Category Archives: Holocaust

Visit of Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan to Israel and OPT

Ambassador’s Message, 24 February 2015

In the life of an Embassy a visit by a member of the Government is an important event, second only to a state visit by the President.  Visits by members of the Government are critical to maintaining bilateral relations.  They signal that the relationship matters and they provide direction and energy into the portfolio for which the Minister is responsible.  There is an added significance when it comes to visits of the Minister for Foreign Affairs given his or her preeminent role in diplomatic relations.

We at the Embassy were delighted then to host the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan T.D., on his first official visit to Israel last week.  He and his delegation of officials from Headquarters had just come from Lebanon where the Minister had visited our troops serving with UNIFIL in south Lebanon.  In Israel, he had a substantive exchange of views with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, toured Yad Vashem and laid a wreath in the Memorial Hall there, visited Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva (employing over 400 in Ireland), discussed current issues with Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog and met with key contacts of the Embassy at a reception at the Residence.

The Minister’s programme also included a visit to the OPT organized by our colleagues in the Representative Office Ramallah.  The Minister met with President Abbas and Prime Minister Hamdallah, laid a wreath at the tomb of Yasser Arafat, and toured Bethlehem and other sites in the West Bank.

The Minister and party visited Gaza to see conditions there and meet with officials of UNRWA and UN OCHA who are providing vital services and humanitarian relief.  It was certainly sobering for the delegation to see how little progress had been made in reconstruction.  The Minister’s main impression was the hopelessness of the people, something that needs to be addressed he felt by political dialogue within Gaza and by unblocking the flow of goods into and out of Gaza so the economy can start to grow.  The party also visited a Moshav outside Gaza to hear views and stories from its perspective of life lived with the threat of rockets and tunnels.

The Jordanian part of the visit regrettably had to be cancelled because of the snowstorm and related travel difficulties so the Minister did not have the chance to meet contacts there and visit Syrian refugee camps.  Departing instead from Ben Gurion we ran into Quartet Representative Tony Blair which allowed for the Minister and Mr. Blair to exchange notes on the crisis in Gaza and on the prospects for the MEPP.

These were the highlights of a visit that was workman-like, balanced and focused on key issues.  Along the way were a range of meetings and encounters with officials and others who gave insights and analyses into the situation here that are critical to fully understanding the complex dynamics and powerful forces at work.  As the programme rolled along, it was also really productive to spend time with the new Secretary General at the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Niall Burgess, and colleagues from Headquarters working on the Middle East, examining ways in which we can best use our resources in this area.

A personal highlight for Mary and me was the reception for the Minister at the Residence in Tel Aviv where he had the chance to meet our contacts from business, culture, peace building and from the Irish community.  A special thanks to Mary and David Lee from the Embassy for all their hard work on the visit: I would also like to pay tribute to the officials from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs whose professionalism and courtesy made everything run smoothly, especially when dealing with the usual feature of every visit – the unexpected!

The Minister’s interview with the Irish Times on his visit is here

You can find some photos and links from the Minister’s visit on the Embassy’s website at

Best wishes,


Eamonn McKee


Tel Aviv


Leave a comment

Filed under Holocaust, Ireland, Ireland Israel, Israel

Remembering the Holocaust: Ambassador’s Message, 6 February 2015

Though it’s freezing in Ireland at the moment, the delightful weather here in Tel Aviv tells us that spring is not far off.  Even in Ireland the days are getting longer and the cold snap is really winter’s reluctant goodbye. 

In Israel, spring is preceded by remembrance of the Holocaust.  In the slight chill of January here, it seems appropriate that we remember those lost and indeed those who survived the Shoah.  If you check out our new Embassy website ( you’ll find my tweets and links to a number of interesting articles on the Holocaust.  Here is the link to the story of how an Irish documentary led to the arrest of a former Nazi guard stationed at Bergen-Belsen and Gross-Rosen Concentration Camps:

On International Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January, Irish Ambassadors around the world attended commemorative events.  Our Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan attended the commemoration in Auschwitz, the brutal cold a faint hint of what it must have been like there in winter for the starving and ill-clad victims of Nazi cruelty and genocide: coverage here

Here in Israel I attended a morning event held at the Massuah International Institute for Holocaust Studies in Natanya, north of Tel Aviv.  The speakers included Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein and HE Ms Vivian Bercovici, Ambassador of Canada.  As the generation of survivors dwindles now and in the years ahead, the theme was the second generation of Holocaust survivors.  Ambassador Bercovici for example is one such and she gave a moving and powerful speech about her perceptions since childhood of the Holocaust; the lack of relatives, family mementos, the knowledge of a terrible event in the recent past that had resulted in her being raised in Canada.  The event concluded with guests laying a white rose in and around the standing stones in the memorial hall.  Music was provided by the young and evocative Moran Choir.

