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Frank McNally

The Irish Times  - An Irishman’s Diary, January 19, 2022

A sub-theme of the Holocaust exhibition now running at Dublin Castle (An Irishman’s Diary, January 17th) is the silence that descended afterwards on those who survived.

“I have grown up in a house of secrets,” writes Oliver Sears, whose family history under Nazism is the show’s particular theme. His mother Monika was born in Poland in 1939, and from almost the start of her life was on the run, before she and her mother made a dramatic escape. But she never spoke about those events until 1990, when aged 51.

The story she was so reluctant to tell was an extraordinary one, with elements of a cinematic thriller. She spent some of her infancy hiding under a table all day while her mother, using forged papers, worked outside the Warsaw ghetto.

 

Even that freedom ended after the uprising in 1944, however. On a train to one of the concentration camps, probably Buchenwald, Monika’s mother bribed a guard to open a window, then threw her daughter out and jumped after her, eluding machine-gun fire.

 

The man who would become Monika’s stepfather, Jakub Wandstein, had a more prosaic getaway. He travelled to London in July 1939 for a dental conference, then couldn’t go home. He never saw his family, including a pregnant wife, again.

Jakub’s brother Olek was hidden by a priest until someone betrayed him. The priest could delay the Gestapo only long enough for Olek to shoot himself. Monika’s father was arrested in Lodz in 1939 and is presumed to have been among a number of prisoners forced to dig their own graves in a woods before being shot.

Anonymity of burial places compounded the silence into which second-generation survivors like Sears were born. “We have no graves to visit; there were no funerals,” he writes.

His family’s story contrasts with that of the Hopfs, whose Dublin grave has become the focus of a small, annual commemoration, the latest instalment of which I attended over Christmas. The Hopfs were lucky in that they all escaped the Nazis, although scattered to the four corners of the world in the process.

 

Survivor silence was part of their story too, however. In the case of Arnold Hopf, it also lasted until the 1990s, when he died in Kenya, where he had spent most of his life. One of the few times he mentioned the past there was when threatened with a stay in hospital. He wouldn’t go, he said. It would remind him of Buchenwald.

He was incarcerated in Buchenwald before the war, after somehow taking the place of his father Ludwig, a brilliant scientist who had been a friend and colleague of Einstein.

But it seems Arnold escaped in 1939. A story untold by him but pieced together by others suggests he was one of three prisoners who plied guards with alcohol and stole their uniforms. The other two were killed.

By the time this quiet German died in 1992, he had married a Kenyan woman, who unlike him was Catholic. She asked her local priest, a Wicklow man named Willie Walshe, to do the funeral honours. Willie then learned there was an Irish angle to the Hopfs’ story, because Ludwig had moved to Dublin in 1939, for a job in Trinity College.

Soon Willie’s sister Kay was set the task of finding a Hopf grave here, which she eventually did, in Mount Jerome. And now, every Christmas, they and a small group of others (always including Tomi Reichental, a survivor of Belsen) gather there for a commemoration.

The gravestone tells its own sad story. Only months after arrival in Dublin, Ludwig Hopf died suddenly on December 21st, 1939. His teenage daughter Liselore followed him in 1942. Some time after that, Alice Hopf, Ludwig’s widow, left Ireland, ending the family’s short, tragic stay.

Even so, in two letters to Kenya, still in possession of the family there, she thanks her blessings. One, poignantly, is from early December 1939, when she wonders if the terrible weather (“here it rains and rains since weeks”) is contributing to Ludwig’s ill-health.

The other is from after his death but would sit comfortably under the title of the Dublin Castle exhibition, The Objects of Love.

She speaks of the loneliness she faces for the rest of her life. But she expresses gratitude for the kindness of Ludwig’s colleagues and students in Dublin. She recalls the great happiness of her marriage (“even in spite of Hitler, who spoiled our later years”), memories of which would endure.

She writes of how deeply Ludwig loved his children. And finally, she thanks Arnold for the sacrifice he made for his father “so the Nazis never could really touch him”.