Author Marilyn Taylor recently spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Evening in Northern Ireland. Marilyn has researched the Holocaust extensively as part of her work as a writer. One of her most popular books, Faraway Home, is about two Jewish children sent from Nazi-occupied Austria to a refugee farm in Northern Ireland. This is based on the true story of the refugee farm in Millisle, County Down.
Here is an excerpt from Marilyn’s moving speech on the night:
Tonight, on the 27th January we are joining other countries round the world that are also marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the day in 1945 when the largest and most notorious Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was finally liberated by Soviet troops.
As well as remembering the Holocaust in Europe, we are also commemorating other violent genocides of recent times in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
Appropriately, tonight’s theme: Communities Together, Building a Bridge, reminds us all of the need to reach out to others, and to embrace difference, both far away and close to home.
This theme is also exemplified by the story of the Kindertransports and by the poignantly linked story of Millisle Refugee Farm, both of which have particular historical significance here in Newtownards, which is so close to Millisle.
As we know, the first persecution of the Holocaust, primarily of Jews but also other groups of convenient ‘scapegoats’ began immediately when Hitler and his Fascist Nazi Party were elected to power in Germany in 1933.
It finally ended with the Allied defeat of the Nazis in 1945, after the destruction of six million Jews.
A further five million people, whom the Nazis considered to be “untermenschen”- “undesirable”, were also murdered, including Gypsies – now known as Roma & Sinti – socialists and communists, trade union members, gay and lesbian people, people with disabilities –both mental and physical – Jehovah’s Witnesses, black people, Freemasons, and many Slavic people, and of course, all who opposed the Nazis by word or deed.
And these are just the deaths.
After the final Nazi defeat, millions more were left dying or horrifically wounded and tormented in body and spirit.
The mass murder of the Holocaust was carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators on an industrial scale all over Europe. This was ‘killing by assembly line’, with prison camps, forced labour camps and death camps efficiently linked by the Nazi-controlled rail network of Europe.
After his liberation, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel wrote,
“From the depths of the mirror a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.”
All this was of course unknown to me, a ‘war baby’ born in England, to a family evacuated from London.
Yet, I retain vivid memories of the war: the terrifying shriek of air raid sirens, my mother running with me in a buggy to the bomb shelter, and the thousands of V1 and V2 rockets that wreaked random death and destruction, striking fear in all our hearts.
Later, growing up in grey post-war London and learning what was then the recent history of the Second World War and of the Holocaust, I began to realise how lucky I had been, sheltered from the terror in Europe by an accident of geography.
My sister and I could have been among the huge numbers of Jewish children who died at the hands of Nazis and Fascists – of hunger and disease, in the ghettoes, in the boxcars, in the concentration camps, and in the gas chambers.
This realisation has stayed with me, and I think eventually led me much later to try to write about the Holocaust in a way that I hoped would capture the imagination of both young and adult readers, and help keep the memory alive.
In the late 1930s a few British Christians, Jews, and especially Quakers, came together, having witnessed the increasingly vicious treatment of Jews, both young and old, in Nazi Germany– through public humiliation, beatings and round-ups by Nazi thugs & SS men.
Together this group pressed the British government to allow in Jewish children, the most at risk.
After the terrible warning of “Kristallnacht” (the Night of Broken Glass) in November 1938 when Jewish synagogues, homes and businesses were smashed, looted and burned, frantic Jewish parents – themselves refused entry by most countries – made the difficult decision to send their children to Britain on these Kindertransports.
In this way about ten thousand German, Austrian and Czech unaccompanied Jewish children under the age of sixteen, were rescued from the clutches of the Nazis just before the War.
The children, each clutching a small suitcase with a few precious belongings (though nothing of value was permitted) said farewell to their parents, few realising that they might not see each other again.
Former refugees later described those never forgotten heart-breaking scenes at the railway station to me in graphic detail.