The evening event was held at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.  Speakers included Prime Minister Netanyahu, Thomas Geve, Buchenwald survivor, Robert Serry, UN Special Coordinator for the MEPP, and Dr Iael Nidam-Orvieto, Director, International Institute for Holocaust Research.  We began at an exhibition: “The Anguish of Liberation as Reflected in Art, 1945-47”.   Mr Geve reflected with direct and simple charm on his memories, at times resisting the curator’s opinion that his art was important.  His strongest memories were the arrival of the Americans, which he thought of as friends not soldiers and his wonder at seeing ordinary civilian life when he left the camp.

We then moved to the Yad Vashem Synagogue where Dr Nidam-Orvieto spoke eloquently of the research she has undertaken on the letters of survivors.  During their time in the camps, the survivors focused solely on staying alive, repressing their emotional response, she said.  After the war, the survivors had to face the emotional impact of what they had endured, aswell as the loss of family.  Over time, however, the word ‘happiness’ creeps into their letters, a metric she thought of their eventual adjustment to their delivery and the life they could now expect to live.

So even as we recalled the unfathomable crime of the Holocaust, we could acknowledge that the survivors were more than survivors, that they embraced life again, even if it was life lived with great loss and sorrow.  And it was that embrace of life that revived them, gave them the energy to start new lives around the world, most symbolically in Israel where they found a refuge and place where it is never quite winter.

Shabbat Shalom,


Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

Tel Aviv

1 Comment

Filed under Holocaust

Some Recent Topics and Themes from Ireland-Israel

(Touching on Beckett, the Holocaust, the Irish dead of WWI, commemorating Ireland’s past, the Euro elections, the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land and a visit to Petra.)

If you were at the 10th Annual Tel Aviv University/Irish Embassy Samuel Beckett Lecture yesterday, I hope you enjoyed the evening and our conversations over refreshments afterwards.  (If you were not, well there’s always next year.) I and my colleagues at the Embassy are delighted to continue this proud tradition, one began through the inspiration and commitment of the wonderful Professor Linda Ben-Zvi.  I want to thank the Dean of the Arts Faculty Prof. Zvika Serper and Prof. Shulamith Lev-Aladgem, Chair, Dept. of Theatre Studies for their continued support.

As I noted in my welcoming remarks, Beckett is a central figure in Ireland and Israel but he is more favoured here I think than his mentor James Joyce.  It is not too much of a guess to propose that this is because Beckett deals with catastrophe, stripping man’s condition down to its existential essence in response to the physical and moral ruins of WWII and the Holocaust. 

Stripping art down to its essence was also the concern of Avigdor Arikha, a survivor of the Shoah and Beckett’s great friend in Paris for over four decades. 

Our guest speaker was Alba Arkiha, Avignor’s daughter, who spoke eloquently and insightfully of her memories of the chiseled, blue-eyed man who regularly came to visit, to chat, to drink and to stay silent in company.  Sam, as they called him, would become her godfather and occasional mentor, a benign even beatific figure in a noisy household that brimmed with art, literature and conversation from its many creative guests.  

Alba’s memoir Major/Minor assembles her memories; what gives the book its beauty is the kaleidoscopic recall, poetically expressed, of someone making sense of life and of those around her, lived in Paris but threading through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, New York and London.   I want to thank Alba for making the trip here and hope that she will be back for a future Beckett event.

As you know, I occasionally collect links from my Twitter account that collectively turn out to be less random that I think when I post them. 

Three items regarding the Holocaust caught my eye. 

The first was a paradoxically sobering and inspiring report on new avenues to catch and convict guards involved at the death camps even at this late hour;

The second was simply inspiring, recounting the brave actions of one British man who saved 669 children while so many others stood idly by:

Third was a BBC story of the poignant and nightmarish voyage of the SS St Louis as it vainly criss-crossed the Atlantic in May 1939 with 900 hundred Jews fleeing the Nazis:

In terms of Ireland’s own human catastrophe, the Great Irish Famine, I tweeted a link to this article under the rubric ‘remembering one million dead’;

Still on the subject of remembrance, the Irish Independent reported on the number of Irish who died in WWI; The magnitude of the losses were startling for such a small country at 49,000; counties Dublin and Antrim recorded the most fatalities with more than 10,000 between them. 

These loses more than validate the recent respect accorded to their memory in Ireland, including at Glasnevin Cemetery and a RTE report covers developments there

I tweeted a very interesting speech by my colleague, our Ambassador in London Dan Mulhall, on the subject of commemorating the past here

More contemporaneously, good news from Ireland included the fact that our debt rating has been upgraded by two notches, reflecting our economy’s growth and I think a growing confidence that the Euro crisis is passing, even if structural issues still remain unresolved such as the overhang of bank debts imposed on unsuspecting taxpayers:

Ireland as you know recently held local and European elections, as well as a number of by-elections.  There has been extensive news coverage of the elections to the European parliament, notably for the results in a number of countries that showed a surge in Euro-critical, Euro-sceptical and frankly plainly right wing parties in some instances. 

