Monday, 24 October 2016

The wall of the Jewish Ghetto

My hopes of finding tangible clues to the origins of the Blumberg family in the streets of modern Warsaw were naive to say the least. The Jewish ghetto of Warsaw was totally destroyed by the Nazis towards the end of WW2 and few Jewish people in Poland survived the terrible holocaust. This small section of red brick wall is all that remains of the Jewish area which was rebuilt by the post-war forces of occupation, Stalinist Russia. For poor Poland it was out of the frying pan ...into the fire.

In the Jewish cemetery at Lodz there are many great monuments to the wealthier Jewish merchants and industrialists of prosperous times in the 19th century. The owners of great linen mills and manufacturing factories which gave Lodz the name of 'Manchester of Poland'.

There is also a large section of the cemetery known as the Ghetto Fields, which contain hundreds of more humble graves in uniformed rows. On each stone are inscribed the names of family members spanning three or more generations. Each name from each family begins with their date of birth, anything ranging from the 1860s (grand parents and even great grandparents) to the late 1930s (babies and small children). Then there is the year of each person's death. All death dates fall between the years of 1939 and 1945. For most families, all individuals of all generations died in exactly the same year.

Few mourners come to this part of the cemetery to leave rocks and pebbles on the graves of the Ghetto Fields in the Jewish tradition. No one is buried under these humble monuments and no one survived to mourn.

My visit to Poland

Pete Millington with author and photographer Wlodzimierz Malek in
the Jewish cemetery at Lodz 
I recently visited Poland on a trip relating to my work and stayed in both the capital Warsaw and in the second city of Lodz. Before going to Poland I had been doing some research into the Polish Jewish ancestors of my American brother-in-law Mike. The family were named Blumberg and they lived in San Francisco for many decades from the beginning of the 20th century.

Early US records, such as the family's arrival in Canada on a ship from Liverpool, followed by their appearance in the 1910 US census had initially led me to believe that the Blumberg family were Russian Jews, but in later records they said they were from Warsaw in Poland. A little bit of reading of Polish history taught me that large parts of Poland were occupied by Russia during the 19th century and that they created the first Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, decades before the Nazi invasion in 1939.

Further research showed me that the Blumbergs migrated from Russian-occupied Poland in the 1890s but went firstly to England where they attempted to build a new life in London's East End, still well known today for its large Jewish population. Here the Blumbergs (who already had two children) had two more daughters which included Mike's grandmother.

My personal mission in Poland (when I had some free time from working) was therefore to try to find out a little bit more about the origins of the Blumberg family. My research included visiting the amazing Museum of Jewish History in Warsaw and also seeing the only remaining section of the wall of the Jewish Ghetto. I also visited the Jewish cemetery in Lodz and an old train station and museum close by at Radegast.

In the cemetery I quite randomly met an old Polish gentleman named Wlodzimierz Malek who is the author of several books of local history about the city of Lodz. One of his books is The Historical Jewish Cemetery in Lodz which contains pages of fantastic photographs of the tombs and monuments in the cemetery plus photos of the train station at Radegast. 

Below are some of my own photographs of Radegast, which was the station from which the Nazis transported tens of thousands of Jewish people from Lodz to the concentration camps of occupied Poland.           

Radegast train station at Lodz

The trucks used to transport Jewish families to their deaths

Every truck was packed full with innocent human beings

Part of the museum at Radegast is this recreated gas chamber and
chimney - a very powerful experience to walk through

Nie zabijaj - thou shalt not kill

An over powering sense of sadness and disbelief at human inhumanity
haunts this train and its carriages

The work and writing of Ernest Clephan Palmer

Whilst researching my sister-in-law Rachel Palmer's ancestry I came across the life and work of her Great Grandfather Ernest Clephan Palmer, a London based journalist and investigative author who set out to debunk fake spiritualists of the early 1900s. His mission brought him into the company of such notable personalities as Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and the legendary escapologist, Harry Houdini.     

Ernest Palmer with the support of his friend Arthur Conan Doyle was involved in solving the Oscar Slater case. He was interested in psychical research and spiritualism, he was a friend of the psychical investigator Harry Price.

