Two Irish women, two stirring stories amid the Holocaust
A new production tells the stories of how a childhood in Dublin ended in death in Auschwitz, and how a Cork woman was jailed by the Gestapo for saving children from the same fate
Fiona Bawn Thompson in ‘The Woman is Present’
Everyone knows who Oskar Schindler is, right? And many Irish people will have heard of the anti-Nazi activism of the Vatican priest, monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. Now let’s try some other names. Ettie Steinberg. Mary Elmes. Ring any bells?
If you already know that Steinberg is the only Irish citizen to have died in Auschwitz, and that Elmes is the only Irish woman to be honoured as Righteous Among the Nations for her work in saving children from the Nazi death camps, good for you. These second World War heroines are not exactly household names in this country. This, says the playwright and artistic director of Smashing Times Theatre Company Mary Moynihan, is a national disgrace.
How did Mary Moynihan first come across the stories of Ettie Steinberg and Mary Elmes?
She aims to change the situation with a touring production of The Woman Is Present: Women’s Stories of WW2, which presents moments from the lives of Steinberg, Elmes and others in the most immediate way: by putting the women on stage to address the audience directly.
Since 1991, Smashing Times has been using professional theatre productions, workshops and post-show discussions to engage audiences on all sorts of human-rights topics, from gender politics to peace and reconciliation. Earlier this month the company was awarded the DAA Arts Award at the Allianz Business to Arts awards for a project on mental health, which it developed with the Samaritans and the Irish Association of Suicidology.
How did Mary Moynihan first come across the stories of Ettie Steinberg and Mary Elmes? “The Woman is Present is part of a European project funded by the EU’s Europe For Citizens programme,” she says. “We worked with partner groups from Poland, Germany and Spain. To begin the project we brought all the partners to Dublin to get together with all the theatre practitioners and artists. One of our members has links with the Irish Jewish Museum in Portobello, and as part of that day, the museum said they’d give us a talk.”
The talk proved a revelation. They learned that Ettie Steinberg had spent a happy childhood with her Czech parents on Dublin’s South Circular Road. When she married a Belgian goldsmith, she went with him to Antwerp. But under the threat of the advancing Nazis, the couple fled to France. In 1942 they and their baby son were arrested and sent to Auschwitz.
Mary Elmes was born in Cork in 1908. After studying French and Spanish at TCD she got a scholarship to the London School of Economics; in 1937 she joined the University of London Ambulance Unit and was sent to a children’s hospital in the southern Spanish town of Almería. “It was a baptism of fire for her,” says Moynihan. “Malaga had fallen to the Fascists: 5,000 people were killed and thousands of people were trying to flee the city, being bombed from the air as they went.”
After the Vichy government took over, they started to transport Jewish families to the death camps
Elmes stayed in Spain until the end of the civil war, then embarked on a nightmarish journey across the mountains into France, where up to a million Spanish refugees were living in camps. “She got clothes and food, not just for the people in the camps but for everyone in the area, which was suffering terribly,” says Moynihan. “After the Vichy government took over, they started to transport Jewish families to the death camps. Mary Elmes and the Quakers tried to find ways to get the children out.”
It was dangerous work – Elmes sometimes put children in the boot of her car – which inevitably brought her to the attention of the Gestapo. She was arrested and sent to the notorious Frasnes Prison outside Paris, but was released after six months.
The Woman Is Present is structured as a series of monologues in which Steinberg, Elmes and a number of other women tell their own stories. How do Smashing Times go about re-working these already dramatic stories as theatrical performances? “For a long time we’ve been making performances where people share their stories and then we fictionalise them to protect their privacy,” Moynihan says. “We wanted to fictionalised these stories, too – but we found we couldn’t. The power comes from the naming of the women.”
Moynihan has written two of the pieces in The Woman Is Present; the other writers are Deirdre Kinahan, Fiona Bawn Thompson and Paul Kennedy. Was it a harrowing business, researching these lives lived among the horrors of war and genocide? “On one level,” she says. But it was also inspirational. “What comes across is the incredible spirit of the women. They’re all extraordinary in their determination to stand up for human dignity. None of them accepted the oppression that was imposed on them; each one fought back in their own way.”
It’s important to acknowledge and remember what happened during the second World War, she says. But the example of these astonishing women also offers hope – and inspiration – to those of us who are growing ever more dismayed by what’s currently happening in the world.
We found ourselves looking at the exact same pictures – except they were in colour . . . people fleeing from Syria
“We wanted to see for ourselves the journey that Mary Elmes would have made,” Moynihan recalls. “So one day, in rehearsal, we were watching some old black-and-white BBC film of Spanish refugees crossing the mountains into France,
“Then, when we went home, we were watching the news on TV. And we found ourselves looking at the exact same pictures – except they were in colour, and they were of people fleeing from Syria. It was so similar. That’s why we think these stories are so relevant today.” “The Woman Is Present” is at An Táin Arts Centre, Dundalk, Co Louth, on Sept 28. It then tours to Lisburn (Oct 7), Belfast (Oct 10), Omagh (Oct 11), Bray (Oct 20), TCD (Oct 25-26), Wexford Arts Centre (Nov 1), Germany (Nov 19), Blanchardstown (Nov 30) and Derry (Feb 24, 2018). For more information, including a digital booklet which tells the stories of 23 women from the second World War, see smashingtimes.ie
HUMANITY IN THE DETAILS
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by an international catastrophe as enormous as that of the Holocaust. But when you begin to dig beneath the surface of history, you find tiny threads of personal connection. These are the sparks of light in the darkness: and that’s where empathy begins. Here are some of the sparks that helped Smashing Times to recreate the stories of women from the second World War.
* In the archive of the Irish Jewish Museum is a postcard. It is believed that Ettie Steinberg addressed it to her family in Dublin and threw it from the moving cattle car in which she and her family were being deported to Auschwitz. It was found by a passer-by, and posted a few days after Steinberg, her husband, and their son were murdered.
* When Moynihan began to research the life of Mary Elmes she found a very old blog on a Quaker website. She sent off an email, and was put in touch with an Englishman called Bernard Wilson who had a house in the south of France. He got interested in what had happened there during the war – and kept hearing the name “Miss Mary”. Eventually, he wrote a book about Mary Elmes.
Since then more information about Elmes has emerged, much of which will be contained in a new biography, A Time to Risk All, by Clodagh Finn. Finn contacted one of the people who, as a child, was saved by Elmes. He is now an academic in New York. The book will be published by Gill Books in October.