75th anniversary commemorations included the liberation of the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau (27 January), Buchenwald (11 April), Bergen-Belsen (15 April), Sachsenhausen (22 April), Dachau (29 April), Ravensbrück (30 April) and Mauthausen (5 May).

Remembering Auschwitz

Multilingual memorials in Birkenau … a reminder of the many nationalities of the victims of the Holocaust (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

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 appear on separate plaques, representing the languages and nationalities of the victims.

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)

Although there is no plaque in Irish, it would be wrong to think that the Holocaust was something that did not affect Ireland, for the Nazis were planning to extend their genocide to Ireland too. During a visit to Auschwitz, I was chilled by one exhibit that shows how the Nazis plan to exterminate 11 million Jews in Europe included 4,000 Jews in Ireland.

Esther Steinberg married Vogtjeck Gluck in the Greenville Hall Synagogue on the South Circular Road, Dublin, and were murdered in Auschwitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Four Irish citizens, Ettie Steinberg and her son Leon, and Ephraim and Lena Sacks from Dublin were murdered in Auschwitz, and Isaac Shishi from Dublin and his family were murdered by the Nazis in Lithuania.

Esther, or Ettie, was one of the seven children of Aaron Hirsh Steinberg and his wife Bertha Roth. She grew up at 28 Raymond Terrace, in ‘Little Jerusalem’ off the South Circular Road in Dublin. Ettie went to school at Saint Catherine’s School, the Church of Ireland parish school on Donore Avenue, and she married Vogtjeck Gluck in the Greenville Hall Synagogue on the South Circular Road, Dublin, in 1937.

She was 22 and he was 24, and they moved to France.

When the Vichy regime began rounding up Jews in France, Ettie’s family back in Dublin secured visas that would allow them 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 they were being transported to the death camps, Ettie wrote a final postcard to her family and threw it out a train window. A passer-by found the postcard and it eventually reached Dublin. The family arrived in Auschwitz on 4 September 1942. It is assumed that they were put to death immediately.

Isaac Shishi, Ephraim Saks and his sister Lena, were all born in Ireland, but their families moved to Europe when they were children.

Isaac was born in Dublin on 29 January 1891, when his family was living at 36 St Alban’s Road, off the South Circular Road. Isaac, his wife Chana and their daughter Sheine were murdered by the Nazis in Vieksniai in Lithuania in 1941.

Ephraim and Lena Sacks were born in Dublin on 19 April 1915 and 2 February 1918. Ephraim was 27 when he was murdered in Auschwitz on 24 August 1942; Lena was about 24 when she was murdered there in 1942 or 1943.

Recalling Ravensbrück

Starvation, a sculpture in Auschwitz by Meiczyslaw Stobierski … Ephraim and Lena Sacks were born in Dublin and were murdered in Auschwitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Holocaust touched every family in Europe. We should not think that there was a family that did not lose cousins, neighbours, friends, work colleagues or school friends.

In my own family, a very, very distant family member, Hedwige Marie Renée Lannes de Montebello (1881-1944), was born in Paris but was a descendant of the Comerford family of Wexford.

She was involved in the French resistance and was captured, and on 7 April 1944. She was sent to the women’s concentration camp in Ravensbrück, where her unique number was 47135. She died in Ravensbrück on 19 November 1944.

Her husband, Louis d’Ax de Vaudricourt (1879-1945), died in the concentration camp in Dachau two months later in January 1945.

The children of Terezín

A suitcase packed for Terezín in an exhibition in Vienna … Terezín was liberated on 8 May 1945 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Theresienstadt or Terezín was both a concentration camp and a ghetto established by the SS in World War II in the fortress town of Terezín, 70 km north of Prague. It was both a waystation to the extermination camps, and a ‘retirement settlement’ for elderly and prominent Jews to mislead their communities about the Nazi plan for genocide. The conditions were created deliberately to hasten the death of the prisoners, but the ghetto also served a propaganda role, most notably during Red Cross visits and in making propaganda films.