In his book The Riddle of Spiritualism (1927) Palmer carried out a serious investigation into the claims of spiritualism and came to the conclusion that most mediumship and phenomena observed in the séance is the result of fraud. However, he believed telepathy to explain some cases of mental mediumship. He wrote there is no scientific evidence for the spirit hypothesis in mediumship but there remained many unanswered questions and it would be precipitate to dismiss it entirely

One of the mediums who Ernest Palmer investigated was George Valiantine who claimed that spirits of the dead would speak during séances through a trumpet which floated around in a darkened room. On examination of the trumpet after the séance, Palmer discovered ‘a great deal of moisture’ inside the mouthpiece of the trumpet. Following  Palmer’s investigation, Valiantine was proved to be a fraud by the Scientific American who  tested his claims that the trumpet floated independently by secretly rigging his chair to an electric light in another room which lit up every time he stood up. During the test, the light signal was  activated every time there was trumpet activity, showing that Valiantine was leaving his chair under the cover of darkness to speak into the trumpet.
Arthur Conan Doyle
On another occasion Ernest Palmer’s friend and co-researcher, Harry Price, also caught out George Valiantine by showing that Italian words attributed to the spirit of the late composer Luigi Arditi during a séance were actually word-for-word matches lifted from an Italian phrase book.

It would be interesting to know more about the relationship between Ernest Palmer and Arthur Conan Doyle. The famous author of Sherlock Holmes was a longstanding believer in spiritualism, even falling out with the American magician Harry Houdini who performed illusions for Doyle in his home, explaining his own trickery to make the point that most magical phenomena was pure illusion. But Doyle refused to believe that Houdini’s illusions were tricks and not due to supernatural powers, even when the trickery was explained to him by the famous magician.

Even Houdini’s death was the source of speculation and conspiracy theory connected to his pursuit of debunking mediums and psychics. The magician was killed after an incident at Houdini's dressing room in the Princess Theatre in Montreal when a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, delivered a surprise attack of multiple blows to Houdini's abdomen whilst the magician was reclining on a couch having broken his ankle in a stage act. Witnesses said that the onslaught from Whitehead was meant to test Houdini who allowed the first few punches before objecting. Houdini did not seek medical help for some days and eventually died from acute appendicitis on 31 October 1926.

Harry Houdini 
As recently as 2007 Houdini's grand-nephew (the grandson of his brother Theo), George Hardeen, announced that the American courts would be asked to allow exhumation of Houdini's body, to investigate the possibility of Houdini being murdered by spiritualists. Worthy of  a Sherlock Holmes case in itself, the mystery continues to this day.

In 1922 Conan Doyle also fell out with Harry Price, a skeptic and friend of both Harry Houdini and Ernest C Palmer, after Price accused the spirit photographer William Hope of fraud. Hope was well-known for his photographic plates which featured images of spirits, usually imposed behind or next to other subjects who had posed in Hope’s studio. Conan Doyle accused Price of writing “sewage” about spiritualism and led a personal attack on him which Price claimed went on for years.

We can therefore surmise that Ernest Palmer may also have been a friend of Harry Houdini as well as Harry Price, as the three men are cited together as ’debunkers of fraudulent mediums’. In his role as a ghost buster, Houdini often attended séances in disguise accompanied by a reporter, I wonder if this was ever Ernest C Palmer?      

Ernest Palmer’s three published books were:

The Solitary Blackbird (1954)
The Young Blackbird (1953)
The Riddle of Spiritualism (1927)

Sorcha Nic Diarmada and the role of women in 1916

The marriage of Annie McCluskey and Patrick McDermott - Dublin 1907
Patrick's sister Sarah (Sorcha Nic Diarmada) is seated lady in round white hat on left

Something which has always interested me about Irish history is the prominent role of women in areas including literature and the arts, religious life, science, political leadership and, specifically, the early 20th century struggle for Irish independence.

Such is the influence of women in Irish history that the country itself has from ancient times been personified as female with names such as Erin, Roisin Dubh and Kathleen Ni Houlihan. Poets from Yeats to Heaney have developed the idea so successfully that it seems more powerful than being merely a traditional metaphorical representation and speaks of deeply rooted cultural and spiritual values.

Countess Markievicz was undoubtedly the most celebrated female leader of the 1916 Rising, described as a charismatic revolutionary, a politician, suffragette and socialist. Markievicz was one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position, as Minister for Labour in the Irish Republic from 1919-1922.