They travelled in groups of two or three hundred, each wearing labels with name and destination.
On their arrival in Britain, fearful and bewildered, and of course speaking little or no English, they were sent all over the country, to boarding schools, castles, farms, family homes – wherever people would take them in.
A random group ended up in Northern Ireland, and the small Belfast Jewish community immediately responded.
Some were fostered by local families, both Christian and Jewish. An old farm at Millisle, Co Down – known as Magill’s- was leased, initially housing thirty to forty children, plus older German-Jewish refugees training in agriculture in Northern Ireland.
(Later some of these trainees were involved in setting up early communal farms, “kibbutzim”, in the fledgling country of Israel.)
Adult refugees helped administer the farm.
About three to four hundred, mostly young people, passed through Millisle between 1938 and its closure in 1948.
Funds were raised by the Belfast and Dublin communities, from the Central British Fund in London, and the Northern Ireland Ministry of Agriculture.
Belfast Jewish community leaders set up a Refugee Aid committee; a Committee for German Refugees was also launched in Belfast with funding from the Joint Christian Churches, including Presbyterians, Methodists, Church of Ireland, Quakers and Catholics.
During my research, I tracked down many former refugees, meeting some in person, and sending detailed questionnaires to others. In response, I received phone calls, long descriptive letters, hand drawn maps, photographs and a 14-year-old girl’s moving diary; they all had a story they wanted told.
At Millisle, the young refugees, struggling with homesickness and anxiety about their families far away, had to learn to make a new life.
Neighbours helped to train them in farm work. At the local two-teacher school, (the original Millisle Primary school) each refugee child sat with a local child to help them learn English and perhaps make a friend – which many of them did.
Decades later, some of the former refugees returned to visit Millisle with their own families.
Despite food shortages and air raids on nearby Belfast – and indeed, a raid close by in Newtownards – it was a healthy life, remembered positively by many: going to the beach, fishing, games of Monopoly, football, the small synagogue on the farm, the Belfast rabbi visiting; sometimes concerts in the evenings, often concluding with the traditional Jewish dance, the Hora.
On Saturday evenings, they walked the three miles along the shore to the local cinema in Donaghadee where the owner allowed them in free.
Later, older refugees joined the Air Training Corps, the Red Cross, and the Pioneer Corps of the British Army, to help fight the Nazis.
After the war began, all letters stopped, and the refugees’ only communications with their families were brief Red Cross messages, which ceased after 1943. There were occasional distant rumours about death camps.
However, not until after the war ended in 1945 seven years later, did they learn the horrifying truth. Many had lost every member of their family in the Holocaust. Their parents, by sending them away, had saved their lives. Now most were orphans but in terms of the Holocaust, they were among the lucky ones.
Yet despite everything, many of the former refugees went on to live good and productive lives, never forgetting their families, or Millisle.
And neither they, nor we, will ever forget those people, and those no longer with us, who played such a significant role in this special chapter in the history of Northern Ireland.
In conclusion, there are many lessons that we can learn from the story of Millisle and the devastation of the Holocaust.
Firstly, because there was virtually nowhere Jews facing annihilation could go, a country, Israel, came into being.
The Kindertransport scheme was indeed a shining example of humanity. But put in context, they could only save ten thousand of the one and a half million Jewish children killed because there was no country that would take them in – not Britain, not Ireland, not the United States. When history calls, we all have a responsibility to answer.
Secondly, the Holocaust throws up some of the greatest challenges for us as individuals.
What do you do when a Jew comes knocking on the door at night seeking shelter, when the penalty for taking in a Jew is death, as it was in wartime Europe?
What would any of us do?
And how should we respond when other challenges to our humanity confront us and threaten us?
Thirdly, the Holocaust is not an abstract issue of history – it is about each and every one of us.
As Pastor Niemoller wrote …
“First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
And there was no one left to speak for me”
To find out more about Marilyn’s books click here.