When Ireland rejected Jewish orphans fleeing Nazis, this man saved dozens
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Irish policy was 'infected with a toxic combination of anti-Semitism and self-pity'

When Ireland rejected Jewish orphans fleeing Nazis, this man saved dozens

A new film chronicling Irish anti-Semitism stars one WWII hero, essayist Hubert Butler, who was ostracized for speaking against the Catholic church

Clockwise, from left: Hubert Butler with daughter Julia in 1960; two couples Butler helped save from the Nazis. (Courtesy)
Clockwise, from left: Hubert Butler with daughter Julia in 1960; two couples Butler helped save from the Nazis. (Courtesy)

LONDON — On July 9, 1943, newly-elected member of the Irish parliament Oliver Flanagan rose to make his maiden speech.

“There is one thing that Germany did and that was to rout the Jews out of their country,” he declared, saying that Ireland should follow suit. “They crucified our savior 1,900 years ago and they are crucifying us every day of the week.”

No one objected to Flanagan’s words. Certainly, his constituents did not appear unduly concerned. A year later, Flanagan was re-elected to the Dail, Ireland’s lower house of parliament, with twice as many votes as he had previously received.

He would continue to hold the seat for the next four decades, and, rising through the ranks of the Fine Gael party, would go on to serve in the government and enjoy a brief stint as Ireland’s Minister of Defense in the 1970s.

Shortly after that now notorious speech, Flanagan was on his feet again in the Dail, questioning the Irish prime minister on plans for the country to take in 500 Jewish children from France. Under pressure, Éamon de Valera denied that the children were Jewish. Flanagan’s intervention, however, had the desired effect and the political row he had helped to stoke ensured that Ireland ultimately opted to leave the children to their fate.

While the virulence of Flanagan’s anti-Semitism may have been unusual, Ireland, which adopted a position of neutrality during the war, displayed precious little sympathy for Europe’s persecuted Jews. As Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times has argued, Irish policy was “infected with a toxic combination of anti-Semitism and self-pity.”

Fintan O'Toole, center, with Irish politicians in 2010. (CC-SA-2.0 Flickr/Neil Ward)
Fintan O’Toole, center, with Irish politicians in 2010. (CC-SA-2.0 Flickr/Neil Ward)

In the 1930s, the government placed responsibility for refugees in the hands of the aptly named Irish Coordinating Committee for the Relief of Christian Refugees. Jews who converted to Christianity were allowed to settle in the country. Those who had not were barred. These Jews, the committee’s secretary suggested, would be taken care of by the American Jewish community.

At a European conference on Jewish refugees in July 1938, a member of the Irish delegation, referring to the persecution of the country’s Catholics during the days of British rule, suggested: “Didn’t we suffer like this in the Penal days and nobody came to our help?”

Meanwhile, in Berlin, the country’s violently anti-Semitic ambassador, Charles Bewley, worked to scupper the chances that any Jews might slip through the tight net Ireland had thrown around itself. His reports back to Dublin noted that Jews were involved in pornography, abortion and the “international white slave traffic.” They also denied any “deliberate cruelty” on the part of the German government to the Jews, and parroted Hitler’s defense of the Nuremberg Laws.

Even after the war, as Dr. Byran Fanning outlined in his 2002 book “Racism and Social Change in the Republic of Ireland,” Irish ministers and civil servants viewed Jews as “enemies of faith and fatherland” who should be shut of the country.

A proposal to admit 100 Jewish orphans from Bergen-Belsen was initially blocked and only proceeded after de Valera’s personal intervention. Perhaps this was the prime minister’s way of atoning for his decision the previous year to visit the German ambassador to offer his condolences on Hitler’s death.

Irish politician Éamon de Valera. (Public domain)
Irish politician Éamon de Valera. (Public domain)

But not all of the people were willing to toe the official line of cold indifference mandated by the Irish state. None more so than Hubert Butler, the great Irish essayist and writer who has been described as “Ireland’s George Orwell.”

Recently, Irish television screened a one-hour documentary, “The Nuncio and the Writer.”

The film tracked Butler’s pre-war efforts on behalf of Viennese Jews and his post-war fight to expose some dark secrets which both his own country, and the Catholic Church that held such great sway over it, were determined should remain buried.

A devout Irish nationalist, Butler was also a European and an adventurer. After studying at Oxford, he taught English in post-revolutionary Leningrad, and later developed an abiding love of, and fascination with, the Balkans. Witnessing Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis through Yugoslavia in the late 1930s, he traveled to Vienna shortly after the Anschluss.

He volunteered with the Quakers, working alongside the American Quaker activist Emma Cadbury to help rescue Jews from the Nazis’ ever-tightening vice. Butler secured exit visas, while his wife, Peggy Guthrie, would meet the refugees in London and accompany them on to Ireland. Some stayed at the Butlers’ home in Bennettsbridge. Friends were pressed into housing others.

Butler’s actions ‘to some extent rescued Ireland from eternal shame’

Over time, and with the Butlers’ assistance, the refugees traveled on to America; Irish law did not allow them to remain in the country.

