“Coming out of war torn Germany it was just beautiful” - A refugee’s journey to Ireland in 1946
23 October 2013
As an orphan, Elizabeth O’Gorman’s early life was marred by loneliness and hardship wrought by World War II. It is perhaps no surprise then that her home in South Co Dublin is adorned with family photos, which cover every corner of available space in the house she has now lived in for over 50 years.
They range in size and colour, and sum up a life built in Ireland but begun 75 years ago in Germany, when war began to break out across the continent.
The message is clear: This is a home where family takes pride of place, something that is hardly surprising given that at an early age Elizabeth was deprived of that support structure and the love which should come with it.
A German Childhood: "1938 was the last time my family was ever together"
Born in the German town of Aachen near the Belgian border in 1938, Elizabeth was just four when she was permanently placed in an orphanage with her twin brother August. Their mother had died and their father, like 2.7million other German soldiers, would never return from the eastern front where he had been sent soon after his daughter’s birth.
“1938 was the last time my family was ever together” says Elizabeth, whose new home was 20km outside of Aachen. But despite being away from the main target of allied bombers, she still remembers the experience of air raids as “nerve racking”. Being in the orphanage offered some protection, but “you heard bombs, and sirens would go off - once you heard the sirens you had to rush into the shelters which sometimes you wouldn’t make and you’d have to go under tables and chairs for protection.”
Unsettled by the plight of traumatised German children, back in Ireland Dr Kathleen Murphy founded the German Save the Children Society with the aim of inviting children to Ireland so that they could recover from the nightmares and destruction of World War II. This eventually developed in 1946 into a more formal project coordinated with the Irish Red Cross and called Operation Shamrock. The idea was to allow children from war-torn countries to recuperate in Ireland, which was regarded as a suitable retreat given the country’s neutral status during the fighting.
Despite knowing little about the country and even less about what her future might bring, at eight years of age Elizabeth and her brother were among 1,000 children who made the journey from Germany, France and Austria.
Image: A page from Elizabeth's scrapbook which depicts her orphanage in Germany and members of her family
"We literally came with nothing"
She recalls: “We were picked up one day put into a truck and brought to a convent where we stayed for a night and then we were picked up again in the morning and taking by truck and train and boats to Ireland and arrived in Dun Laoghaire in 1946’. Like the majority of other refugees whose lives have been torn apart by conflict the twins “ended up coming with nothing, just in what we stood in – we literally came with nothing”. While the journey was far from easy Elizabeth describes it as “quite an adventure”, but one that she could handle. When you are “young and very resilient you take all these things in your stride”.
While the twins three week quarantine stay in what is now the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Centre in Glencree was replete with happy memories for Elizabeth, it was the excitement of meeting her foster family which resonated with her the most.
“Coming out of Glencree, it was evening time on December the 12th, and we came on a double decker bus through the city, the sight that I saw there, of Christmas, was absolutely fantastic. There were all these lights and big trees in the middle of O’Connell Street lit with the big coloured bulbs. You looked down Henry Street and saw all the decorations. Coming out of war torn Germany it was just beautiful - it was like wonderland, Heaven."
Image: Elizabeth holds the cardigan she wore the day she arrived in Ireland © UNHCR/A. Ryan
Integration in Ireland: "I had a loving care free life"
Unfortunately August and Elizabeth were fostered to different families, with Elizabeth being taken by the McNicholl family in Sandymount while August moved in with another family, the Murphys, based in Glasnevin. From there on Elizabeth lost contact with her twin, who left Ireland at 18 to work in South Africa and what is now DR Congo. He died tragically in a car accident when he was just 29. Poignantly she confesses: “I was always looking forward to, as we got older, that we would get together again but we didn’t’, before adding ‘I don’t think he had as happy a life as I had. They were very strict but I had a loving, care free life”.
Despite having no English and her foster family having no German, Elizabeth adapted to life in Ireland with relative ease. From a young age she developed a love of sport, later representing Ireland in Tennis, which made the transition to her new life somewhat more manageable.
“I made friends quite easily, yet there were an awful lot who didn’t like me either ‘cause I was German and they would jeer me and call me names, but I was able for them. As I got a bit further into my teens it stopped as I learnt English very quickly – within a year or two you’re fairly fluent”.
When the three years of the Red Cross programme were finished, Elizabeth’s foster parents decided to adopt her, an experience which made her “feel whole, that I had a Mom and a Dad and they loved me” and later they legally adopted her older brother too.
Yet, Elizabeth still felt an ‘emptiness’ and at 18 decided to return to Germany to find her remaining family. However, after building a new life in Ireland her return to her homeland wasn’t quite as she anticipated: “Going back at 18 did give me lot of pleasure - but I realised when I was there I was very different. I met my sisters but there wasn’t an immediate love or anything like that”.
Image: Elizabeth (top row, third from the right) and her hockey team
"It was a lucky day the day the Red Cross brought me to Ireland"
Now 52 years married to Jack, who she met at the ESB swimming club when she was in her early 20s, Elizabeth has five children and many grandchildren, which means visits to Germany are just for holidays only.
“I came as a refugee, what I have today, I would never have got it if I stayed on in Germany ...
I am so proud to have come from being just one to having something like 21 in my family now, 21 that I own, that are mine.”
Indeed, speaking to her grandson on a recent trip to Glencree, the shock of how much has happened in the interim suddenly came over her.
“I was saying, imagine Jake, I was here at eight years of age with no mum no dad and didn’t know where I was going or where I was for the matter. And he was kind of looking at me and then he just put his arms around me and hugged me."
“It was a lucky day the day the Red Cross brought me to Ireland.”
Image: Elizabeth with her foster parents in 1946
By Alana Ryan