But we should not overlook the fact that Markievicz was the best known of many thousands of Irish (and Anglo-Irish) women who were active in the 1916 Rising and the subsequent War of Independence. I was reminded of this fact recently by a correspondent on Ancestry, a gentleman named Mike McDermott whose family settled in Yorkshire in the 1860s because Mike’s great grandfather, also Michael McDermott, had to leave Ireland under suspicion for his “Fenian activities”.

Mike’s grandfather Patrick McDermott married his grandmother Annie McCluskey in Dublin in 1907. The connection with my own ancestors was through the McCluskey family, Annie’s father Nicholas McCluskey was a close friend and political ally of my great-great grandfather John McDonnell, a blind basket maker and founding member of the League of the Blind (a trade union of blind people). McDonnell and McCluskey were both elected Poor Law Guardians in the North Dublin Union and used their position to campaign for better conditions for poor and disabled people in Dublin. Fresh information from Mike indicates that Nicholas and John were more than just lifelong friends and co-conspirators, but relatives - as there were a number of cousins named McDonnell on the wedding photograph of his grandparents, Patrick and Annie.

But how does this connect to the role of women in the 1916 Rising? The McDermott family originated from Leitrim and Mike’s family share ancestors with Sean MacDiarmada (McDermott), a signatory of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic read by Patrick Pearse outside the General Post Office in Dublin. But a much closer link to this momentous period of Irish history was through a sister of Mike’s grandfather, Sarah McDermott (Sorcha Nic Diarmada), a teacher born at Normanton in West Yorkshire in 1878.

Sarah was one of the ten children of Michael and Mary McDermott from Glenkeel in Leitrim. Her father had settled in the north of England shortly after the unsuccessful Fenian Rising of 1867. Neighbouring Lancashire had become a hotbed of Fenian activity in the 1860s with the infamous prison van attack in Manchester in 1867, which was followed by a prison bombing in London. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was formed in1858 and it was reported that within a few years every city in England had IRB units. Sarah and her siblings may therefore have grown up in an area of Fenian support but also within the wider trade union culture of the industrial north of England.

After training as a teacher in Leeds, Sarah went to live and work in London where she became active in the Irish community and in the movement for Ireland’s independence. Many years later, in 1954, she provided a witness statement to the Bureau of Military History about her involvement in the Cumman na mBan, the Irish republican women’s paramilitary organisation formed in 1914 and led by Countess Markievicz.

The archive of the Bureau of Military History ( is a rich online source of personal testimonies from people who were directly involved in the history of the fight for Irish independence from 1913 to 1921. The great thing about this archive is that it is not just about ‘the usual culprits’, but includes detailed memories from ordinary citizens – the lesser known foot soldiers and activists.

Sarah McDermott’s testimony follows her involvement in cultural activities, such as organising concerts and cèilidh dances as Social Secretary of the Gaelic League in London to purchasing and smuggling arms to Ireland in preparation for the 1916 Rising. She also describes the activities of groups like the Irish Ladies’ Distress Committee who were widely involved in sewing and collecting garments for people in Ireland affected by the War of Independence.

What these memories highlight is the huge involvement in Irish independence of people in England and in particular of women. Sarah was eventually arrested in London by British detectives working in collaboration with the Government of the Irish Free State on doubtful charges of conspiracy. She was transported to Mountjoy Prison in Dublin in a group of 10 female and 90 male prisoners arrested in England, most of whom were later released. During her confinement Sarah was ill-treated and assaulted by prison staff and soldiers and after her release in 1923 she was indemnified by the British Government to the figure of £600, the highest amount paid to a woman in this group of prisoners.

I wish to thank Mike McDermott for telling us about his ancestor Sarah McDermott, the radical teacher from West Yorkshire. 

Carrie’s rural memories have a certain Irish lilt

The great thing about people’s memories of the past is how they often open the doors to further research. This is what happened when I received an email from Carrie Browne-Carey whose memories of a rural childhood in the townland of Lurgan in County Offaly recalled a celebrated Irish ‘lilter’ named Robbie McMahon.

