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THE STORY

 

British Heroes of the Holocaust Awards

 

On March 9th 2010 Sister Marie, Provincial and I were invited to 10, Downing Street to receive the above award on behalf of Sister Agnes Walsh, one of our Sisters who, in1944,  helped a Jewish family in France to escape the attention of the Nazis.

 Ada Valinda Walsh was born in Hull in 1896 and entered the Community of the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul.  She was placed in the Orphanage in Mill Hill for a few months before being placed in Ireland.(the British Province consisted of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales until 1970 when Ireland became a separate Province)  Sister Agnes was in Dunmanway from 1917-1924, and then Pelletstown from 1924-1932.  Sister had volunteered for the foreign missions and in 1932 she was sent to Jerusalem.  As she went to Jerusalem from Ireland she was issued with an Irish passport.

This was a lucky mistake.

In 1934 while showing some visitors around Bethlehem, Sister tripped on an Arab lady’s dress and fell down some stairs injuring her back.  At first she was treated in the hospital in Bethlehem but in 1935 returned to France for further treatment.  She remained in France in Paris and Andernos until 1940 when she was appointed assistant in Cadouin, in the Dordogne, in southwest France, where it was felt she would be relatively safe. Sister Agnes always insisted that she had an Irish passport and as Ireland was neutral she would not be in any danger.  Sister Agnes had only to open her mouth for anyone to know she was definitely English.

In Cadouin the Sisters ran a school for girls from ten to fourteen.  The girls “were taught all that was considered necessary for a good farmer’s daughter and future wife: how to cook, to keep a budget to take care of children etc.  Art was not forgotten and Sister Agnes taught the girls how to draw and paint” (Extract from Alain Cremieux‘s letter Oct 1993).  Sister Louise Granier was the Superior of the house which had twelve Sisters and between thirty and fifty students and staff. Feeding such numbers in wartime was quite demanding so Sister Louise got the Sisters to raise chickens, rabbits and pigs (which included the only boar in the village!) At a time when food was more important than money, Sister Louise insisted that the parents of the children paid part of the fees in kind, i.e. meat, fruit or vegetables rather than in Francs.  Although she was English Sister Agnes’ papers said she was Irish and since Ireland was neutral Sister received Red Cross parcels which were filled with fabrics and other goods which helped to keep the school going.

After the Germans occupied all of France in 1942, Sister Louise was afraid someone in the village would denounce Sister Agnes as it was common knowledge she was English, in spite of the Irish papers. Sister Louise asked “The greatest bandit of Cadouin”- a communist member of the Resistance- to be prepared to take Sister Agnes to safety, “on the back of his motor bike should danger arise. Fortunately, the Germans never came, but one imagines what a sight it would have been, to see a Sister in a big white headdress and long Habit speeding down a country lane astride a motor bike!

However a Jewish family the Cremieux’s did come.

Fifteen months earlier, M. Pierre Cremieux had met Sister Louise, by chance at a railway station. Trains were very irregular and during the long waiting period, people began talking to one another.

M.Cremieux explained he was Jewish and had fled illegally, with his family, from occupied France to Villeneuve-sur-Lot, a town fifty miles north of Toulouse.  He asked if things got dangerous could he come to the convent. Sister Louise replied “En bien venez” (Just come).  “This was no small matter for one should not forget that it was a crime to help a Jew”

M. Cremieux brought his wife and three children (Alain, aged seven, and Colette and Jean-Pierre, nine month old twins to Cadouin).  Sister Agnes took them under her wing declaring she had nothing to fear as she had an Irish passport. Only Sister Louise and Sister Agnes knew who the family really was. The Sisters were told that they were distant relatives of Sister Louise and the mother needed country air to recuperate after the birth of the twins. The mother was given a room above the laundry while Alain, a male, was sent to live with the Parish Priest. During his forced holiday, he took advantage of the books in the Priest’s library, where he read predominantly the lives of the saints. He was given English lessons by Sister Agnes. The Cremieux family were in Cadouin from February to April 1944, when Sister Agnes received a phone call from Colonel Delluc, adjutant to the Mayor and a friend of Sister Agnes, who warned her that her “friends from Paris” had better not be at the Convent when the Germans came for an inspection.  According to Alain Cremieux, the family left immediately, though the threat never materialised. They spent the rest of the war hidden in Villeneuve-sur-Lot where M.Cremeiux had continued to live after he had brought his family to the safety of the convent.

Sister Agnes remained in Cadouin until 1950 when she was placed in Epinay-sur-Senart, a village near Paris, where she served as a member of staff in an Old People’s Home. In 1967 she returned to the British Province and was placed in Ladbroke Grove, 1967-1970(a Nursing Home) then in Ealing, 1970-1980 and finally to The Priory, Mill Hill, where she died in 1993 aged 97.

Alain Cremieux’s brother, Jean Pierre and his sister Colette began the process to get Sister Louise and Sister Agnes recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations.”  A Jewish person must put the names forward .Thanks to the efforts of the Cremieux siblings Sister Agnes and Sister Louise were awarded the tile in 1990. This honour entitled the Sisters to a medal and a Certificate of Honour as well as the privilege of having their names inscribed on the wall in the Garden of the Righteous,Yad Vasham, Jerusalem.  Sister Agnes, as a spritely 94 year old, was delighted with this award.

Sister Agnes died three years later and Alain Cremieux attended her funeral. He was asked to write about Sister Agnes’ time in Cadouin and many of the details of this story are taken from Alain’s letter.  He concludes, “Sister Agnes and Sister Louise remain for me symbols of sweetness, candour, calm, and goodwill, unusually associated with courage and determination.”

“Goodness, like evil, begins with small steps” (Rabbi David Blumenthal)

The Jewish authorities in England have been pressing for the 33 British men and women who helped the Jews and others to escape the Holocaust to be honoured in their own country. After a visit to Auschwitz, the Prime Minster, Gordon Brown announced such a reward.  As we were unable to trace any of Sister Agnes’ relatives, Sister Marie and I were invited to receive this award.

We were invited to lunch in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office together with relatives of other recipients. There were just two people to receive the award in person, both men in their late nineties. One had organised the kinder-trains which brought Jewish children out of Poland and Germany to live with foster parents in England, and the other a British POW who was in a camp near a concentration camp and who exchanged places with a sick Jewish man so that he could get some good food and rest.

 At the reception we met a lot of interesting people and learnt their stories.  We had a delicious lunch in the Locarno Suite a magnificent room with a painted ceiling and murals on the walls.  We had no fixed places so we were joined by two ladies who worked in the Foreign Office and by a family representing an English lady who lived in Denmark during the War and hid Jewish people in her home.

 After the meal we went over to No.10 Downing Street where we waited in an ante-room ready to be called to receive the award in private. We received the medal form George Denham and Chadri Malik. Two men spoke to us about Sister Agnes and then we had our photograph taken with them.  When all the medals had been presented the Prime Minister came in and chatted with people as he made his way to the microphone. He welcomed everyone and said how pleased he was to grant these awards as every person honoured whether they had saved one life or several hundred lives had risked their own life to help someone in need. He commented that this was one of the darkest periods in our history yet light shone through these people who willingly put themselves in danger to help others.

 As we left Downing Street we passed down the corridor where the portraits of past Prime Ministers hang. We saw the recently installed portrait of Margaret Thatcher.

We had our photo taken at the door of number 10, and so ended a memorable day.

 Sister Joan, Provincial Archivist  - 20th April 2010

Highlighting by JW

The Introduction:  Click Here

The Herald Item:  Click here

A Biography:  Click here