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Home Uncategorized Reading the Traces

Reading the Traces

Fergal Lenehan

An Irish Sanctuary: German-speaking Refugees in Ireland 1933-1945, by Gisela Holfter and Horst Dickel, De Gruyter, 449 pp, €59,95, ISBN: 978-3110351453

The German language has some wonderful words. My own favourites include lebensmüde or “life-tired”, describing a personalised world-weariness, and Sehnsucht, the almost painful longing for someone or something. Spurensuche is also beautiful. It means “looking-for-traces” or “looking-for-clues” (in the police sense). A trace is a physical sign that something has happened or has existed at some time in the past, the instigator of the trace usually long since gone. Indeed German cultural tourism often centres upon the idea of Spurensuche, encouraging potential visitors to look for and inspect traces of Luther in Wittenberg, Goethe in Weimar or Schiller in Jena, for example. Inevitably the historical-tourist Spurensuche orients itself towards traces left by one well-known man.

Gisela Holfter and Horst Dickel, however, in this monumental book, An Irish Sanctuary: German-Speaking Refugees in Ireland 1933-1945, investigate the traces left by 426 largely unknown men and women (with the exception of the Austrian scientist Erwin Schrödinger). These 426 individuals – German-speakers from Germany, Austria and the then Czechoslovakia, mostly but not all Jewish – are united by the fact that they found sanctuary in Ireland from the murderous brutality of the Nazis from 1933 to 1945. The book is thus a “collective biography” of 426 refugees, but takes a wide perspective. The narrative incorporates traces of many interlinked lives: Irish charity workers helping desperate people in central Europe, kind philanthropists in the towns and villages of Ireland opening their homes to refugees, influential Irish politicians enticing entrepreneurs and academics to Ireland, powerful state officials deciding upon people’s fates with the stroke of a pen, and people forced to remain in Nazi-occupied territories who were subsequently murdered. This is an important book that manages to be both highly informative and, at times, very affecting.

What Holfter and Dickel present here is also a substantial scholarly achievement, fourteen years in the making, that draws upon a vast array of documentary sources from archives located in Ireland, Britain, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, the United States of America and Israel. Local and national newspaper sources were consulted, while the authors also interviewed many of the refugees involved, as well as family members. Published and unpublished memoirs, in addition, represent valuable sources that are successfully utilised. The authors very effectively show the interconnectedness of Irish and Central European history: the very real human fibres connecting Longford and Vienna, Dublin and Berlin, Castlebar and the Bohemian town of Komotau/Chomutov.

The sole disappointment, for me at least, is the lack of a thorough methodological discussion that places the book within a wider historiographical context. This is surprising since a multifaceted historiographical debate has been conducted within the last thirty years, in the United States, France, Britain and Germany, regarding the ways in which historical writers may loosen the formerly tight bonds of national historiography. The authors state that they are writing from the perspective of exile studies. But how exactly do exile studies relate to recent perspectives from, for example, migration history, transnational history, global history, cultural transfer studies, histoire croisée or entangled history? Holfter and Dickel do tell us that they have written a “collective biography”: an effective and valid metaphor for their study, but the methodological parameters of what this might actually mean remain unexplored. This is, however, probably a minor criticism in light of the unquestionable importance of the study, which is now undoubtedly the definitive account of German-speaking refugees in Ireland during the Nazi period. Any lingering questions on this topic have now been fully answered.

The monograph also humanises the abstract category of refugee by outlining the contours of these complex migratory stories, laced frequently with the pain of dislocation: the psychosomatic illnesses, the isolation, the suicidal thoughts, the loss of societal status and, most grievous of all, the murder of loved ones left behind. Various stories are recounted that interweave elements of audacity and tragedy, such as that of Anselm Horwitz. In 1938 Anselm was a seventeen-year-old disbarred from school in Vienna due to his Jewish background. He later went to the Technical School in Tralee, set up a business in Ireland, married an Irish woman and later still emigrated from Ireland to the United States of America. His escape from Nazi Vienna in the late 1930s was, however, overshadowed by sadness, as his father and mother failed to receive a visa for Ireland. As Anselm Horwitz tells the authors: “Both my parents did not seem to care as long as I got out.” This perfectly understandable parental sacrifice becomes deeply poignant however when the authors, in a footnote, inform us that Anselm’s parents, Hugo Theodor and Marianne Horwitz, “were deported to Minsk and murdered” in late 1941.

The authors also tell us the story of Erich Priebatsch. The owner of a large textile shop in Hirschberg in the Silesian mountains, he was imprisoned in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen in the late 1930s, yet was saved due to his contact with an Irish woman, Eileen Davitt, whom he and his family had met while on holidays. Davitt’s initiative led to the intervention of two Irish aid committees, and Erich Priebatsch subsequently came to Ireland before journeying on to Uruguay. Erich’s wife, Johanna, and daughter, Eva-Agnes, did not join him, however, and were murdered by the Nazis in 1944. Later, Priebatsch was adamant that responsibility for this lay with the Irish government, who had refused a permit for his family. The authors refer to documents, however, which appear to suggest that the Irish authorities actually expected Priebatsch’s family to follow him to Ireland. Thus it is not fully clear whether an Irish civil servant was in a position to influence events in a manner that could have saved the life of Johanna and Eva-Agnes. What remains clear, however, is that bureaucratic decisions have very real and, at times, deadly consequences.

