Hubert Butler-Ireland’s Holocaust Hero

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Hubert Marshal Butler (2 October 1900 – 5 January 1991) was an Irish essayist who wrote on a wide range of topics, from local history and archaeology to the political and religious affairs of eastern Europe before and during World War II, he also traveled to Nazi Austria on his own initiative and at his own expense and helped save Jewish people from being sent to concentration camps.

Hubert Marshal Butler was born on October 2, 1900 at the family home of Maiden Hall, near to the village of Bennettsbridge in Co. Kilkenny.Butler would later go on to gain a place at St John’s College, Oxford, from where he would graduate in 1922 with a degree in Classics.

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After working for the Irish County Libraries, under the famed Sir Horace Plunkett, for four years, Butler travelled throughout inter-war Europe.

Butler was deeply disturbed by some of the anti-Semitic sentiment found in Ireland prior to World War Two, particularly that of Fine Gael politician Oliver J. Flanagan.In a 1938 Dáil speech, Flanagan said: “They (the Jews) crucified our Saviour 1,900 years ago and they have been crucifying us every day of the week.”

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In response, Butler proclaimed: “I was as Irish as Oliver Flanagan and I was determined that Jewish refugees should come to Ireland.”

On the eve of the war, Butler moved to Nazi Austria to attempt to secure visas to Ireland for persecuted Jews.Working with both the Irish and American Quakers, he offered Jews safe passage to Ireland before helping them settle in the Americas.

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On the night of September 16th, 1938, a man called Erwin Strunz received a phone call at his flat in Vienna. The caller, a friend who had joined the Nazi party, warned Strunz that he had been chosen for deportation to the Dachau concentration camp. Strunz was a journalist and former trade-union official. He had also married a Jewish woman and converted to Judaism, making him especially obnoxious to the Nazis. His friend warned him that he would be taken away in two days’ time. Strunz turned for help to the great Irish essayist Hubert Butler. The latter had gone to Vienna entirely on his own initiative and at his own expense to do whatever he could to rescue Jews from the Nazis.

The exact number of Jews Butler saved from persecution and extermination is not agreed upon, but he certainly smuggled scores of people to safety.Butler’s daughter Julia recalled the family home in Bennettsbridge as always being full of refugees passing through.

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Butler attended the Evian international conference on the plight of Jewish refugees in July 1938 and was sickened by the attitudes of the Irish delegation, one member of which said to him: “Didn’t we suffer like this in the Penal days and nobody came to our help?”

Lord Winterton Addressing a Conference Delegates

This was not mere individual idiocy. The Department of Justice delegated power over refugees to a body called the Irish Co-ordinating Committee for the Relief of Christian Refugees. The rule adopted was that only Jews who had converted to Christianity should be allowed to settle in Ireland. This committee was given the power to vet applications to settle in Ireland made by European Jews.

It is thus almost certain that Erwin Strunz, and his wife and two children, would never have been allowed into Ireland. When Strunz turned desperately to Butler for help, Butler and his wife, Peggy Guthrie, got the family out of Vienna to London and then to Peggy’s family home in Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan (now the Tyrone Guthrie Centre).

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The Strunz family subsequently settled in Ardmore, Co Waterford. In December 1938 Strunz was interviewed by the Cork Examiner and warned of what was happening in the concentration camps: “Life in these camps is terrible,” she said, “and the people there are treated like beasts.”

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Such warnings had little effect on policy, but Butler and Guthrie, working with Irish Quakers and with the American Quaker Emma Cadbury, continued to operate what was in effect a parallel Irish refugee policy. They secured exit visas for dozen of Jews to escape from Vienna, brought them to Ireland and, as they could not stay here, helped them to settle in the Americas.

After giving a broadcast talk in 1947 about Yugoslavia he was publicly criticised for failing to mention the alleged suffering of Catholics under Josip Broz Tito’s regime.

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He responded by trying to draw attention to another matter he had avoided in his radio talk, and which he saw as a greater scandal: the involvement of Catholic clergy with the Ustaša, a Nazi-installed puppet regime that had waged a genocidal crusade against non-Catholics in part of Yugoslavia during World War II.

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Butler’s efforts in this respect earned him notoriety and public opprobrium in clerical Ireland to the extent that he felt obliged to leave the archaeological society he had played a big part in reviving.

Butler was a keen market gardener as well as a writer and his circle of friends included the Mary Poppins creator Pamela Travers, the journalist Claud Cockburn, and the poet Padraic Colum. He believed strongly in the importance of the family and, as well as playing an active role in keeping his own extended family in touch, he was the founder of the Butler Society.

He is buried five miles from the family home at St. Peter’s Church, Ennisnag, Kilkenny. The Kilkenny Art Gallery Society’s Butler Gallery in Kilkenny Castle was named in honor of Hubert and Peggy.

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