This has led to much scratching of heads in Euro-circles in Brussels and in capitals.  The message from the Irish Government was that while we have performed exceptionally well in overcoming our financial crisis, and our economy has improved in terms of growth and employment, there is too much of a disconnect between the macro-economic picture of recovery and what ordinary people, who have borne the brunt of austerity most directly, feel in their household income and prospects. 

You will be lost for choice in the coverage but I would recommend this link which I tweeted, a column by the NYT’s Roger Cohen that draws its inspiration from an unlikely source;

Closer to home, I tweeted some quotes and pictures from President Peres’ reception for the Diplomatic Community in honour of the visit of Pope Francis.  Thanks to my front row perch I managed this picture . 

President Peres affirmed the Pontiff’s message saying that “I believe that your visit and call for peace will echo through the region and contribute to revitalizing the efforts to complete the peace process between us and the Palestinians, based on two states living in peace. A Jewish state – Israel. And an Arab state- Palestine.” 

In his remarks, Pope Francis underlined the need for peace and its widespread benefits; the Pope said he prayed daily for peace, security, prosperity and fraternity, above all fraternity, the most beautiful of all.  “I renew my plea for all parties not to do anything against their pleas for peace and a true settlement.” 

Overall, I think it is fair to say that the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land touched all the vital reference points on both sides while delivering firm encouragement to resume the search for peace in a conflict that has universal relevance. 

Finally, the visit of a friend occasioned a trip to Petra.  I could not resist a blog on this fascinating place and its history; 

After a long day trotting around the site, up and down its stone-hewn steps and across its sandy avenues, we were footsore but thrilled to have got a sense of this justly famous site. 

 Shabbat Shalom,




Leave a comment

Filed under Anglo-Irish, Holocaust, Ireland, Ireland Israel, Israel

Ambassador’s Message – Some Themes of Topics from my Twitter Account, November

I thought you might be interested in some of the topics and themes that I’ve been covering via Twitter over the last couple of weeks.

The Tánaiste and Deputy Foreign Minister, Eamon Gilmore, TD, announced a major review of Ireland’s foreign policy and the means of their delivery.   He said “the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will shortly launch a consultation process as part of this review, inviting input from members of the public, and other stakeholders with an interest in Ireland’s foreign policy.”   The Irish Times report is here .

The Tánaiste made the announcement in the course of a speech whose main focus was on the centrality of Human Rights to Irish foreign policy principles and diplomatic activities.  The text of the speech is here

This Review comes at an important transitional time with Ireland proudly and stoically exiting the EU/IMF programme.  This is a not just a major achievement by Ireland but an invaluable investment in our reputation.  In the international bond market, a good reputation translates directly into lower and stable bond yields that will aid our delivery and lighten the burden on our future.  The Government announcement is here

Another theme I’ve been picking up is hi-tech start-ups, with some links to articles and quotes.  This article from the Guardian used the example of Snapchat – very popular with my wife and daughters, its speed and disposability lends itself to pictures of the funny things of daily family life – as an insight into the current start-up culture: .  The BBC carried an interesting article on the almost artisanal approach to start-ups and creativity in Norway at a place called Mesh, “Oslo’s first bespoke hub for budding entrepreneurs”: .

A lot has been happening on the Northern Ireland front and Anglo-Irish relations generally.  The President of Ireland, Michael D. O’Higgins, will be the first Irish President on a State Visit to Britain next April.  This is accurately described as an historic event, a hinge moment in the long narrative of Anglo-Irish relations; see Irish Times editorial on its significance here

The platform for this amicable visit, so reflective of the good relations now enjoyed between Ireland and Britain, was laid by Irish independence in 1922, the progress of the Northern Ireland Peace Process from the 1990s onwards, the pioneering visit of President Robinson to Buckingham Palace in 1993, the tremendous bridge-building work of President McAleese and the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2011. 

For history buffs, it comes on the millennial anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf (Good Friday, 1014) when the great and only truly High King of Ireland, Brian Bóru, broke the power of the Vikings in Ireland (and some historians think fended off a major Danish invasion). 

More directly, it coincides with the centennial commemoration of the start of World War I.  We Irish nationalists have had a conflicted response to those Irishmen who enlisted in the British Army and fought in the Great War, instructed though they were to do so on Ireland’s behalf by the great Irish nationalist leader John Redmond (i.e. that fighting for ‘little Belgium’ would translate to an obligation to grant Irish home rule).  Since the late 1980s, however, Irish thinking has moved on very considerably and we are now recovering the deeply rooted tradition of Irish service in the British Army, lost sight of in the winnowing of Irish nationalist resurgence in the 20th century.  See an interesting article on this here .  Both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste attended remembrance day services; see here .

