New play tells of the Cork woman who helped Jewish children escape the Nazis

Fiona Bawn Thompson, Ella Brady and Romana Testasecca in The Woman is Present

A Cork woman who helped Jewish children escape the Nazis is among the subjects of a new play, writes Colette Sheridan

THE sometimes forgotten courageous women who stood up to fascism and Nazism during World War II are the subject of the premiere of a play, The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII, at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Trinity College.

Presented by Dublin-based Smashing Times Theatre Company, which promotes peace and social justice through the arts, the play consists of monologues which are re-imagined moments from the lives of women, caught up in the war, including Mary Elmes, a Cork woman who saved Jewish children from the gas chambers.

Elmes, who died in 2002, was from a family that had a pharmacy business in Winthrop Street in Cork city. She studied at Trinity College Dublin and at the London School of Economics before becoming involved in rescue missions.

Mary Elmes

“She was this incredible woman, like an Irish Oscar Schindler, saving the lives of Jewish children in France,” says Smashing Times writer and director Mary Moynihan.

Having helped Spaniards fleeing from Franco, Elmes became involved with the Quakers in a campaign to save as many children as possible from the gas chambers.

“When the Vichy Government was set up, they started to intern Jews in the same camps where the Spanish refugees were. There was a former army camp, Rivesaltes, in the south of France which was a main holding centre for Jews from where they were sent to the concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Mary tried to find ways to get the children out of Rivesaltes. She was in a position where she had to negotiate with parents to take their children (to freedom) with the parents knowing they’d never see them again. It’s not known how many people Mary saved but it was a lot. She never looked for recognition for her work.”

The play also includes the re- imagined life of Ettie Steinberg, the only Irish-reared Jewish woman to be murdered in the Holocaust. Written by Deirdre Kinahan, Ode to Ettie Steinberg imagines Steinberg on her journey home to Dublin.

“In the monologue, she is trying to find her way home and is looking for her son. On the journey, she recalls moments from her life. Then she goes back to where she was born and what her life was like.”

Moynihan says that the Irish Jewish Museum was an invaluable source for the play. In its archive is a poignant postcard. It is believed that Steinberg addressed the postcard to her family in Dublin and threw it from the moving cattle car in which she and her family were being deported to Auschwitz. Miraculously, a passer-by found it and sent it to her family in Dublin days after Steinberg, her husband, and their son were murdered. The postcard was coded in Hebrew terms, understood by her family. It indicates that Steinberg knew the fate that awaited her.

The set design for the play uses video images. “We’re not using original footage. We’re using created movement images.”

The play, which also features European women’s involvement in World War II, is not harrowing, says Moynihan. “On one level, it is. The stories are tragic, heart-breaking and moving. But what comes across is the incredible spirit of the women. In all the stories, you see their bravery and their love of life. The majority of the women featured all performed acts to help others. They were brave and powerful. None of them accepted the oppression that was imposed on them. They fought back in their own way. There are some lovely moments in the play, like when Ettie is talking about what it was like growing up in Dublin and the happiness she had with her family.”

Ettie Steinberg

Moynihan says it’s important we don’t forget the atrocities of World War II. “If women’s stories are hidden, it means we are not hearing the full story of what went on. In discovering these stories, we’ve been finding threads and similarities to what is happening today. The arts are an incredible way of being able to tell these stories.”

Inspiring women who stood up to terror of war

  • Mary Elmes (1908-2002) was born in Cork as Marie Elisabeth Jean Elmes. Her family had a chemist shop, J Waters and Sons, on Winthrop Street. She was educated at Rochelle School and Trinity College Dublin and went on to study at the London School of Economics. She was the first Irish person honoured as ‘Righteous Among Nations’ for her work in saving Jewish children from the Nazi gas chambers. The honour was bestowed in 2015 by Yad Vashmen, Israel’s memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
  • Ettie Steinberg (1914-42), the only Irish-reared Jewish woman to be murdered in the Holocaust, was brought up at 28 Raymond Terrace, off the South Circular Road, Dublin. It is believed she was born in the former Czechoslovakia. She and her husband, Vogtjeck Gluck, moved to Belgium to be near his family’s goldsmith business. Because of the rise of Nazism, they fled and it was in Paris that their son, Leon, was born. They were murdered in Auschwitz on September 4, 1942.
  • Martha Hillers from Germany wrote her autobiography, Eine Frau in Berlin (A Woman in Berlin) under the name ‘Anonyma’ (Anonymous). It detailed her experiences of the last days of World War II as she and over one million other women were raped and abused. Immediately after the war, she couldn’t get her book published and when it did come out, she was vilified for tackling a taboo subject.
  • Neus Catala Palleja from Spain was a member of the United Socialist Party of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. She was an active collaborator with the French Resistance during World War II and is the only living Spanish survivor of Ravensbruck, one of the largest concentration camps set up by the Nazis especially for women. Palleja turned 100 last year.
  • The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WW II is at the Samuel Beckett Theatre from September 14-16. There will be a post show discussion with Deirdre Kinahan on Thursday and Friday.


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