21 January 2020
I spent much of yesterday afternoon [20 January 2020] 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].
The speakers included Bishop Sarah Mullally of London, Bishop Michael Ipgrave of Lichfield and Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism.
We were reminded during the afternoon by Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust 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 years ago, I was chilled when I realised that a direct descendant of the Comerford family of Cork, and through that line a descendant of the Comerfords of Co Wexford, suffered horribly with her husband after the German invasion of France and that both died in the Holocaust – one in Ravensbrück and the other in Dachau.
Hedwige Marie Renée Lannes de Montebello (1881-1944) and her husband, Louis d’Ax de Vaudricourt (1879-1945) of Château Vaudricourt, were French aristocrats and did not bear the Comerford family name. Nevertheless, they are part of my own family tree, no matter how distant a branch. Their fate brought home to me how even today we are all close to the evils of racism and its destructive force across Europe, and must never forget that.
Mary Teresa Comerford (1776-1840) was a little-known poet and author in the early 19th century who wrote under the name Mary Boddington. Some of her songs were written to Irish airs, but while she and her husband Thomas Boddington are referred to frequently in Thomas Moore’s Diary, her poetry is now regarded as vain doggerel, remembered only because of her prolific output and because she was a woman writer who managed to publish so much at a time when men dominated the world of literature and publishing.
Mary was born in Cork in 1776, the daughter of Patrick Comerford (d. 1796), of George’s Quay, Cork, and Summerville, Co Cork. He was a wine merchant in Cork in partnership with his father John Comerford, who was directly descended from the Comerford family of Co Wexford, while his mother Elizabeth Hennessy was a member of the well-known Hennessy family of Cognac fame.
In Bath in 1770, Patrick Comerford married Anne (Teresa), daughter of Thomas Gleadowe (1700-1766) of Castle Street, Dublin, and sister of Sir William Gleadowe-Newcomen (1730-1806), the banker, of Killester, Co Dublin.
Patrick’s younger surviving daughter, Belinda Isabella, married the Revd Francis Law (1768-1807), Vicar of Attanagh in the Diocese of Ossory and Rector of Cork, and they are part of the Comerford family stories.
Many of Belinda’s descendants kept the Comerford family name, including her son, the Revd Patrick Comerford Law, and there were interesting family connections with clerical families, with Lewis Carroll, the creator of Alice in Wonderland, and with Sir Edward Fitzgerald Law (1846-1908), of Athens, who was involved in reforming the Greek economy in the 1890s and in the negotiations leading to the eventual restoration of Crete to the Greek state.
Belinda (Comerford) Law’s elder sister, Mary (Comerford) Boddington, wrote verse frequently for the Cork papers before she left Cork for London in 1803. On 16 April 1805, she was married in the fashionable at Saint George’s Church, Hanover Square, London, to Thomas Boddington (1774-1862), a wealthy West Indies merchant of Upper Brooke Street, London, and Marylebone.
Saint George’s was a fashionable church for weddings at the time. There the architect Henry Holland married Capability Brown’s daughter Bridget in 1773, the architect John Nash married Mary Ann Bradley in 1798, and much later 28-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, the future US President, married Edith Carow (25), in 1886. In the musical My Fair Lady, Alfred Doolittle (Stanley Holloway), having just been provided with an inheritance and having to move into ‘middle-class morality,’ invites his daughter Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) to his wedding at this church, leading to the song, Get Me to the Church on Time.
After her marriage, Mary continued to write and published some entertaining volumes on her travels on the Continent of Europe from 1815 on. She died in 1840, and the popularity of her poetry and her travel writing faded soon after her death.
Mary and Thomas Boddington had a son and two daughters. Their elder daughter, Mary Theresa (1806-1898), was born in London on 13 January 1806. She moved to France and at the age of 25 she was married in the British embassy in Paris on 27 April 1831, to Jean Ernest Lannes de Montebello (1803-1882), Baron de Montebello.
Jean Ernest was born on 20 July 1803 in Lisbon, where his father was Napoleon’s ambassador to Portugal. He died on 24 November 1882 in Pau, France, and Mary died there on 15 May 1898. There the memories of their side of the family might have died out in the narratives of the Comerford genealogies if I had not decided in some idle moment to explore what had happened to Mary Comerford’s daughter and her descendants.
When Mary Boddington married Jean Ernest, he was chef de cabinet at the French Foreign Ministry and a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. His father, Jean Lannes, 1st Duc de Montebello (1769-1809), was a Marshal of the French Empire. He was one of Napoleon’s most daring and talented generals. In his exile on Saint Helena, Napoleon said of Lannes: ‘I found him a pygmy and left him a giant.’
