Fr Kevin Hegarty
Next Saturday is Holocaust Memorial Day. It is an opportunity to remember what we should never forget. The Nazi project was first to rid Germany and Austria of Jewish people, and ultimately to exterminate the Jewish race. It plumbed the depths of depravity.
The Irish response to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi terror was paltry.
According to the historian Dermot Keogh as few as 60 Jews may have been admitted to Ireland during the years of the Second World War.
There was a strain of anti-semitism in Irish society. It was virulently expressed by Oliver J Flanagan TD in the Dáil in 1943:
“There was one thing Germany did and that was to rout the Jews out of their country.”
He added that: “We should rout them out of Ireland. They crucified our saviour 1,900 years ago and they have been crucifying us every day of the week.”
An Irish delegate to a League of Nations conference on the plight of German Jews glibly commented that: “Didn’t we suffer like this in the Penal Days and nobody came to our help”.
Ireland contrasts unfavourably with Denmark. There on the night of October 1, 1943, when Jews heard that they were to be arrested, each family knew which Danish family was prepared to shelter them. As a result very few were caught.
One man tried to save Ireland’s honour. He was Humbert Butler, an Anglo-Irish Protestant intellectual from Kilkenny, who made a formidable contribution to Irish public life in the twentieth century. He had a passionate commitment to a pluralist Ireland where Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist might enrich each other.
His horizons were wider than Ireland. He travelled widely in Europe during the 1920s and 30s. He witnessed the sinister stirrings in German politics that brought Hitler to power. He discerned early the evil intent in Nazi ideology. In one of his essays he wrote: “Hitler brought into the world misery such as no man had previously conceived possible. It had to be combated.”
Butler was an elegant writer but he was not just a man of words. He was also a man of action. In the spring of 1938 he read a newspaper report of a meeting in London to highlight the Nazi threat to European Jews. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of ‘the systematic persecution without parallel even in the middle ages and the incredible mental and moral torture’ which Jews in Germany were experiencing.
In March 1938 Hitler invaded Austria and destroyed its democracy. Jews feared for their future. Butler went to Vienna to join a ‘Society of Friends’ or a Quaker organisation that was helping Jews to escape to safe havens. He and his co-workers helped 2,408 Jews leave Austria.
Among those he helped was Edward Strunz, a trade union official who had married a Jewish woman and converted to Judaism. Thus he was especially obnoxious to the Nazis.
In September 1938 he got a tip off that he was to be deported to the concentration camp in Dachau. In desperation he turned to Butler for help.
In an memoir he recalled his first meeting with the Irishman. “I was soon befriended by Hubert Butler, a tall, aristocratic-looking Irishman with kind blue eyes that could quite easily flash with righteous indignation at the many instances of beastliness that made the life of Vienna in 1938.”
Hubert managed to get him, his wife and two children to Ireland where they were given temporary lodgings in the Butler home. Humber Butler’s response to Nazi horror proves the truth of Edmund Burke’s statement that ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing’.