German child refugee who made rewarding life in Ireland

Obituary: Elizabeth (Kohlberg) O’Gorman

Liz O’Gorman:  born July 16th, 1938 – died June 13th, 2017. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Liz O’Gorman: born July 16th, 1938 – died June 13th, 2017. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Elizabeth (Liz) O’Gorman was rescued in childhood by Irish aid workers from the devastation of post-war Germany and went on to have a fulfilling and contented life in Ireland. She died recently, aged 78, after collapsing on the tennis courts where she had enjoyed some of her happiest moments.

She was born Elizabeth Kohlberg in Aachen, north-west Germany, on July 16th, 1938. She had a twin brother, August, an elder brother and two elder sisters. In 1939, their father was conscripted into the army. While the twins were still infants, their mother became very ill and they were placed in an orphanage, along with their brother Gottfried. Food was scarce and Liz later recalled the women in charge as being stern and cold.

In 1944 their mother died when Allied bombs hit the hospital where she was a long-term patient. Their father, who was allowed home for the funeral, was killed in action 10 days after returning to the Russian front.

Operation Shamrock

In 1946, the twins were brought to Ireland as part of Operation Shamrock, an Irish Red Cross initiative to rescue children from war-ravaged Germany, give them an extended holiday in foster care and restore their health before returning them to their families (though in many cases this never happened). O’Gorman arrived at Dún Laoghaire harbour on a bitter, snowy November day, malnourished and exhausted after a four-day journey.

She and the rest of her group were driven to the old military barracks at Glencree, Co Wicklow for three weeks in quarantine. When she entered, she recalled, “I saw what I thought was an angel, but it was actually a nun in one of the big, white bonnets. She was from the French Sisters of Charity. We were taken into a big room and given hot milk, chocolate and lovely fresh, soft, white bread with butter. I really thought I was in heaven.”

O’Gorman was fostered by Roderick and Mary McNicholl of Sandymount. August was taken into a family in Glasnevin who did not welcome visits from Liz, and the twins saw very little of each other for the next decade. However, she was reunited with her elder brother Gottfried after the McNicholls arranged for him to come to Ireland for a holiday. They immediately struck up a good relationship with the boy, and soon adopted him together with Liz. (Gottfried now lives in Spain.)

When O’Gorman was 19, and had saved some money, she went to Aachen to meet her two sisters, aunts and uncles. “Talking to them I was told I was a mirror image of my mother and that she had always been kissing and cuddling me as a baby. This was wonderful news for me – to know that I had been loved and cherished as a baby before I was sent to a loveless orphanage. I returned to Ireland and never felt any desire to take up life in Germany again. My roots and my loving foster parents were in Ireland.”

Around the same time, August re-established contact, but soon afterwards he emigrated to South Africa, where he married and had a daughter. He died in a road crash, aged 29.

Tennis excellence

In 1961, she married Jack O’Gorman, whom she met at the ESB Swimming Club. They settled in Kilmacud, south Dublin, and raised five children. Sport and outdoor pursuits played a big part in family life. She excelled at swimming, hockey, camogie and soccer. Both she and Jack loved hillwalking.

She joined Glenalbyn Tennis Club in Stillorgan, where she won countless competitions, and she went on to represent Ireland in international veterans’ tournaments across the globe. She was a tough opponent: athletic, shrewd and, above all, determined to win.

O’Gorman died on court at Glenalbyn during an inter-club league doubles match. It seemed a fitting way for her to go, despite the shock and sadness for her family and many friends. Among the tokens brought to the altar at her funeral Mass were her tennis racquet and the multi-coloured cardigan she had worn as a refugee child on the journey from Germany in 1946.

Asked about her life philosophy, she once said: “Forget past difficulties and look to the future.” Nonetheless, she gave talks about her early life to schools and historical societies, telling her story simply and vividly. An appearance on the Late Late Show led to the making of a televised documentary film about Operation Shamrock, in which she proved an insightful presenter and interviewer.

Her thoughts on Operation Shamrock were simple: “I came to Ireland with absolutely nothing. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. I had a wonderful life.”

She is survived by her husband, Jack, children Rocky, Vincie, Sandra, Johnny and Damien, and seven grandchildren.