Ireland remained nominally neutral during World War II — locally known as The Emergency — although around 100,000 Irishmen enlisted with the Allies. There were episodes of anti-Jewish feeling: some Catholic politicians and priests spread anti-Semitic beliefs; a minority far-right Irish Christian Rights Protection Association unsuccessfully tried to organize a Jewish boycott; there were Irish Nationalists who flirted with their ‘enemy’s enemy,’ the Nazis; and a nascent fascist group known as the Blueshirts was formed.
The Blueshirts, however, were outlawed as early as 1933, and the vast majority of Irish were acutely protective of the Jewish community. The Irish Constitution of 1937 explicitly addressed the rights of the Republic’s Jewish community, giving them constitutional protection that De Valera — who, like Hitler, asserted his personal authority in 1933 –presciently considered essential because of the deteriorating treatment of Jews elsewhere in Europe.
He proved prophetic. Five years later, on January 20, 1942, senior Nazi officials meeting secretly in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to set in motion the annihilation of Europe’s 11 million Jews, included Ireland’s 4,000 Jews among those marked for destruction.
Protective as it was of its ‘own’ Jews, however, Ireland, as other countries, maintained a restrictive Jewish immigration policy during World War II, admitting a shameful 65 to 100 Jewish refugees before and during the Holocaust.
Nonetheless, for Irish Jews, the Republic remained a haven, and Irish Jewish life — both community and mercantile — remained safe during the Holocaust years.
In 1966, the Dublin Jewish community planted a forest near Nazareth in Israel dedicated to Éamonn de Valera, in recognition of his consistent support for Ireland’s Jews.
David White remembers:
As a boy growing up in Dublin during the war years and after, I never saw or heard of anti-Semitism or any slogans urging a boycott of Jews or their business. The Elliman and White businesses were among many Jewish concerns that continued to prosper during this time.
To defend its neutrality, Ireland set up the Irish Local Defence Forces (LDF) on May 28, 1940, as an auxiliary police service. Instituted under a Garda Act, it was to perform supportive police and internal security work. Recruiting forms were dispatched to Garda stations on May 31 and, by June 16, 44,870 members were enrolled. Among them were Geoffrey Elliman and Henry White, the latter of whom managed to shoot off his little finger during his LDF service. Geoff remembers:
I attended the Garda Barracks in Rathmines at the appointed time in early June 1940 to enlist. An officer ordered us to line up in a square behind the barracks.
He spoke to us briefly about our future duties, and then asked all former members of the Boy Scouts and Boys Brigade to take a step forward. I had been a boy scout with the 16th Jewish Scout Troop from age 11 to 16, but was cautious, and I didn’t step forward. All those who did were immediately made corporals and sergeants. The rest of us were formed into squads, each under a corporal.
We attended the Portobello Barracks each evening for training under an army sergeant, who in no way diminished the traditional image of an army sergeant! We drilled on the barracks square, and he was determined we should get it right. After some time, we were taken to the rifle range, issued Lee Enfield 22s from the previous war, and taught how to shoot. I can’t claim any great success. I occasionally hit the target, but never scored a bull’s eye. This was clearly the fault of the aged rifle… We were paired off in districts, so that in the event of an emergency, one would alert the other.
Our training included route marches at weekends. We assembled at the barrack gates in the early morning and marched to the Dublin Mountains. Our uniforms were no tailor’s joy, but those army boots were comfort supreme! Over time, we became physically fitter, more knowledgeable about military matters and eventually went on war manoeuvres. One of these took place at the River Dodder. As well as normal ground manoeuvres that day, we had an aeroplane fly over us dropping paper bags filled with white powder. The ‘battle’ lasted a day, and we slept on the river banks that night.
Henry White also ‘saw action’ at the River Dodder. He led an LDF ‘assault’ on the Milltown railway viaduct, a spectacular nine-arched limestone bridge over the river that formed part of the Bray-Harcourt Street Railway Line, until its closure in 1958.
Hymie, meanwhile, was in London and newly wed. Still an Irish citizen, and weighing whether to leave his new wife and enlist, he called Maurice, whose advice was: “You’ve made England your home. Now you must fight for her.”
Six years later, in 1946, a word from Maurice was again sufficient to direct the course of Hymie’s life. By then, a trained, seasoned military medical officer, recently demobbed from the British Army, Hymie debated going to Palestine to fight for a Jewish State. He ran this past his father. Maurice was a Zionist, but his response was a firm: “You have a wife and baby now. Your place is with them.” And Hymie stayed in London.
On March 4, 1941, following Maurice’s advice to fight for his adopted country, Hymie received a commission as captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Hazel came with him to Aldershot and then Belfast, where he trained. She returned to London and the Blitz when he was sent overseas. He saw active service in Egypt, Libya, Algiers, Sicily and Italy. He was lightly wounded late in 1942 during the battle of El Alamein, a major Allied victory and a turning-point in the Western Desert Campaign. It was also an experience, he later told his nephew, Henny’s David, that changed him forever.
Field operating theatre El Alamein, 1942
Part of the invading force in Sicily in 1943, he was medical officer in charge when epidemic broke out among the troops.
He set up a quarantine camp across the river, something he’d learned only in theory, managed to remain uninfected himself and contained the epidemic. His overseas posting ended in Rome, where he learned Italian and lived the comfortable life of an occupying officer. Through the two years he was overseas, Henny wrote to him every week.
Jack, who had also been living in London through the 1930s, served in the Royal Air Force.
The full horror of Hitler’s attempted annihilation of the Jews became known only after the war. Of the 220,000 Jews in Lithuania, the country that Maurice had left half a century earlier, 196,000 were murdered — most shot in pits near their homes. The country’s most infamous mass murders took place at the Ninth Fort near Kovno and in the Ponary Forest near Vilnius. As under the Tsars, Kovno had the unhappy distinction of centre of operations.
Nazi SS Brigade Führer Dr. Franz Walter Stahlecker, head of Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing unit) A in the Baltic States, reached Kovno on June 25, 1941, and immediately instigated a pogrom. That same night 1,500 Jews were killed in the town, and on the following day another 2,300 were murdered. On October 15, Stahlecker reported that the killing was still progressing steadily.
The Kovno Ghetto, where Maurice and his family would surely have been incarcerated had he stayed in Eastern Europe, was set up on July 10, 1941. At its peak, it held 30,000 people, many of them doubtless Maurice’s relatives and childhood friends. Most were sent from there to concentration and extermination camps, or shot at the Ninth Fort. About 500 Jews escaped from the Kovno Ghetto and from the work details it sent out, and joined Soviet partisan forces in the distant forests of southeast Lithuania and Belarus. Of Kovno’s 37,000 Jews, 3,000 survived the Nazis.
The Kovno Ghetto The Ninth Fort Jewish children in the Kovno Ghetto Kovno’s memorial to its slaughtered Jews
The Choraline Synagogue (LEFT), built in 1871, is the sole Kovno shul to survive the Holocaust. The Nazis used it to warehouse and sort furniture and valuables looted from the Jewish population, before sending the booty to Germany. The memorial outside it (RIGHT) is to the Jewish children of Kovno who perished during the Holocaust
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