The peace process in Northern Ireland is very much a work in progress.  This is true of the divisions still entrenched between the communities manifest in the Peace Walls, included in this Guardian article graphically illustrating the walls of the world (including the barrier here):

Dealing with Northern Ireland’s past and the legacy of the conflict is an ongoing issue as most recently shown by a new investigative report here   on British Army killings and by the Northern Ireland Attorney General’s suggestion that no prosecutions be pursued for acts carried out prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998:

I keep an eye out for insightful coverage of the Holocaust and this New York Times article captures a sometimes forgotten aspect of the rapacity and significance of stealing and disposing of the quotidian goods belonging to Jews destined for the death camps: .

Twitter lends itself to sharing photos which I gleam from a variety of sources including National Geographic and Irish Archaeology, all involving Ireland of course: some examples here  and here  . 

In local news, I attended the funeral of the Irish priest and renowned academic, Fr. Jerome Murphy O’Connor in Jerusalem.  A Dominican father, he devoted his life to the study of St Paul and the Holy Land, writing the brilliant and now standard guide The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide.  He was appointed Professor of New Testament at the École Biblique in Jerusalem in 1967 and held the position for the rest of his life.  His walking tours were legendary as was his expansive personality and deep intellect.  His brother Fr Kerry delivered a heartfelt tribute to his life, his personality and achievements at the funeral service at the beautiful Basilica de St. Etienne.  He noted that three of his grandparents’ children and six of their grandchildren joined religious orders, including his cousin, Archbishop of Canterbury Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor. 

Though he lived for some fifty years in Jerusalem, Fr Jerry, as he was fondly called by all who knew him, remained a true and great Irishman.  After an evocative service and blessing by his brother, accompanied by transcendent chanting by his Dominican brethren, Fr. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor  was interred in the vault there, in the company of fellow scholars.  As I paused on the steps on the way in, I captured the scene here

As always we welcome your feedback and any suggestions you might have about links to things of interest to Ireland and Israel. 

Best wishes,




Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

Tel Aviv

Leave a comment

Filed under Anglo-Irish, Holocaust, Ireland, Ireland Israel

Simon Schama and the Lithuanian Connection

I have long been an admirer of Simon Schama as an historian and a contributor to the Financial Times.  He is one of a number of historians who in this global age have reached a vast audience through craft and eloquence, through the ability to tell stories through today’s media.  There is a humanistic majesty to his narratives, an appreciation that humankind is capable of great things as well as great barbarities.  

The grandson of Litvaks, he was in some ways the inevitable writer and host of the BBC’s documentary series The Story of the Jews.  As the series progressed, his own emotional investment in the narrative seemed to deepen, perhaps unpeel.  There is no contesting the fact that the story and the resonance he has personally with the story of the Jews has given the series a sharp charge, a personal and wholly engaging emotional depth:  See his visit to the Synagogue in Venice for his awe at the ability of Jews and their culture to survive expulsion (from Spain in this instance), persecution and ghettoization.  You can feel the depth of his feeling as he admires not just the beauty of its architecture but its mere presence, its affirmation of the Jews’ ability to continue to survive and indeed prosper.  As a man of letters himself, he is clearly mesmerized that so much of Judaism is focused on the word for its identity and for its survival as a stateless people over the centuries.  

Given the Litvak connection to Ireland, there is a particular interest for us in episode four of this series for in it Schama looks to the story of the Jews of the Russian Pale, formerly the Lithuanian-Polish kingdom.  It is from the shtetls of the Pale that the Irish Jews came, from these also that so many went to the United States.  Clustered in the Lower East Side, the Jews reformed their communities and many of them prospered, bringing US retail, banking and the Broadway musical to life.  He looks in some detail at the career of Yid Harburg, author of the Depression Era “Brother Can You Spare and Dime” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.  For Schama, the The Wizard of Oz’s anthem could only have come from the Jewish/Yiddish tradition, its aspiration to find another place, possibly mystical, possibly America, certainly Zion, where life can and will be better.

However as the episode closes it is Schama’s return to Lithuania, the land of his forebears, and his account of the murder of those who stayed behind by the Nazis and their local collaborators, that provides a jolt of personal drama, a look into the soul of someone struggling to comprehend what had happened to his people there in all its brutality and inhumanity.  As if he can only bear to ponder their terrible fate briefly, he returns to New York, to the triumph of survival and continuation, to that place over the rainbow.  It is a stunning piece of television, of history as story telling.  


Leave a comment

Filed under Holocaust, Ireland's Jewish Community

Irish Litvak Connection II: Commemorating the Shoah in Lithuania

While researching the background to my blog on the very strong Jewish Lithuanian connection with Ireland, and unbeknownst to me, the Fourth World Litvak Congress was being held in Vilnius.  As you will have read in the blog, most of the Lithuanian Jews who stayed there were murdered in the Shoah.  My friend and colleague in Vilnius, Ambassador Philomena Murnaghan, has kindly shared the following information on the Congress and the annual Holocaust commemoration in Lithuania.