Carrie began by recalling her childhood in the 1950s in the hilly townland of Lurgan which lies near the border of Offaly and Westmeath, close to Clara and Moate:

“In a small townland like Lurgan, everyone knew each other very well and we visited one another’s houses regularly. I spent a lot of my life in the house of the Conways and also with the Stone family. When my brother and I were small children our Dad went to work in Dublin and our Mother would sometimes go and stay with him. During this time we stayed with the Stone family.”

“I was very young but I do remember enjoying my stay and loving a dog they had called Lucy. Mrs Stone baked her own bread as did her daughters, but there was one cake that I can almost taste yet. They called it a sweet cake but it was just like a white soda cake with sugar in it and it was gorgeous.”

“Another thing I enjoyed was, they nearly always had a pet pig and I always made sure to be there in the evening while it was small to feed it with a bottle and then sit with it on my lap for ages.”

Carrie also remembered that very often local people would have musicians and singers performing in their own homes, especially if there was a special occasion.  

“Mrs Stone had three daughters and two of them, Kitty and Liz went to work in Dublin. It seemed a long way away at that time.  Liz only got home every summer for two weeks holidays and I looked forward to that time so much.  Liz was such a lovely girl. I then remember Kitty got married to Eddie in Dublin and when they came back from their honeymoon, there was a big dance as I remember in their barn in Lurgan.  It was such an exciting thing for me as a small child. There was music, dancing, singing and I remember doing Irish dancing, though it was simple as I was very young.  Everyone went across the yard to the house for the tea.”

“As I got older I remember a musical family by the name of O'Reilly came to our house and also to the Stone residence and there would be a sing-song and dancing instantly. I remember on one occasion Liz was home on holiday and friends of hers called, I happened by chance to call in. I was very glad I did as one of the men was called Bobby McMahon from Spancil Hill in County Clare. Bobby was a man we heard singing very often on radio and of course his special song was Spancil Hill. He was also a great lilter. He would lilt Irish dance tunes and make it sound like a musical instrument, one tune that is still in my head is the Mason's Apron, he did a great job on that one. Anyway on that evening of course we got him to lilt and that started the dancing. We were doing a half set and I was dancing with him. Now I was only about 9 or 10 years of age so when it came to the basket swing, my feet were lifted off the ground and I kicked the lid off a skillet pot and it broke in two halves! I nearly died but Mrs Stone said “go on dancing, never mind it”. She had bad arthritis so she loved people to go in and party!”

Carrie’s wonderful recollection of live music in the farmhouses of rural Ireland are both reminiscent and captivating. Whilst many of us today are familiar with the musicians who entertain us in bars and clubs, the idea that this tradition was preceded by musicians performing in the humble parlors and barns of people’s rural homes is evocative of days-gone-by. Carrie has also educated me for one on the Irish tradition of lilting through her real-life memory of one of its greatest exponents, Bobby (aka Robbie) McMahon.

I have often heard the expression ‘the lilt of the Irish’ which refers to the characteristic rising and falling of the voice when speaking, the pleasant and gentle accent of many parts of Ireland. It is also used to describe the good humor of Irish people, or a certain cheery outlook I am certain we are all familiar with. But I had never heard of the traditional singing form of lilting, apparently most common in the Gaelic speaking areas of both Ireland and Scotland.

Lilting is music made by the human voice which creates the rhythm and tone of musical instruments with much diddling and jigging - if lyrics exist they are often nonsensical. Lilting may have originated in tough times when musical instruments were not available – though many dispute this theory because it did not develop in other peasant cultures under similar constraints. Whatever its origins, the energetic and compelling rhythms of lilting, accompanied by hand clapping, foot stomping and drumming of the table made it ideal for Irish dancing.

Robbie (or Bobby) McMahon was born in County Clare on 11 December 1926 and became well known as an entertainer on Irish radio. McMahon composed his own songs as well as singing traditional favorites. As Carrie pointed out, he is best known for his rendition of the beautiful ballad Spancil Hill which earned him the title of King of Spancil Hill. Robbie first sung the ballad at age 16 in the cottage of Moira Keane and in the presence of the nephew of the song’s author Michael Considine.

Robbie McMahon lived all of his life at Spancil Hill where he continued to farm and also continued to entertain in pubs, bars and, yes, rural cottages right up until his sad death in 2012. A film was made about his life called Last night As I Lay Dreaming.

Thank you to Carrie Browne-Carey for her enlightening email and for sharing her memories.