(from Dublin Community News)

The Hide-And-Seek Children:

Recollections of Jewish Survivors from Slovakia, 

by Barbara Barnett 


This book is really three books in one. It is the story of a 12-month period between 1948 and 1949 when 100 children, all of whom had been plucked from post-war Slovakia and many of whom had experienced unbelievable hardships in the Holocaust, spent a year in Ireland, most of them in Clonyn Castle in County Meath. It is the story of one of the Holocaust’s unsung heroes, Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, a true maverick who rescued thousands of Jews from Europe before and after the war. And it is a collection of personal reminiscences written by the children about their lives before, during and after their stay in Clonyn Castle.

I have long believed that Rabbi Schonfeld’s exploits deserve far greater publicity. He was a one-man human dynamo, who hardly slept, and who had a habit of rushing in where angels feared to tread. He also had colossal chutzpah. His son Jonathan told me that his father created a letterhead on which it said: “The Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council,” with himself as Executive Director. Not only was the council a figment of Rabbi Schonfeld’s imagination; but Chief Rabbi Joseph H Hertz had not been consulted! Happily, the Chief Rabbi gave his retroactive blessing to the council, and his own daughter Judith would eventually fall in love with and marry the young, charismatic and persistent rabbi. His antics are very reminiscent of another famous rescuer’s antics. When Nicholas Winton was single-handedly responsible for saving hundreds of children from Prague just before the war, he had notepaper printed that bore the non-existent heading: “British Committee for Refugees, Czechoslovakia, Children's Section.” Just as with Rabbi Schonfeld’s fictitious council, the notepaper persuaded government officials that this was an official organisation.

As with many mavericks, Rabbi Schonfeld was not universally admired. Some people regarded him as too pushy and too abrasive – attributes that undoubtedly helped him rescue so many rabbis, religious leaders, and children. Others regarded him as too “frum” – too orthodox for their taste. Yes, he was unapologetically ultra-orthodox. Yes, he was very concerned for the continuity of orthodox Judaism after the catastrophe of the Holocaust. Hardly a crime, I would think – and yet this prevented otherwise decent Jews from cooperating with him. (The gentiles never had any problems with him – they admired the fact that a rabbi would so fervently want to save his flock.)

Rabbi Schonfeld had real enemies in the gentile world too. He survived a plot to assassinate him, but some of the occupants of the car he was supposed to travel in were killed. For his own safety, he was advised to wear a uniform on his trips abroad after the war. Since he had not served in the army, he had the chutzpah to design his own uniform, with matching badge and cap. He looked very dashing as he criss-crossed Europe searching for Jewish children, and no one ever challenged him about his uniform.

The main theme of the book is the Clonyn Castle episode. Many readers will be familiar with the bare bones of the story. After years of negotiations, the Irish Government finally agreed to allow a group of 100 youngsters to recuperate in Ireland. Rabbi Schonfeld’s first attempt to bring Jewish Bergen Belsen orphans children to Ireland in 1946 failed when the justice minister made it known that he feared that “any substantial increase in our Jewish population might give rise to an anti-Semitic problem.” With the help and perseverance of Robert Briscoe, Rabbi Schonfeld finally got the permit he needed in August 1947. It was not until January 1948 that the British Home Office allowed the children from Slovakia to transit via Britain to Ireland. The Irish government made their permission dependent on two conditions: the children could stay a maximum of one year; and the cost of their stay in Ireland was to be borne entirely by Rabbi Schonfeld’s (now kosher) Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council. (Incidentally, by now Chief Rabbi Hertz had died, and his successor was Rabbi Israel Brodie.)

Rabbi Schonfeld was gifted Clonyn Castle by a Mancunian Jew, Yankel Levy, who bought the castle for this purpose. The rabbi chose a husband-and-wife team, Israel and Trudi Cohen, still in their mid-twenties, to run the home for the children. In typical fashion, Rabbi Schonfeld gave them 24 hours notice to pack their bags in London and depart with their 12-month-old child for Clonyn Castle.

It has to be admitted that although the author certainly did not set out to portray the Irish Jewish community in a poor light, her description of the relationship between some members of the community and the children makes difficult reading. Ms Barnett describes the “mixed feelings” within the community regarding the Clonyn Castle children. While many in the community responded positively and generously to the opportunity to help the recuperation of the Holocaust survivors, others actively opposed Rabbi Schonfeld’s scheme. They refused to allow funds already collected for Youth Aliya to go towards Orthodox refugee children – even though a sizeable proportion of the children did go to Israel. It is impossible not to be appalled at the narrow-mindedness of these people, whose antipathy to the Orthodox rabbi was such that they failed to see the human dimension of children - Jewish children - who had gone through the Holocaust. I cannot help seeing a similarity in their attitude to that of the priest of the local cathedral in Delvin who warned his parishioners not to accept the children, describing them as blood-thirsty and disease-ridden. (Luckily, the priest’s flock ignored him, and established very cordial relations with the new residents of the castle.)

Happily, there is a heroine in the story – Mrs Olga Eppel. She was chair of the Dublin Jewish Ladies Guild, and she became the outstandingly capable administrator of Clonyn Castle. Olga was born in Dublin, and seemed to have a strong enough character for Rabbi Schonfeld and Robert Briscoe to decide that she would be suitable for the job.

The third book within a book is the personal reminiscences of the Clonyn Castle children. No matter how many personal memoirs I read, I never fail to be moved by the stories. Examples include Tomi Reichental’s “I was a child in Bergen-Belsen” and the late Zoltan Zinn-Collis’ “Final Witness: My Journey from the Holocaust to Ireland.” Some of the stories in “The Hide-and-Seek Children” are heart-rending, while others are heart-warming. Jewish Kapos have had a bad press, often deservedly so. So I was all the more moved by the story of Fela Cajtak Maybaum, a 25-year old Auschwitz Kapo in charge of 1,000 Hungarian girls aged between two and sixteen years in Block B. She managed to imbue numerous girls with the will and strength that enabled them to survive. One of the girls recognised Fela in a Jerusalem street 23 years later, and Fela was eventually awarded a special honour from Yad Vashem, with dozens of “her” girls in attendance. Fela was not in Clonyn Castle, but she is mentioned by some of her girls in their reminiscences.

Barbara Barnett has written an important addition to Holocaust literature. A number of events in Ireland are being planned around “The Hide-and-Seek Children” 

30 April – 2 May 2013.