The Fourth World Litvak Congress was held in Vilnius from 22-25 September and commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto on 23-24 September 1943.  Jews represented a third of the population of Vilnius before the Second World War.  The annual Holocaust commemoration takes place on the anniversary of that fateful day (23rd September) at the site in Paneriai forest, some 11 km from Vilnius city centre, where of the 100,000 persons executed there, some 70,000 were Jews.

The Fourth World Litvak Congress held a wide variety of events and exhibitions over the six days, including a conference on Sunday, 22nd  September on “Litvaks and their legacy: Holocaust, ethical memory and enlightenment”, moderated by Prof. Leonidas Donskis, MEP.   Events during the Congress sought to recapture the contribution of Lithuania’s former Jewish population to the Lithuanian nation and national development.  Some of the themes included: How art helps to perceive the Holocaust; Jewish organisations in Lithuania in documents prior to 1941; Kaunas Jewish community in historical sources; Jewish musicians in interwar Lithuania.  There were also tours for participants to Jewish-related sites in Vilnius and around the country.

Dr. Simonas Alperavicius, Honorary Chairman of The Jewish Community of Lithuania, was conferred with the Lithuanian Diplomacy Star, the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ award of honour for his dedication to advancing bilateral relations between Lithuania and Israel and for his championing of democratic values throughout his life.

Philomena notes that the Congress was one of a range of events taking place in 2013, which has been designated by the Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament) as the Year of Remembrance of the Vilnius Ghetto.   Bilateral relations between Lithuania and Israel have been strengthened, with visits in each direction this year, notably by the Lithuanian Foreign Minister to Israeli in May in preparation for the State Visit by the Israeli President to Vilnius at the end of July.

On Monday, 23rd September, members of the diplomatic corps took part, in large numbers as usual, in the annual commemoration of the Holocaust in Paneriai forest.  Philomena has seen this ceremony grow during her time in Vilnius and reflects:

 “Genuine efforts are being made to integrate study of the Holocaust into mainstream education and to engage young Lithuanians.  This year, pupils from 200 schools from around Lithuania lined the path leading into the fir grove where the Memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust is situated.  Each student placed on the ground a candle and stone with the name of a Jewish person killed, forming a solemn avenue through which participants from the government, municipality, diplomatic corps, Jewish community and others passed on the way to the fir grove.   Wreaths were laid by or on behalf of the President, Government, Seimas, the Municipality, the Israeli Embassy Riga, the Jewish community, the diplomatic corps, Jewish survivors of the Vilnius Ghetto, and the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania.  Speeches were delivered by the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Seimas, the Israeli Ambassador, the President of the Jewish Community of Lithuania (Faina Kulkiansky), and by the International Commission.  A moving personal account was given by one of the very few remaining survivors of the Vilnius Ghetto, Fania Branncovskaya, and a haunting poem was read by the Headmaster of a local Jewish school.  The event concluded with the reading of Kadesh by a member of the Jewish community and the playing of the Vilnius Ghetto ‘anthem’.”

Thanks to Philomena for sharing this and to the Deputy Head ofMission Seadha MacHugh for tweeting the blog on the Irish Litvak relationship to the Embassy’s followers in Lithuania.


Leave a comment

Filed under Holocaust, International, Ireland's Jewish Community

Why did Lithuanian Jews come to Ireland when the Irish were going to America?

I am old enough to remember Danker’s antique shop on Clanbrassil Street as I often cycled from my home in Clontarf to my grandparent’s house in Kimmage.  I had little reason to stray into the streets behind it, which along with the South Circular Road and environs formed the hub of Dublin’s Jewish community of which Danker’s was a part.  As I passed through Harold’s Cross and Terenure, I was unknowingly tracing the migration of those Jews to leafier suburbs as they prospered and gentrified.  I had heard of the Briscoes and of course Leopold Bloom (who ‘lived’ in Number 52 Clanbrassil Street) but knew little else of the Jews of Dublin.  Where did they come from?

The number of Jews in Ireland historically was very small indeed: Some traces of Sephardic Jews after their 15th century expulsion from Spain and Portugal, Jews from Holland and of course a number of Anglo-Jews.  Portuguese Jews established the first Synagogue in Dublin in 1660.  Taken together, Jews in Ireland up to the mid-19th century never comprised more than a few hundred.  It was only in the 1880s that the Jewish population in Ireland suddenly began to grow, hitting four digits and eventually about 5,000 by the 1930s on the island as a whole.

