Irishman honoured in Polish city where he warned of Nazi danger

 

AFTER 73 years, the name Seán Lester echoed once more yesterday around his former home in Gdansk.

For three years to 1937, he watched the rise of the Nazis in the city and warned of the looming disaster for Europe, the second World War.

His lone, opposing voice so irritated the Nazis that a British contemporary was only half-joking when he dubbed Lester “the most hated man in the Third Reich”.

Yesterday Dr Lester’s daughter Ann returned to the city of her childhood to accept an honour on his behalf.

“Welcome to Gdansk, welcome to your home,” said mayor Pawel Adamowicz to Ann Górski (neé Lester) in the city hall. “You are a bridge between this building’s past and its present.”

The beautiful villa, with its grand stone staircase and stuccoed ceilings, was where Dr Lester lived with his wife and three daughters as high commissioner for the League of Nations – forerunner to the United Nations – in what was then the Free City of Danzig.

As part of a post-war settlement after the first World War the port city of Danzig – with a majority German population, a Polish minority and surrounded by Polish territory – was placed under league administration. By the time Dr Lester arrived in 1934, this compromise was falling apart. The Nazis were in power and pushing for Danzig, with its important harbour, to be “returned” to the Third Reich while the Poles feared losing Danzig would undermine the independence they had only just won.

All the two sides could agree on was their displeasure at having Seán Lester meddling in their affairs. So much so that, two days after his arrival, Berlin and Warsaw signed a treaty bypassing the league on Danzig.

Despite this, Dr Lester began watching and reporting, with increasing alarm, about the slow collapse of democracy in Danzig, a foretaste of Europe’s fate.

“Lester was the one of the first non-Germans to see the Nazi mask slip,” said Paul McNamara, author of a compelling biography on Dr Lester’s Danzig years. “The city was a laboratory for Nazi practices years before the war.” By mid-1936 the situation had become impossible for the Lester family in Danzig: shunned by German friends, the house was under surveillance and their phone was tapped.

Dr Lester’s reports were increasingly condemnatory of Nazi attacks on political opponents but were watered down in Geneva to meaningless diplomatic language.

Finally, in 1937, the league bowed to pressure from Hitler and ended Dr Lester’s term in Danzig.

“What could he do? Things took their course,” said Ms Górski. “If he did anything, he helped delay the start of the war, giving the Allies more time to prepare.” She was visibly moved as she toured familiar corridors yesterday she had not seen in 73 years.

“I remember watching the Nazi marches on Saturdays and Sundays,” she said, “very deliberately passing by the house.” After emerging from her old bedroom, she was surprised to learn that it served for years as the Gdansk office of Lech Walesa.

After a standing ovation from deputies in the plenary hall for the Lester family, including Dr Lester’s granddaughter Lucy Kilroy and great-grandson Brian Gageby, events moved to the main parliamentary party meeting room, now called the Seán Lester Room.

“Seán Lester was unique in those difficult times when it was very hard to oppose the Nazis,” said Mr Bogdan Oleszek, chairman of Gdansk City Council. “He perceived the Poles differently at the time to the Germans and the rest of the Europeans. Until now he was not so well recognised here but that is changing.” At yesterday’s ceremony Ireland’s departing Polish ambassador Declan O’Donovan praised the Irish diplomat for his “independent mind, bravery and persistence”.

Mr McNamara, who along with the ambassador lobbied for a Gdansk memorial to Dr Lester, would like to see similar recognition in Ireland. He suggests the history syllabus should honour the man who warned the world of Nazi ambitions in the era of appeasement. “The Irish are great for claiming people as one of their own, even Barack Obama,” said Martin Kitson, a Polish-Irish publisher living in Gdansk at yesterday’s ceremony. “In the case of Lester we have a real hero who deserves recognition.”

PROFILE JOHN ERNEST 'SEAN' LESTER

John Ernest “Sean” Lester was born in Woodburn, Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, on September 27th, 1888, to Mary Ritchie and Robert Lester, a grocer.

The Protestant family moved to Belfast in the 1890s, where Lester ended his education at the Methodist College.

His interest in Irish nationalism was sparked in his teens, either by chancing on an Irish history book or overhearing Irish spoken in a Gaelic League school in Belfast.

Colour blindness put paid to his job with the local railway company and he began working as a journalist on regional newspapers before moving to Dublin and the Freeman’s Journal.

As a “Free Stater”, he was invited to join the Department of External Affairs in 1922 and was sent as representative to the League of Nations in 1929.

Despite no diplomatic experience and no foreign language skills, his hard work and a skill for networking got him noticed and, in 1934, landed him with the high representative job in Danzig.

Pressured out in December 1936, he returned to Geneva as deputy secretary general, later secretary general, guarding the league’s files and assets through the war until he handed them over to the United Nations.

He retired to Connemara and died in 1959.