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Derek Scally: Holocaust horror can yield deeper insight into dealing with other dilemmas of history

Sympathy for victims and survivors of atrocity only goes so far: we must empathise with people who need help now

Enter St Stephen’s Green from Leeson Street in Dublin and the first thing you see is the Operation Shamrock memorial.

A 1956 gift from West Germany, the Three Fates fountain recalls the postwar scheme that brought hundreds of children – mostly from the ruins of Germany − to Ireland.

For the children it was a lifeline to Ireland has lasted a lifetime. It is, rightly, a proud moment in our history.

In recent years through schools, the Crocus Project, run by the Holocaust Education Trust, has helped erect small Holocaust memorials around the country.


There are no memorials, however, for those Ireland failed in the Holocaust. A mix of ignorance, apathy and anti-Semitism meant that, according to historian Dermot Keogh, Ireland accepted about 100 people fleeing the Nazis.

Taoiseach Éamon de Valera courted celebrity refugees like Jewish-born mathematician Erwin Schrödinger, but who remembers Leo and Kurt Michel? The Jewish brothers arrived from the Rhineland in January 1934, a year after Hitler was elected, and spent two months living with their aunt until they were deported back to their homeland.

Schrödinger’s theoretical cat could, according to his famous quantum theory experiment, be simultaneously alive and dead; the Free State ensured the Michel brothers, too, could be alive in Ireland and, quite likely, dead in Germany.

In an important signal, Dublin Castle has opened its doors to the exhibition Objects of Love. Through documents, photographs and objects, it tells the family story of Dublin-based gallerist Oliver Sears.

Murder machine

The child of a Holocaust survivor, Sears is the founder of Holocaust Awareness Ireland and is a panelist next week at a discussion accompanying the exhibition, chaired by former Irish Times correspondent Conor O’Clery. On the panel are two other people linked to the Nazi industrialised murder machine.

Tomi Reichental was born in Czechoslovakia and survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but lost more than 30 of his family in the Holocaust. He moved to Dublin in 1959 and is now Ireland’s most eloquent eye-witness to the genocide.

Writer and journalist Alexandra Senfft comes from a perpetrator family. Her German grandfather, Hanns Ludin, Nazi governor in occupied Slovakia, sent an estimated 60,000 Jews to their death. After Ludin’s execution in 1947, his widow blighted her children’s lives with psychologically damaging denial and disassociation about him as a “good Nazi”.

Through her pioneering work, Senfft explores questions of identity and trauma among perpetrator descendants. That work has brought her into contact with survivors and their families and she has appeared in two documentaries with Tomi Reichental.

Bringing together a Holocaust survivor, a survivor’s son and a perpetrator granddaughter might sound like a risky experiment. Though they come from very different perspectives, all three agree that the past which unites them cannot be banished to history: it continues to shape our lives and actions today.

For Senfft, as a perpetrator descendent, meeting the “other side” of the Holocaust divide remains a privilege. But each daunting encounter, she says, helps break down decades-old taboos imposed by wrongdoers and bystanders.

Confronting past wrongs in the present can come at a price: Senfft is estranged from some family members for challenging clan loyalty.

She has no regrets for cutting ties as it interrupted her perpetrator grandfather and his deeds as sources of fear and destructive energy in her life today.

“I bear no guilt but have taken on the responsibility to face the past,” she says. “We must break the silence in order to restore the victim and survivors’ dignity and to break the spell of the victimisers.”

All three are urgent and compelling advocates for viewing the Holocaust not as a black-and-white horror movie from the past but something that once happened in living colour − and could happen again.

Compassion for strangers

For Reichental, this year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine − streamed in real time on social media − has shattered his lingering hope that Europe was immunised against Nazi-like horrors.

“At least with the Holocaust, people could claim, ‘we didn’t know’,” he said. “We are all witnesses to what is happening now. Anything can happen again if people don’t keep alive democracy and its principles.”

Oliver Sears agrees, saying Ireland − like its European neighbours − will eventually face a reckoning on how it responded to refugees from Ukraine.

“The single most defining element moment for a democracy is when you show compassion to a stranger,” he says.

In talks with Irish teenagers, Sears reminds them the largest group in Nazi-occupied Europe were neither the perpetrators nor the victims, but the silent bystanders whose motivations for doing nothing ranged from ignorance and fear to opportunism and profiteering.

“Trying to think about which group you might have belonged to is more difficult that you imagine,” Sears tells them.

While the Holocaust’s horrors are unique, its tools for engaging with that past can be adapted for use on our own lingering historical dilemmas, from the Civil War to vanished Catholic Ireland.

As for Holocaust victims and survivors, they don’t need our sympathy for being failed 80 years ago; they ask us to empathise with those who need help now.

As German author Siegfried Lenz once put it: “The past interrogates us in the present.”

Remembering Kristallnacht − A Reckoning: Jews, Germans and the Holocaust takes place in the Bedford Tower, Upper Yard, in Dublin Castle on November 9th at 6.30pm.

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