The following traces the background to Jewish emigration to Ireland and draws some comparisons and contrasts with Irish emigration in the same period. It is based mainly on Ó Cormac Gráda’s scholarly and charming Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce (Princeton, 2006), a typical little masterpiece of his work that combines hard data, eloquence and the human dimension.  I have also drawn on Chaim Herzog’s biography Living History (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997) and Kirby Miller’s Emigrants and Exiles, Ireland and the Exodus to North America (Oxford, 1985).  See also Dermot Keogh’s Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust and Holocaust Education Trust Ireland here

The influx of Jews – at least an ‘influx’ comparative to the earlier Jewish presence – came mainly from one area in what is today Northern Lithuania.  They were therefore Litvaks as Jews from Lithuania were called.  In fact the shtetls in Kovno province from which they came were all within 50km of each other.  They began arriving in Ireland in the 1870S but only in numbers in the 1880s.  They came mainly to Dublin (by design), Cork (reputedly by accident) and Belfast (because of its industrialization).  But Dublin remained the preferred option, for the Jewish population declined in Cork subsequently and the numbers in Belfast never exceeded those in Dublin despite the disparity in economic opportunity.

Why did they leave Lithuania?  With Ó Gráda’s trademark parsing of the evidence, it is clear that the stories of pogroms and oppression mythologized the decision to emigrate.  The primary motivation was economic, with diminishing opportunities acting as the push and prosperity further west, particularly in America, acting as the pull.

This is not to completely discount persecution as the spark for emigration.  The pogroms in Russia and the Great Famine in Ireland certainly generated an immediate wave of respectively Jewish and Irish emigration.  However, the soaring levels of European migration and emigration in the following decades pointed to much more powerful economic forces at work.  In Ireland’s case, the reshaping of farm ownership brought about by the Famine – single holdings only inheritable by one son – and the failure to create an urbanized industrialized economy (outside of Belfast) meant that only emigration offered prospects of economic betterment.

In the creation of this lore of persecution the Lithuanian Jews had something in common with the Irish.  For the Irish emigrants too mythologized themselves as exiles from British oppression rather than being mere economic migrants.  In another parallel only a fraction, less than 1%, of either group ever returned home.

In contrast, where the Jews did not lament the homeland left behind, the Irish did and created a canon of songs lamenting their plight and longing for the old country.  (The often painful and lonely adjustment psychologically and culturally of the Irish to America is too often unacknowledged in Ireland; but it was in this adjustment that Irish America took shape and defined itself; see Kirby Millar’s Emigrants and Exiles.)

So the Jews like the Irish emigrated for primarily economic reasons, though Jews tended to be married on departure where the vast majority of the Irish were single.  In Lithuania (at the time part of Tsarist Russia), their traditional sources of income as artisans, middlemen, traders, creditors and so on were being squeezed by the coming of the trains with their cargos of cheaper manufactured goods and supplies; by urbanization and the development of retail; and by modern retail banking, facilitated by new communications like telexes which eroded the local Litvak role as creditors.  This combined with a rapidly growing population meant that local opportunities were shrinking just as industrialization and technology was spurring unprecedented prosperity in the West.  For those with some capital and some skills, the chance was not one to miss.

The Jews of Eastern Europe, along with their Irish counterparts, were part of the late 19th century European migration westward, one of the greatest mass movements of people in human history.  Many were drawn by the lure of America and its vast burgeoning markets, its opportunities and its freedom.

The Jews arriving in Western Europe would embrace modernity with gusto; urbanization, retail, mass communication and mass transport, commerce and banking.  This would create not only dynasties like the Rothschilds in France but a whole class of successful professional bourgeoisie throughout western Europe.  Michael Marks, a Polish Jew who arrived virtually penniless in England in the early 1880s, would found Marks and Spencers.  They would not only embrace European science and the arts but lead in the cascade of new thinking in literature, music, painting, physics and psychology.

Simon Schama’s sweeping yet deeply felt narrative of this ‘deal’ – integrate and become a citizen who happens to be Jewish as he summarises it – in episode three of his documentary The Story of the Jews is well worth seeking out.  As he eloquently and passionately describes it, the Jewish attempt at integration into European Society would end up rejected, symbolically in the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s and catastrophically in the Holocaust.  Prescient Jews like Theodore Herzl, in sensing the fell danger of this failed deal, would create Zionism as the last, the only option for the future security of the Jews.

The Litvaks who arrived in Dublin were far removed from the Rothschilds of course.  As Ó Gráda points out, the sheer poverty of urban Ireland at the turn of the century meant that the Litvaks found a ready if modest use for their skills as craftsmen, traders, lenders and middlemen.

Yet economic opportunities were only part of the attraction of Dublin for the new arrivals.  It was said of their like that they were particularly literate and erudite and found Dublin temperamentally appealing.  Many would only transit Dublin but those who stayed were according to one of them “the type that were not very ambitious to make a lot of money, but there was an atmosphere of learning in the place that the more temperate of the emigrants preferred, so though the opportunities for financial success [were] not very great, there was a feeling of ease” (quoted p. 29, Ó Gráda).  This tradition of learning of course meant that within a generation, the Litvaks began a progression to the professions and middle-class status.  In the 1880s 2% were middle-class; 5% by the 1920s 17% and by the 1980s over 70% (Ó Gráda, p. 84).

