30 April 2020
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Ravensbrück on 30 April 1945. The end of the Holocaust and of World War II 75 years ago has brought a number of anniversaries and commemorations this year, including the 75th anniversary of 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), Mauthausen (5 May) and Theresienstadt (8 May).
About 130,000 women and girls from about 20 different countries ended up at Ravensbrück. Their stories have been told by the British journalist Sarah Helm, whose meticulous research and thorough analysis of survivors' stories has been published in her books, Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women and If this is a woman: Inside Ravensbrück – Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women. In a feature in the Sunday Times Magazine last Sunday (26 April 2020), she told how her research continues, and how the full story of Ravensbrück has not yet been uncovered.
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 in North America, and we 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. 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 a century later Theodore Roosevelt, the future US President, married Edith Carow (25), in 1886. In the musical My Fair Lady, Alfred Doolittle (Stanley Holloway), having just received 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 (Comerford) Boddington 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 the duke: ‘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 were the parents of 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 (1879-1945), 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, 90 km north of Berlin, 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 America and this year’s 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust and the end of World War II 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.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ was published in 1922. It is a masterpiece of modern literature and one of the greatest poems in the English language. Its opening lines are often quoted, even by people who have never read all five sections and 434 lines of the poem.
But is April the cruellest month?
It may yet have been the cruellest month we know in this part of Europe, in the way Covid-19 has taken a grip on our lives, forcing us to keep unnatural distances from one another, leaving many people isolated, and stealing the lives of so many people of all ages and backgrounds.
We have a new vocabulary that includes phrases like social distancing, cocooning, and self-isolation.
The opening stanzas of ‘The Waste Land’ refer to the blooming of flowers and the coming of spring, but in gloomy tones. Winter is recalled nostalgically, with snow keeping us warm.
‘The Waste Land’ was published in October 1922 in Eliot’s The Criterion and as a book in December 1922, the same year James Joyce published Ulysses. Well-known and oft-quoted phrases in ‘The Waste Land’ include ‘April is the cruellest month,’ ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust,’ and the mantra in Sanskrit, ‘Shantih shantih shantih.’
The poem draws on the legend of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King and on the thoughts of Saint Augustine and Dante, shifts between voices of satire, prophecy and judgment, and constantly changes speaker, location and time.
The poem has long been read as a statement on the post-war atmosphere, although Eliot claimed it was not. He wrote most of ‘The Waste Land’ in the aftermath of the last global pandemic to shut down the world.
Between 1918 and 1920, as many as 100 million people around the globe died from the Spanish flu, far more than were killed in World War I. In England, a quarter of the population was infected with the disease, and more than 200,000 people died.
Eliot and his wife Vivienne caught the Spanish Flu in December 1918, and he wrote much of the poem during his recovery. Literary critics are only beginning to explore the profound influence that the global pandemic had on ‘The Waste Land.’
Eliot’s case of influenza was not a serious one, but he recorded that he was ‘very weak,’ Vivien noted that afterwards he was haunted by the fact that ‘his mind is not acting as it used to do.’ The heavy death toll did much more than even war to shape this masterpiece.
The first section, ‘The Burial of the Dead,’ introduces the diverse themes of disillusionment and despair. Re-reading ‘The Waste Land’ in the light of that pandemic a century ago sheds new light on lines such as:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying “Stetson! “You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”
If Eliot did not have the pandemic in mind as he wrote these lines, he certainly evokes the atmosphere of the time, and the sense that the dead were so plentiful that they overflowed the boundaries of the living, while the physical and emotional senses could believe the living were only the walking dead.
But, by the end of ‘The Waste Land,’ we catch a glimmer of the faint possibility of hope. By 1930, the glimmer of hope becomes a bright flare in ‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930), Eliot’s first long poem after becoming an Anglican and described as his conversion poem. Even when April seems to be the cruellest month, pandemics end, rain falls again, and Spring rains renew the earth every year.
Today is Poetry Day Ireland (30 April 2020), and the theme is ‘There will be time.’ As I went out into the garden this morning, between the April showers of rain, I took with me a cup of coffee and ‘The Waste Land,’ and re-read Eliot’s lines:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
I am continuing to use the USPG Prayer Diary, Pray with the World Church, for my morning prayers and reflections throughout this Season of Easter. USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is the Anglican mission agency that partners churches and communities worldwide in God’s mission to enliven faith, strengthen relationships, unlock potential, and champion justice. It was founded in 1701.
Throughout this week (26 to 2 May 2020), the USPG Prayer Diary is focussing on the Church of North India’s Year of Jubilee. This theme was introduced in the Prayer Diary on Sunday.
Thursday 30 April 2020:
Let us pray for CNI’s Green Schools project; that through it, children will start learning from a young age to be good stewards of the planet.
The Readings: Acts 8: 26-40; Psalm 66: 7-8, 14-18; John 6: 44-51.
The Collect of the Day (Easter III):
who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples
with the sight of the risen Lord:
Give us such knowledge of his presence with us,
that we may be strengthened
and sustained by his risen life
and serve you continually in righteousness and truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.