Butler later described his work in Vienna as the happiest time of his life. The exact number of Jews the Butlers rescued will never be known, but it is believed to exceed 100; many times more than those legally admitted to Ireland by its government. For O’Toole, Butler’s actions “to some extent rescued Ireland from eternal shame.”

Putting a magnifying glass on Catholic ‘efforts’ in Croatia

A family saved by Hubert Butler, after their relocation to Argentina. (Courtesy)
A family saved by Hubert Butler, after their relocation to Argentina. (Courtesy)

After the war, Butler returned to Yugoslavia. The fascist regime of Ante Pavelić in the “independent” state of Croatia — established by the Nazis after they invaded and dismembered Yugoslavia in 1941 — became his focus.

The Holocaust, Butler later wrote, was the single greatest crime in human history. In Croatia, it claimed the lives of almost the entire Jewish population, many of them murdered at the Jasenovac concentration camp.

But Butler was determined that other atrocities committed by Pavelić’s Ustaša should not go forgotten. Fluent in Serbo-Croat, he attended war crimes trials in Zagreb and in the city’s university library leafed through newspapers published by the Catholic Church during Pavelić’s reign. Butler was keen to discover what opposition, if any, the Church had offered to it.

This was no academic point. During the Ustaša’s four-year rule, some 250,000 million Orthodox Serbs had been forcibly converted to Catholicism; around 300,000 are believed to have been slaughtered. The Church, which encouraged conversions, claimed it knew nothing of the crimes which had been committed in its name. But, as Butler began to set out meticulously, that simply was not true. Pavelić, he wrote, was “the epitome, the personification of the extraordinary alliance of religion and crime.”

Ustaše militia executing people over a mass grave near Jasenovac concentration camp. (Public domain)
Ustaše militia executing people over a mass grave near Jasenovac concentration camp. (Public domain)

Back in Ireland, however, few wanted to hear Butler’s story. As the Cold War deepened, the Catholic Church had become an important warrior in the fight against “godless Communism.”

When Tito’s Communist regime put Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac on trial for collaboration with the Ustaša, 150,000 people turned out in Dublin in protest, seemingly uninterested or unaware of the deeply ambiguous role played by Zagreb’s archbishop under Pavelić.

Stepinac had written to Pavelić on several occasions to protest massacres committed by the Ustaša and eventually publicly condemned the persecution of Jews.

Ante Pavelić. (Public domain)
Ante Pavelić. (Public domain)

However, he failed to break with a regime to which he had initially offered strong support, while his approach towards the forcible conversion of the Serbs, wrote John Cornwell in his biography of Pope Pius XII, displayed a “moral dislocation” that “endorsed a contempt for religious freedom tantamount to complicity with the violence.”

At a meeting of the Irish International Affairs Association in Dublin in 1952, Butler responded to a speech on the persecution of the Catholic Church behind the Iron Curtain, by referring to the crimes in which it had been complicit in wartime Croatia.

Butler had barely begun to speak when the Papal Nuncio, Gerald O’Hara, stormed from the room. In the ensuing blowback, Butler was attacked in the media and ostracized in his home town of Kilkenny. As the broadcaster Olivia O’Leary suggested: “To be Catholic was to be Irish. There was an element of being loyal to the tribe and the feeling that Butler had insulted a prince of the tribe.”

Behind closed doors, the Irish president, Seán T. O’Kelly, issued a secret “caveat” against Butler, effectively blacklisting him. So dangerous was the writer considered to be, that, when, seven years later, he applied to renew his passport, officials debated whether to refuse the request, even referring the matter to the head of Irish military intelligence.

‘To be Catholic was to be Irish. There was… the feeling that Butler had insulted a prince of the tribe’

Butler, however, was not to be deterred. Instead, he began to examine the role of the Irish government in helping German, Belgian, Breton and Croatian war criminals escape justice. One, in particular, obsessed him: Pavelic’s interior minister, Andrija Artuković.

Artuković was thoroughly implicated in his government’s murderous crimes. His promise to wipe out Jews, whom he termed “insatiable and poisonous parasites,” preceded a systematic extermination campaign against them in 1943. The United States Department of Justice would later label him “the Butcher of the Balkans.”

Butler painstakingly pieced together how Artuković had managed to slip into Ireland in 1947, living there for a year under the alias of Alois Anich before — with assistance from officials in Dublin — moving to the US.

Andrija Artuković. (Public domain)
Andrija Artuković. (Public domain)

“The process by which a great persecutor is turned into a martyr,” wrote Butler drily in his 1966 essay “The Artuković File,” “is surely an interesting one that needs the closest investigation.”

Two years later, he wrote “The Children of Drancy,” turning his unforgiving gaze on the actions of those who had collaborated in, or turned a blind eye towards, the deportation of Parisian Jews in 1942.

Much of Butler’s writing remained largely unknown until the 1980s when his essays were discovered by a young, independent publisher. As collections of his works were published, international recognition followed with editions brought out in New York, London and Paris.

Butler died in January 1991. He thus did not live to see his country’s Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell, publicly acknowledge on Ireland’s first Holocaust Memorial Day in 2003, that the country had been “antipathetic, hostile and unfeeling” towards the Jews. But neither did he have to witness the bloodshed and savagery which was to be visited once again on the people of Yugoslavia just six months after his death.

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