The Dubliner who died at Auschwitz now centre stage

The story of Ettie Steinberg, the only Irish person killed in the Holocaust, has been reworked into a play that gives her back her humanity and ‘lifts her out of that mess’

Ettie Steinberg was the only Irish citizen killed at Auschwitz in the second World War. She was born to Czechoslovakian parents on January 11th, 1914, and lived with them and six siblings at 28 Raymond Terrace, near the South Circular Road in Dublin.

Smashing Times theatre group is reviving Steinberg's story, which is equal parts fascinating and tragic, in The Woman is Present: Women's Stories of WWII. It is one of 20 accounts of powerful women in wartime to be performed by the Dublin-based group as part of their year-long project Women, War and Peace. The recorded details of Steinberg's life have been reworked into Ode to Ettie Steinberg, a play that reimagines moments from her short life.

Her story begins in Dublin. She was a Jewish seamstress who married a Belgian man, Vogtjeck Gluck, on July 22nd, 1937, in Greenville Hall synagogue in Dublin. The newlyweds soon moved to Antwerp to be closer to Gluck’s family business.

Antwerp was not to be their home for long. Tensions grew around a Nazi invasion of the Low Countries, and the couple fled to Paris, where their son Leon was born. But the new family were still under threat. They were forced to continue to the south of France, moving every day, before they were captured and arrested while staying in a hotel.

Steinberg's family sent visas to allow them to return to Northern Ireland, but they arrived a day too late. The trio were transported to Auschwitz. On their final journey, Steinberg wrote a postcard to her family in Ireland and threw it from the moving train. By chance, it was found by a stranger and posted to the correct address.

The postcard, written in coded Hebrew to avoid detection, read: “Uncle Lechem, we did not find, but we found Uncle Tisha B’av” – meaning “we did not find plenty, but we found destruction”.

"It's a hidden history, if you like," says the play's director, Mary Moynihan. "The fact that she wrote that postcard and was aware of what was going to happen to her and her family, it's so moving."

The theatre company picked out these stories of women in wartime to write and perform as monologues. Many of them are accounts of heroism and sacrifice.

The story of Cork woman Mary Elmes, who rescued children from being deported to concentration camps from Spain by smuggling them out in the boot of her car, will also be part of the selection.

“She was an Irish Schindler, if you like, who we just haven’t heard of,” says Moynihan. “She was arrested and incarcerated. She was held for a certain amount of time and then let go. She never looked for any recognition for what she did, but apparently she saved dozens if not hundreds of lives.”

Colour and humanity

Renowned playwright Deirdre Kinahan was given the task of writing Steinberg's story for the stage. Rather than writing uniquely about the family's tragedy and the difficult experiences of war, the monologues involve imagined moments in the women's lives, in order to give them colour and humanity outside of their often harrowing stories.

“When I read Ettie’s story, just a two- page, brief synopsis, it was a very tragic little tale about a woman from just off the South Circular road,” says Kinahan. “And I kept thinking, She died in a gas chamber with her son; there’s no humanity, there’s no dignity. It’s such a brutal death. We’ve all seen the films and the pictures. And I wanted to lift her out of there. I wanted to take her up out of that mess and I wanted to give her back her shoes, her pearls, her lipsticks, her son, her voice, her joy, her humanity.”

Kinahan’s telling of the story focuses on Steinberg as having a particularly Dublin identity. Her imagined retelling of Steinberg’s life is influenced by the Jewish community that existed in Dublin at that time.

“I really wanted to make her very Dublin and very human, so that instead of just being the only Irish person who died in the Holocaust, I wanted to make her flesh and blood and hopes and fun, and hopefully that’s what I’ve achieved,” she says.

“What is really interesting about it is that we don’t think of a Jewish community in Ireland or Dublin. We feel that community is more associated with eastern Europe or with Israel now. We don’t think in terms of Dublin Jews.

“What I really enjoyed was visiting the Jewish museum in Portobello and trying to get the feel for that micro-culture existing within an Irish culture at that time, around the time that we were forming our own Constitution and getting our independence, and how that micro-community existed within a much bigger Catholic community that was really quite zealous at that time.”

Steinberg’s and Elmes’s stories are likely to be new to many of us, for reasons that are difficult to fully comprehend. Moynihan says there are plenty of stories of Irish and European women’s involvement in war, but they simply haven’t been given the same airtime as the men’s.

“You think there aren’t stories, or there are very few stories,” she says. “But when you start to dig and start to research, there are so many stories, like the one of Ettie trying to keep her family alive or the story of Mary Elmes. We have these 20 women, but there are so many other stories out there.”

A very successful year

Women, War and Peace is a transnational project, with European partners from Spain, Germany and Poland, which uses creative processes to bring to light the role of women in Europe. The year-long project will come to a close after the performance of The Woman Is Present: Women's Stories of WWII and an international symposium, Women, War and Peace.

Smashing Times has had a very successful year. Its other projects have included The Woman Is Present: Women's Stories of 1916, and the September event will also see the premiere of their short film, Tell Them Our Names.

Moynihan has been profoundly affected by the stories she has learned. “You become very involved in it,” she says. “When you read all of these stories together, there’s a whole history that’s opened up to us of what women’s lives were like. What comes across to me, and even with Ettie’s story, is just the bravery of the women. All of these women were facing extraordinary circumstances of oppression, yet none of them lay down.”

Kinahan agrees. “The biggest thing was having the privilege of finding Ettie and bringing her back to her garden on Raymond Terrace,” she says. “I just wanted to bring her home.”

The Woman Is Present: Women's Stories of WWII is at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Trinity College Dublin, at 7.30pm on September 14th-16th. Tickets are free but booking is essential.

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