The Herzog family illustrated the point.  As Belfast-born and Dublin-raised Chaim Herzog recalls in his biography, the social life of the Jewish community in Dublin revolved around the synagogues: Adelaide Road for the Anglo-Jews and Greenville Hall for the Orthodox Eastern Europeans. His maternal side hailed from Kovno and his paternal from Poland; males on both sides were rabbis.  His father Isaac, a renowned scholar and Chief Rabbi of Ireland, would be elected Chief Rabbi of Palestine in 1936, a mere year after the family moved there.  Chaim Herzog himself, after a secondary education in Alexandra and Wesley, would go on to have an illustrious career in Israel, eventually becoming its President.

In Ó Gráda’s nice phrase, the Litvak emigration to Ireland was then a “tributary” of the great movement of Eastern European Jews westward, for some to what they called ‘England-Ireland’, for some to Palestine and for many more to Europe and America.  The Jews and the Irish would arrive and settle in the larger cities of the United States, forming dense urban communities.  Both the Irish and the Jews would form powerful political constituencies; the Irish would shape the Democratic Party through their ‘machine politics’ whose roots lay in the Irish slums of Boston, New York and Chicago where clientalism and collaboration were keys to survival and advance.  Jewish entrepreneurial skill and general erudition would see them rapidly advance economically, academically and socially, providing the means for political influence.

The highpoint for the Irish was John F. Kennedy’s election as President but thereafter as the Irish dispersed to the suburbs the famed Irish American political machine would disintegrate and with it direct political influence, though it would be re-animated among Irish American leaders for a time by the conflict in Northern Ireland.  The affinity for Ireland, if not the organization that once characterized it in the late 19th and early 20th century, however remains resilient and enduring in Irish America.  Organized Jewish political influence remains famously strong in the US, animated in great part by the deep desire to support Israel.

Perhaps some of the Jews who left Lithuania sensed the darkening mood as anti-Semitism began to get a foothold in European thought at the end of the 19th century, gathering a fateful pace in the opening decades of the 20th.  For most, the decision to leave was simply a search for a better life.  They could not have known how fortuitous the decision to emigrate would prove to be. Nor could those who stayed behind imagine that extinction awaited them.  Of some 210,000 Lithuanian Jews alive there in 1939, 93% or up to 196,000 would be murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, most of them in a concentrated period of butchery during the second half of 1941.

Thanks to Irish neutrality, the Litvaks in Ireland escaped World War II, though some German bombs fell in their neighbourhood (thanks to the heavy clay of South Dublin, the bombs did little damage).  Had the Nazis made good on their plans to invade Ireland their fate would have been sealed.  In fact, the only Irish born Jew to die in the Shoah was Ettie Steinberg whose mistake was to marry and move to Belgium where she and her family, including her young son, were rounded up and transported to Auschwitz, one day before visas from her family in Dublin for safe passage to Ireland were delivered.



Filed under Holocaust, Ireland, Ireland's Jewish Community, Irish America

A Visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial

Yad Vashem,  Jerusalem, 12 August 2013

After my courtesy call at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem to present a copy of my letter of credence (I am Ambassador designate until I present my credentials to the President), I visited Yad Vashem, the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust.  My guide for the visit was Rob Rozett, Director of Libraries.  The centre piece of the complex is the Historical Museum.  It comprises a main hall, a long wedge of concrete sliced deep into a hill and forming a canopy over a series of rooms that trace sequentially the rise of anti-Semitism, Nazism and the Holocaust. 

Fact is piled on startling fact: the Polish population was 3.25 million before the war and by its end 3 million had been killed, reducing Polish Jewry from 10% of the population to a mere remnant.  As Rob explained, the exhibition of photos, film, archives and artefacts determinedly asserts the individuality of victims so that the human cost is not lost in the figures of fatalities that are themselves so astronomical as to become merely objective. 

Listening to Rob trace the evolution of the tragedy one cannot escape the realization that there was an inexorable determination at work by the architects of the Holocaust, from the vilification and ritual public humiliation of Jews to their isolation in camps and Ghettos and their eventual transportation to the death camps.  The footage of Hitler’s infamous 1939 speech predicting the destruction of the Jews of Europe displays the ferocity and clarity of his determination.  He was the driving spirit of the genocide but it took many individuals and organisations to give it effect.  Throughout the exhibition there are photographs of the implementers of the Shoah.  Their names and faces are on lids that open to boxes containing information about their very normal lives and qualifications – husband, father, doctor, Ph.D, accountant.  It is this conscious and determined effort by educated men to eliminate an entire human group that constitutes the effrontery, the grand moral offence of the Holocaust that makes it the crime of crimes. 