Marshall Lannes was born on 10 April 1769 in the small town of Lectoure, in the Gers department in the south of France, the son of a Gascon farmer. He had little education and was first apprenticed to a dyer. But after enlisting in the army he quickly rose through the ranks and alongside Louis Nicolas Davout and André Masséna he is regarded as one the ablest of all of Napoleon’s marshals.
In 1801, Napoleon sent him as ambassador to Portugal. In 1804, Lannes bought the 17th century Château de Maisons, near Paris, and had one of its state apartments redecorated for a visit by Napoleon.
When the French empire was founded, he was named a Marshal of France (1804), and he commanded the advanced guard of a great French army in the campaign of Austerlitz. Napoleon took him to Spain in 1808, and gave him a detached wing of the army, with which he won a victory over Castaños at Tudela. As a reward in 1808, Napoleon gave him the title of Duc de Montebello.
He was sent to capture Saragossa in 1809. After his last campaign in Spain, he said: ‘This damned Bonaparte is going to get us all killed.’ That year, for the last time, he had command of the advanced guard. He took part in the engagements around Eckmühl and the advance on Vienna. With his corps he led the French army across the Danube, and bore the brunt, with Masséna, of the terrible battle of Aspern-Essling. He received a mortal wound on 22 May and died on 31 May 1809.
Marshall Lannes and his second wife, Louise Antoinette, Comtesse de Guéhéneuc (1782-1856), had five children, including Jean Ernest Lannes, Baron de Montebello (1803-1882), who married Mary (Comerford) Boddington’s daughter, Mary Theresa.
Mary Theresa and Jean Ernest Lannes de Montebello had six children:
1, Marie (1832-1917), who married Henri O’Shea, a descendant of the family of wine merchants who had once been in partnership with the Comerford family in Cork.
2, Eveline (1837-1868), a nun in the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul.
3, Berthe (1838-1893), who married Auguste Guillemin.
4, Jean Gaston (1840-1926), 2nd Baron de Montebello, an artillery officer and a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur.
5, René (1845-1925), whose story continues this exploration of Comerford family connections.
6, Roger (1850-1878), who died in Paris.
René Lannes de Montbello (1845-1925) was born in Gelos on 13 September 1845, and inherited some of the family fame and titles. In Paris on 4 November 1875, he married Princess Marie Lubmirska (1847-1930), the daughter of a celebrated Polish composer, Prince Kazimierz Anastazy Karol Lubomirski (1813-1871) whose family lived near Lviv in what is now Ukraine.
René was an army major and was known by the courtesy title of Baron de Montebello. But, when his son Henry was born in Paris in 1876, he assumed the title of count. Henry died in childhood, but René and his Polish princess were the parents of four other children. He died on 27 December 1925, and Princess Marie died on 18 May 1930.
One of their sons, Count André Roger Lannes de Montebello (1908-1986), was involved in the French resistance during World War II, and was the father of Count Guy Philippe Henri Lannes de Montebello, who, as plain Philippe de Montebello, was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until 2008.
But it is the fate of André’s elder sister that I have found distressing. Hedwige Marie Renée Lannes de Montebello (1881-1944), was born in Pau on 10 Mar 1881, and on 17 September 1910 she married in Biarritz Louis d’Ax de Vaudricourt, of the Château Vaudricourt, who was born on 20 May 1879.
Like her brother, Hedwige was involved in the French resistance. She was captured, and on 7 April 1944, named simply as Hedwig Ax, she was sent on a train from Gare de l’Est in Paris to the transit camp at Neue Bremm in Saarbrücken, Germany. She was transferred to the women’s concentration camp in Ravensbrück, where her unique number was 47135. She died in Ravensbrück on 19 November 1944.
Her husband, named simply in his deportation papers as Louis Ax, died in the concentration camp in Dachau in January 1945.
I know no more than this about Hedwige Marie Renée Lannes de Montebello and her husband. They may seem like very distant twigs on a distant branch of the Comerford family tree. But if we don’t claim them as part of the family, they stop being part of ‘us’ and part being part of ‘them.’ And therein lies the beginning of all the dangerous thoughts that lead to racism and violent racism.
Hedwige Marie Renée Lannes de Montebello (1881-1944), a direct descendant of the Comerfords of Wexford and Cork, died in Ravensbrück on 19 November 1944.
The rise of the far-right in Europe and this month’s 75th anniversary are stark reminders of the need to keep these stories alive, and to respect and honour the memories of the dead. We have got to stop making some people ‘us’ and some people ‘them.’ We are all part of the one, larger family.
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.
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.