The children’s opera Brundibár was composed in 1938 by the composers Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister for the Children’s Orphanage of Prague. It was first performed at Theresienstadt on 23 September 1943, and was performed 55 times, or about once a week, until the transports of autumn 1944.

The opera tells the story of a brother and sister who stand up to a bully in order to afford milk to save their sick mother. It was meant to teach the children how to deal with a bully and how to remain positive in difficult situations.

‘A view of the Engineers’ Barracks Building in Terezín’ by Sonja Fischerová (1931-1944) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Brundibár was performed 55 times in the camp for inspectors from organisations including the Red Cross. Many of the performers were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most of them died.

Hoffmeister’s final verse was: ‘Who likes mummy and daddy and our native home is our friend and can play with us.’ Erik Saudek changed this to: ‘Who likes the law, stands by it and is not afraid of anything …’ This final verse became something of an anthem in Terezín. Actors and viewers alike knew very well the meaning of these words in combination with the innocent children’s fight with the evil Brundibár.

At the end of Brundibár, the chorus sings:

We’ve won a victory over the tyrant mean.
Sound trumpets, beat your drum,
and show us your esteem.
We’ve won a victory because we were not fearful, because we were not tearful. Because we marched along singing our happy song,
bright joyful and cheerful.

A memorial to Jewish children at the Jewish Cemetery in Berlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Red Cross took over the administration of Terezín and removed the SS flag on 2 May 1945. The SS fled on 5-6 May. On 8 May 1945, V-E Day, Red Army troops skirmished with German forces outside the ghetto and liberated it at 9 pm.

Only 20 of the 400 performers of Brundibár survived until their liberation. Brundibár was not performed outside Terezín until 1986, when Radio Prague recorded its international debut.

Why we must remember

A Hanukkah Menorah made by children in Terezín … Rebecca Comerford has revived a children’s opera telling the story of the children of Terezín (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Rebecca Comerford, a professional singer and actor, is now bringing Brundibár and the story of Terezín to American audiences, including synagogues, in a deliberate decision taken in the light of the present political climate.

Speaking in Etz Chaim Synagogue in Biddeford, Maine, she recalled how her company chose Brundibár as part of their programme because of ‘the current political climate, and the rise of fascism across the globe, and the pervasive rise of intolerance, not just nationally, but on a macro level, too.’

Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial in Judenplatz in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘We decided that this would be really timely and relevant in terms of our mission, and said let’s do this outreach component, too. We’ll really discuss the messages. How do we deal with a bully? What does that mean to our children? And why do they need to know this story, so history doesn’t repeat itself again?’ Rebecca Comerford said.

‘It’s our obligation as a human family to share the story,’ Rebecca told her audience in Etz Chaim.

The memorial to the victims of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp 1936-1945 … the victims included gays, Gypsies, political prisoners and disabled people (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A recent visit to Sachsenhausen reminded me that as well 6 million Jews, the victims of the Nazis during the Holocaust included Gypsies, Gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses, conscientious objectors, people with disabilities, and people who joined the Resistance throughout Europe.

Some of the people I mention are distant – very distant – branches on a very extended family tree. But we have to cherish the memory of everyone who died in the Holocaust. We must refuse to distance ourselves from them, to classify these victims as ‘them.’

Contrary to the thinking in the Daily Mail, however briefly, VE Day was not ‘Britain’s victory over Europe.’ It was the victory of the Allies in Europe, the end of the Holocaust, and the end of a conflict that finally united most of the world in the struggle against fascism, and the beginning of the European project. ‘It’s our obligation as a human family to share the story.’

‘Stumbling Stones’ on the streets of Thessaloniki name the city’s Jews deported to Auschwitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This feature was published in the June 2020 edition of the ‘Church Review’, the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan magazine

The Holocaust memorial in the Ghetto in Venice … a reminder of why we must never forget (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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