Thursday, April 8, 1999

'Why by fire'

The past week for me has been given over to the sometimes forgotten history of the people who suffered more than most during World War II. It was a coincidence that I was visiting Prague the same week as John MacKenna’s new work “Who by Fire” premiered in the local school hall while Zolton Zinn Collis was filmed revisiting Belsen for the first time since 1945.

I had previously written of Zolton who has lived in Athy for almost twenty years. That occasion was the publication of Mary Rose Doorley’s Book, “Hidden Memories” which dealt with the personal recollections of what were called the “Belsen Children” who came to Ireland with Dr. Robert Collis at the end of World War II. They were the unclaimed children who survived in the German concentration camp Bergen Belsen and who like Zolton Zinn and his sister Edith were orphans.

I can still recall the emotion I felt when interviewing Zolton Zinn Collis in 1995 as he recounted the experience of his distraught mother resisting a german soldiers attempts to wrest a dead child from her arms during a stop over on the train journey to Belsen.
“I can never forget”, he said “only the dead can forgive, we have no right to forgive on their behalf”. He had lost his mother and father, his eldest brother Aladar and a baby brother or sister, which he cannot say, in the horrible inhuman conditions created by the Germans during World War II. On Thursday night on Irish television, he relived the horrors of over 50 years ago when he was filmed revisiting Belsen for as he said “we should all learn from the past - we should not forget”. As the Albanian people evicted from Kosovo last week massed in refugee camps, we should remember the Zolton Zinn’s of this world who are left with memories of a time which should never again be repeated and of families which can never again be theirs.

The same night as Zolton Zinn Collis’s story was transmitted, I attended the second night of John MacKenna’s, “Who By Fire” - a play with songs by Leonard Cohen. For reasons which I will explain later, the performance was of special significance for me and evoked in me a response similar to that felt when I spoke to Zinn Collis some years ago. “Who by Fire” is a story of a young girl who was taken to the concentration camp of Auschwitz with her mother. She survived but her mother, her friends and neighbours all died and twenty years later, she revisits the former death camp where as the author explains, the sights, sounds and smell of her three years in Auschwitz bring the past back to life.

As the Members of Athy Musical and Dramatic Society brought the evenings performance to a conclusion, I felt that I had watched a most compelling and moving theatrical experience. The immediacy of the performance was for me heightened by the fact that on the day before, while on a journey from Prague to Dresden, I stopped to visit Terezin, a holding camp for Jews and Czechs who were destined for Auschwitz. Situated near the Czech border with Germany, the former camp has been established as the Memorial of National Suffering by the Czech Government and shows the fate of persons imprisoned there in the context of the overall picture of the persecution of the Czechs during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. I could not then but be moved by the Athy groups performance reawakening as it did, the visual experiences of the day before when I saw for the very first time, documents, artifacts and material from a terrible period in recent Czech history.

The number of Jews exterminated in Auschwitz concentration camp has never been accurately assessed and estimates range from one to four million. Amongst those were upwards of 75,000 Jews from Prague City which was once the location of a vibrant if somewhat overpopulated Ghetto Jewish Quarter. The death camps of the Second World War finished what the slum clearance programmes of Prague Municipal Authorities started at the beginning of the century. Nowadays the former Jewish quarter of Prague is a monument to the Jewish past. Its old Jewish Cemetery’s is the largest and best preserved Jewish Cemetery in Europe having been established in the fifteenth century. There are almost twelve thousand tombstones in the cemetery holding many more unmarked graves where centuries of burials resulted in the elevation of the ground so that it was thought that there are upwards of seven layers of burials there. These then were the ancestors of the Jews who suffered so much as a result of Hitler’s plans for the extermination of their race.

John MacKenna’s new work comes at a significant time when trouble has erupted in Yugoslavia and another ethnic group, this time Albanians face a situation so reminiscent of what occurred to the Jews just over 50 years ago. “Who by Fire” is a timely reminder of a history which for most of us has passed unnoticed or perhaps not understood.

I had hoped to meet Tommy English whom I believe is the only Athy man living in Prague. Unfortunately, my trip coincided with Tommy’s return to Athy and so I was left looking elsewhere for an Athy connection. The only previous Czech connection with Athy was Josef Ratusky who worked in the Wall Board Factory many years ago. As far as I can recall, he lived for a while with McHugh’s of Offaly Street. He first came to Carlow, as a fitter in the Sugar Company and later to Athy to join the Wall Board Company. Unfortunately, he passed away some years ago.

It was while passing over Charles Bridge in Prague built in the 14th Century that I made the Athy connection. Prague’s most familiar monument connects the old town with the Latin quarter and boasts no less than 28 statutes including that of St. Felix deValois and St. John deMatha who founded the Trinitarian Order. You may remember that the Monastery of St. John, Athy was a Trinitarian Foundation in the early part of the 13th Century. The Monastery closed down even prior to the Reformation but a window from the Monastery is to be placed in the Heritage Centre in the very near future.

I was saddened to hear of the death of Paddy Tierney, formerly of Emily Row when I returned to Athy. Paddy was a schoolmate of my brother Tony and his family lived in the house next door to the original Credit Union office which is now being incorporated into its new offices. Paddy who was Town Clerk of Dundalk spent his working life in Local Government and died at the relatively young age of 61 years. My sympathy goes to his family and sisters especially Noreen Noonan of Leinster Street.

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