Top marks to the Mayo Historical and Archaeological Society for a memorable opening lecture of the new season at GMIT last week.
A capacity audience was in attendance to hear Jewish historian Yanky Fachler recount the story of the setting up of the hat factory in Castlebar but also, more importantly, the part played by its promoters in arranging the safe evacuation from almost certain deaths at Nazi hands of scores of Jewish immigrants.
The story began in the late 1930s when a confluence of interests – the need to create employment in Ireland and the need to rescue endangered Jewish citizens on the continent – provided an opportunity that was astutely seized upon. The country was in a state of economic stagnation; the De Valera founding vision of viable native industries was proving a failure. The pragmatic Minister for Industry and Commerce, Seán Lemass, realised that the only hope of salvation lay in attracting overseas investors, managers and experts to Ireland from industrialised countries, where they would help Ireland set up new industries. In this, he had the formidable support of Senator John Eddie McEllin, a native of Balla, and a man who had the ear of the Taoiseach, De Valera.
At this time too a prominent Dublin Jewish businessman, Marcus Witztum, who dealt in textiles, became aware of Lemass’s search for European businessmen to relocate in Ireland. And as a Jew, he was aware of the growing plight of the Jews of Europe since Hitler had come to power in Germany.
The challenge facing the Jews at that time was not how to escape the countries that were coming under the Nazi jackboot, but rather that no country would give them admittance. In 1938, at a special conference held in Evian in Switzerland to discuss the crisis of Jews trying to leave Germany, country after country (including, most volubly, Ireland), declared their inability to receive fleeing Jews.
It was then that Witztum hit on his master plan. He would help Lemass to find new industries for Ireland, and he would also be able to secure safe passage for his fellow Jews. And so he, McEllin and Lemass set off on a number of trade missions to Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. The delegation was ultimately successful in attracting three industries – a ribbon factory in Longford, and two hat factories, one in Galway and the other in Castlebar.
Witztum convinced the authorities that to ensure the full professional operation of the factories, experts from Europe were urgently needed. And so, permission was given to allow in Jewish technicians, designers, works managers, hat makers and engineers who would be needed to run the factories.
But not all were experts; Witztum also managed to secure entry for a large number of Jews from a professional and upper-class backgrounds, many with little experience of industry. One was a banker who had never set foot in a factory, and several were lawyers and doctors who, under the cover provided by the clever Witztum, were able to flee certain death.
The Castlebar Hat Factory opened in 1940, and the influx of Jewish people who settled in Blackfort gave the area the name ‘Little Jerusalem’. Western Hats Ltd, with a nominal share capital of £100,000, was the most modern of its kind in Ireland.
The last machines for the plant, with their operators, had arrived from Belgium just a week before that country was invaded by the Germans. Also arriving home the same week was the group of 30 women and seven men who had spent a year in Belgium training in the art of hat making.
And by a strange co-incidence, Kitty Sloyan, the last surviving member of that group, passed away only days before Yanky Fachler delivered his lecture on ‘the Irish Schindler’ at GMIT.