On a trip back home to Ireland where I grew up, I was thinking less about the modern bustling country of today and more about some letters of 77 years ago that recently turned up in my childhood family home.
The modern gleaming Dublin airport that I walked through seemed very distant from those times, although the televisions in the arrival area were blaring out stories of a Europe where Jews once again are in danger because they are Jews, most recently families shopping in a kosher supermarket in a suburb of Paris.
My grandfather came to Ireland in the 1920’s fleeing oppression and poverty in Poland. His sister and her family remained behind in a small shtetl called Janow in north-eastern Poland. A faded photograph shows him on a return visit he made in 1938. There he is in his smart city suit (he was a tailor, after all) surrounded by his mother, sister, nephew and nieces. In the background, next to a wooden house, the camera captured the outline of a man chopping wood amidst the village setting. Most prominent in the photo however, staring into the camera with intensity, her hands resting lightly on the shoulders of my grandfather, is the oldest of the nieces, by then already a young woman. Her name was Mottel – she was about age 23.
That year my grandfather, who already owned two tailor shops and was an Irish citizen, pleaded with the authorities of his new homeland for permission to bring her to Ireland.
“I will keep her in my own house and will give her all necessities and will not send her to work”, he stressed in a letter to the Irish Ministry of Justice, desperately searching for arguments that would convince them. He went on to describe her plight: “Her father is dead and her mother has three girls and one boy, and is not in very good circumstances.” She will not become a responsibility of the State”, he wanted to make absolutely clear.
The response, dated just three days after the request, was terse. The Minister of Justice “does not see his way to grant permission to you to bring your niece to this country.” A cold uncaring letter.
Postcards from Janow kept the connection. “Mottel hopes that with the help of God she will come to you. Abe, if you could see her you would not recognize her. What a beautiful girl she is,” my grandfather’s father wrote to him in a tiny cramped Yiddish script. The last postcard was dated January 1941, six months before the Nazis swept through eastern Poland.
In my mind, she surely would have lived around the corner from my grandparents. She would have had children and grandchildren – a raft of cousins with whom we would have played every weekend. Some would today be scattered around the world like much of the Irish Jewish Diaspora while others might still be living there – helping to keep the small Jewish community alive.
But it was not to be. The gates to Ireland, like those of so many other countries, were kept firmly shut and she never came to him. In 1942, the Jews of the shtetl were rounded up. The testimony from 1946 of a survivor from the village described the conditions in which the Jews of Janow were held: “Prisoners were living in basements and cellars which were so overcrowded that the prisoners could not lie down to sleep, they had to sit or stand. They received 15 grams of bread daily and one liter of soup made from unpeeled potatoes. A few persons were shot for peeling potatoes.” Six weeks later they were transported to Treblinka where virtually all of them, presumably including Mottel, were killed.
There was no country to take them and no Israel to provide sanctuary.
This Holocaust Memorial Day, amidst all the ceremonies and gatherings, I am thinking about what a different family I might have had and what a different world we might live in had governments and countries in 1938 seen what lay ahead and acted with foresight and humanity instead of blindness and bureaucracy. And, while the times are very different, we will all dwell on what it means for us that today, once again, Jews going to buy food for Shabbat are living in fear. And about what it means to have a Jewish state.