The Irish Department of Justice does not come out of the book well, appearing as a malevolent force persistently snapping shut the Irish border to the actually minuscule number of refugees seeking shelter on the island; anti-Semitic arguments also often appear in official documents. Indeed the Department of Justice shows itself during this period to be persistently paranoid about “penniless foreigners” unable to support themselves in Ireland. “Penniless foreigners” was a “largely imaginary category”, the authors tell us, as the majority of refugees who came to the country were decidedly middle class and many actually helped to actively invigorate the Irish economy. The thinking of the Irish representatives in Berlin was in line with their colleagues from the Department of Justice, as has been widely documented.

The Irish Department of Industry and Commerce, on the other hand, receives some credit. The department actively sought to encourage industrialists who had got into difficulties with the Nazis to move as much of their operations as they could to Ireland. Due to this pragmatic policy lives were not just saved, but a clothes factory was established in Galway, a hat factory in Castlebar and a ribbon factory in Longford, while the Plunder and Pollack tannery in Carrick-on-Suir was built upon the skill of Austrian experts enticed there in the late 1930s. Specifically sought, skilled Austrian and German managers were also brought to Ballina, Tipperary town and Milltown Malbay in Co Clare. Although these newly founded factories provided one of the sole sources of stable employment in many of the communities mentioned, anti-Semitism still arose, with paranoid resolutions passed during this time by Galway, Tipperary and Longford county councils against Jews taking Irish names. The Les Modes Modernes factory at Bohermore in Galway employed two hundred and fifty people during the war years, but halted production with thirty workers in 1972 (the site is now a car-park), while Hirsch Ribbons ceased in Longford in 1976 and Western Hats closed in Castlebar in 1981. In earlier periods the two latter enterprises had employed large numbers of people, but at the time of their closure retained twenty-three and seventy employees respectively. The Plunder and Pollack Tannery also remained central to the local economy of Carrick-on-Suir until its closure in 1985.

So, was the Irish state complicit by virtue of its relative non-action during this time of persecution of Jews and others by the Nazis? The figure of 426 people finding sanctuary in Ireland is undoubted dwarfed by the estimated six  million Jews murdered by Nazi Germany. The usual answer to this question is to point out how Ireland was a poverty-stricken country, distant from the conflict and with high levels of emigration. The authors’ comparison of how the Irish and the Portuguese states reacted to the crisis of Jewish refugees is very telling, however. Portugal was also a poverty-stricken country distant from Germany, had high emigration levels and a dominant authoritarian Catholic ethos, with distinct elements of religious anti-Semitism. Ireland had then a population of about three million people while mainland Portugal had a population of 7.8 million. Both countries are relatively similar in geographical size, with mainland Portugal being slightly larger. While Ireland received slightly more than four hundred German-speaking refugees from 1933 to 1945, Portugal took in between thirteen and fifteen thousand people fleeing the Nazis, mostly in 1940 and 1941. Portuguese diplomats, especially in France, presciently discerned the grave nature of what was happening and began issuing large numbers of visas, disregarding orders from Lisbon. Thus a case is to be made for the moral culpability of the Irish state during this period. It failed to act in an appropriate manner to what was, very probably, the worst humanitarian crisis in the history of humankind.

Marking traces of the past in Germany is not, of course, solely a staple of cultural tourism but also remains part of a wider coming-to-terms with the National Socialist past. One of the most successful recent ways of doing this have been the Stolpersteine, literally “stones to fall over”, an initiative started by artist Gunter Demnig in 1992. The Stolpersteine are basically small brass cobblestones placed into the street remembering people murdered in the Holocaust, at the places where they actually lived. When I walk from the railway station to work in Jena I regularly “fall over” the brass cobblestones marking the life and death of former Jena residents Hermann and Klara Friedmann. I try to imagine them living there and how they were, in their late sixties, hauled away to be murdered. In a secondary school in Malahide in Co Dublin there is a small stone memorial commemorating Ettie Steinberg and her son – the only directly Irish victims of the Holocaust – and all victims of the Holocaust. It is high time now, I would argue, for a larger Holocaust memorial at the centre of Dublin. It could commemorate the 426 people who found sanctuary from the Nazis in Ireland, and also the wonderful Irish people who helped them. It could also mark the failings of the then Irish state, and remember people such as Theodor and Marianne Horwitz and Johanna and Eva-Agnes Priebatsch who did not receive sanctuary from mass murder in Ireland. Not least a central Holocaust memorial in Dublin would publicly reiterate Irish commitment to the ideals of liberal democracy: the Holocaust is the dark other of European history, against which we should always define ourselves. As Europe and the West lurches to the authoritarian right, this would be a very worthy reiteration of values.


Fergal Lenehan teaches Intercultural Studies at the Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena. He has published two books: Intellectuals and Europe, published in 2014, and Stereotypes, Ideology and Foreign Correspondents: German Media Representations of Ireland,1946-2010, published in 2016, which was reviewed in the November issue of the Dublin Review of Books.



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