IT was fitting that Chaim Ferster, concentration camp survivor, should pass away within a few days of the marking of International Holocaust Day last month. The Polish-born Jew had survived the atrocities of eight concentration camps mainly because his engineering skills had been useful to his German captors.
In recent years, he had begun to bring his story to schools and youth groups, not out of any sense of revenge, but to alert a new generation of the dangers of attempts to deny the reality of the horrors he had lived through. Few of the secondary school students in Balla and Claremorris who heard his moving testimony will ever forget what this quiet, dignified man told of his experiences.
But what bewildered many of Chaim Ferster’s listeners was how the world had stood idly by while the cold, deliberate policy of genocide was being implemented with such chilling efficiency. How could it happen, they would ask, that so many countries closed their doors to Jewish refugees fleeing from annihilation under the Nazi regime?
Part of that answer can be found in a new study by Limerick academic, Gisela Holfster, who has co-researched the Irish response to requests for sanctuary from those fleeing the Nazi horrors. And although the Irish official response was lamentable in hindsight, the only plausible excuse was that, not until years later, did the world become fully aware of the atrocities being perpetrated on such a massive scale across central Europe.
But what was equally beyond dispute was that anti-Semitism was alive and rife in Ireland, and there was little sympathy, even from those in the know, for the plight of the persecuted Jews. By the late 1930s, requests for sanctuary in Ireland were being systematically turned down by the Irish legation in Berlin, which was the initial screening point for asylum applicants. Leo McAuley, a senior official in the legation, had reported back to Dublin that ‘Jewish refugees had, to some extent, brought the trouble on themselves’. Civil servants in Dublin had responded by warning of ‘a surplus of Jews in Ireland’.By 1936, there was a marked rise in public protests against any move to admitting Jews, with a leading Catholic newspaper reporting that ‘Hitler has many admirers among Irish Catholics’.
This deep sense of hostility to Jews was reflected in public discourse at every level. The Christian Front spoke of ‘the alien penetration of Irish industry’ - this a criticism of the policy of allowing Jewish businessmen to set up here. There was the infamous contribution in Dáil Éireann of one particular TD, whose son is today a senior government minister, who when speaking of the plight of the Jews said: “They crucified Our Saviour nineteen hundred years ago, and they are crucifying us every day of the week.”
In our defence, we were not alone in our indifference to the plight of the helpless Jewish people. The film ‘Voyage of the Damned’ told the true story of the ocean liner, the St Louis, which left Hamburg with 937 Jewish refugees seeking escape from their fate. The ship sailed to Cuba, where it was refused entry; then on to Florida, again being turned away. The captain sailed back to Europe with his increasingly desperate passengers, intent on running his vessel aground on a reef off the south of England in a last ditch attempt at freedom. At the last moment, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Britain agreed to take a portion of those on board. But their salvation was short lived. Apart from those who were received in England, the remainder were again to find themselves condemned to Auschwitz when the Nazis took control of the countries which had so reluctantly given them shelter in the first place.