Holocaust Memorial Day: 'British citizenship saved my mother'

By Peter Crutchley
BBC NI

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image captionElsie Mendle risked her life to save family and other Jewish people

"When the Nazis arrived to arrest her family in Oslo in 1942 to send them to the gas chamber in Auschwitz, my Jewish mother's life was saved only because she was a British citizen."

On Holocaust Memorial Day - 27 January - Lill Saether has been reflecting on her mother's legacy and the suffering her family endured.

Her Jewish great-grandparents, Abraham Simon and Rhoda Yetta Freeman, and their eight children, including Lill's grandmother Florrie, came to Newry in about 1890 from Kaunas in Lithuania, then part of Russia.

image captionElsie (on the right) with her brother Abraham and her sister Sadie Miriam

Florrie married Joseph Mendle in Newry in 1906 and had three children there - Abraham in 1908, Elsie in 1909, and Sadie Miriam in 1911. Florrie already had British citizenship, and the rest of their family became British citizens in January 1911.

The family left Northern Ireland for Oslo in August 1911 because relatives who had emigrated to Norway wrote to them about the good prospects in the country.

In 1937 Joseph and Florrie became Norwegian citizens.

image copyrightNorwegian Center for Holocaust & Minority Studies
image captionElsie's birth certificate which is held at the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies

Elsie and Sadie Miriam kept their British citizenship, which would end up saving their lives.

Their younger siblings, Esther and Harry Isidor, were born in Norway and were Norwegian citizens.

Abraham emigrated to the US in 1930.

'Directly to the gas chamber'

German forces invaded Norway in 1940 despite its neutrality in World War Two.

The Nazis controlled Norway in collaboration with the Norwegian Nazi Party, under its leader, Vidkun Quisling.

Life in Nazi-occupied Oslo became very difficult for Jewish people, as Mrs Saether explained.

"The Jews were subjected to special provisions, their radios were confiscated, there were random arrests of men.

"After Quisling's inauguration in February 1942 all Jews had to go to police stations to have their ID-cards stamped with a J."

image copyrightLill Saether
image captionLill Saether has been reflecting on her mother's legacy and the victims of the Holocaust

The situation deteriorated quickly with the arrest of male Jews on 26 October 1942. Elsie's brother, Harry Isidor and the other men were held in prison, while her father was in hospital.

Elsie managed to save her Jewish boss from arrest by telling the police she hadn't seen him when they came calling at his shop. He later escaped to Sweden with his family.

The Nazis and Norwegian police arrived at the Mendle house on 26 November to arrest the female family members.

"My mother knew some nationalities were exempt from the arrest order, among them citizens from USA and UK, and Germany's allies," she said.

"She told the police that she and her sister, Sadie Miriam, were British subjects, leading to them not being arrested. My grandmother, who recorded all these events in her diary, was also left because her husband was ill in hospital.

"The Nazis agreed to wait for two weeks before arresting my grandparents, but they took the youngest sister, Esther, away."

That afternoon Esther and Harry Isidor were among 532 Jews who left Oslo on a prison ship.

The youngest was four months, the oldest was aged 80.

The journey took four days in horrendous weather and after docking in Stettin they were loaded onto trains in cattle wagons and arrived at Auschwitz on 1 December.

Both Esther and Harry Isidor were among those led directly to their execution in the gas chamber.

image captionElsie's sister Esther (fourth from right), who died at Auschwitz, attending a dinner with Jewish friends in June 1942. Only five people in this group survived the Holocaust

A week later Elsie risked her life by rescuing her father and another Jewish man from the hospital. The death penalty awaited Jews who tried to flee and those who helped them.

Outside the hospital they were picked up by Norwegians with cars, who took them to different houses where they went into hiding, as did Elsie's mother and sister, Sadie Miriam.

Mrs Saether said it's important to remember the heroism of many Norwegians.

"There were quite a lot who engaged in hiding Jews and transporting them out of the country. Many of these heroes were women."

image captionThe Oslo Jewish Museum placed memory stones in the streets of the Norwegian capital to remember those who lost their lives in the Holocaust

The Jews remained hidden until they escaped to Sweden a week later in lorries holding about 20 people each.

They hid under the canopies behind sacks of pellets or potatoes. It was freezing cold and they had to sit completely still.

They were let off close to the border and walked in silence in the dark and snow through the forest, holding on to each other as best they could.

They were given refuge in Sweden and in April 1943 Elsie travelled to Scotland to work in the Norwegian Consulate in Glasgow. She returned to Norway in October 1945.

Ireland and Norway

Although Elsie spoke often about revisiting Newry, she never did, but Lill has visited and developed a deep love of Ireland.

"My grandmother always said how fantastic Ireland was. I found that to be true when my husband and I first visited in 1990.

"We came back every year and eventually bought a house in Cree, County Clare. We divide our time between Ireland and Norway."

On Holocaust Memorial Day, Lill's thoughts are with her lost family members and all the victims.

"It makes me cry when I think of the hatred behind people treating other human beings in such a gruesome manner.

"I think of the uncle and aunt I never had. Me and my girls and my grandchildren are the only living relatives from the five children my grandparents had."

"It must never be forgotten and we have to learn from the Holocaust so it never happens again, to Jews or any other ethnic or religious group."

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