Mysteries abound that continue to haunt.  How could such a civilized country like Germany engage in such evil?  Why were Jews, a mere 0.8% of population and themselves proud Germans, accepted by the vast majority to be such a threat at the mere prompting of the Nazi Party?  How could so many people participate, condone or by acts of omission allow the thuggish Nazi leadership have its way in this scheme of such vast malignity?  And – most frightening of all in some ways – how easily average citizens across Europe were recruited to form a cog in the butchery of millions of their fellow human beings.

Nazi determination to complete the genocide of the Jews even as the war is manifestly lost illustrated its centrality to Nazi ideology.  By early 1944, the Soviet Army is rampaging on the Eastern Front toward Germany.  The Allies are preparing for the invasion of Western Europe and the race to Berlin.  Time is running out, Germany’s defeat is inexorable and only a matter of time.  In Hungary, the Jewish community has escaped the worst of it because the Government, though allied to Germany, had refused to hand them over.  Hungary is host to some 800,000 Jews.  Hearing of secret Hungarian talks with the Allies, the Nazis invade Hungary in March 1944.  They decide to play catch-up: deportations of Jews begin in May and, astonishingly, within eight weeks 437,000 Jews are rounded up and transported to Auschwitz-Birkeneau.   

My family and I had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC last year.  It was personally very interesting to compare that experience with Yad Vashem.  Both have in common the evocation of what the Holocaust constituted, with graphic and unforgettable images of barbarity and slaughter of individuals and families; the murder of children is unavoidably even more incomprehensible. Both too testify to the intimacy of murderer and victim – the removal of spectacles, shoes and clothes from the living, the act of killing men, women and children whether by bullets or Zyklon B, the looting of possessions and body parts, the callous burden of disposal of such large numbers of victims.

In Washington for me the most startling image was a simple one; against a plain black background, in a frameless glass case, a Brownshirt uniform was displayed, cosy light brown corduroy, swastikas on the lapels, flaring jodhpurs.  This was the font of evil, a physical artefact from the scene of the crime.  Many donned that uniform and later other uniforms that allowed the wearer to abrogate the normal human decencies.  The truth of the uniform was that general causative explanations of the Holocaust cannot relieve the burden of moral obligation from the individuals who took part.   

At Yad Vashem, the most profound occasion came toward the end.  Rob had had to leave to give press interviews because on the day of my visit Hungarian war criminal Laszlo Csatary had passed away.  Yossi Gevir took over and escorted me to the Hall of Names.  The wall of this circular space is shelved with the black dossiers of the names of those known to have died in the Holocaust.  Some 4.2 million names of the 6 million victims have been traced, authenticated and inscribed.  The search goes on, aided by technology, threatened by the passage of time.  Yossi explained the painstaking process of collating and verifying the names.  In the centre of the Hall, below a circular handrail, a rocky funnel frames a pool of water.  From your reflected image, your gaze vaults upwards to photos of a selection of photos of victims in the chimney ceiling; the space between symbolises the journey from the source of life to its end, our reflections the remembrance of the Shoah.  The physical metaphor of the well is compelling but it was toward the books on the shelves that one’s gaze kept returning. The simple white letters on their black spines seem to speak in whispers. 

We turned to approach the exit, up an incline to where the concrete walls that lean together to form the wedge’s apex curve outwards toward a vista of bright sky, pines and olive groves on the hills of Jerusalem receding before you.  Mere consciousness of the effectiveness of the architectural intent could not suppress the sense of welcome and relief that one had exited to such light and landscape, that an unmade day beckoned with possibility.  God, as someone once said, only owes us a sunrise.  The rest is up to us.

Séamus Heaney once wrote that early Christian monks in Ireland would lie in their dark corbelled beehive huts for days on end, fasting and meditating with a heavy rock on their chests.  One can only imagine where their Dark Age minds travelled as they sought out devils to wrestle.  Casting off the rock, they would emerge into the sunlight, their spirits vaulting heavenward. Though the devils are very different, the architects of Yad Vashem brilliantly achieve a similar effect.

The Chairman of Yad Vashem, retired Brigadier General Avner Shalev, graciously met me and over coffee we discussed the Holocaust, what it said about human nature, models of remembrance and lessons for us today.  As with our conversation, history and evil, capricious twists of history and inexorable tragedies, ironies and explanations return again and again to the Holocaust’s ineffable sadness, the loss of so many and so much. 

There is much more at Yad Vashem than its central and incomparably dramatic and compelling Historical Museum – the exhibition pavilion, the Art Museum, the learning centres, and the location itself.   My visit was only a first one but I left with an inescapable impression.  The modern secular Yad Vashem complex stands in evocative power and significance alongside the other great sites of ancient Jerusalem.



Filed under Holocaust, Ireland Israel, Israel