Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Little-known Sister who sheltered Jews from the Nazis is honoured in her home town

A religious Sister who sheltered Jews from the Nazis has been honoured with a plaque in her home town of Hull.

Sister Agnes Walsh, who died in 1993, helped to save a Jewish family from deportation while at a convent in southern France during the war. 

She was recognised as a “Righteous Among the Nations” decades ago by Israel’s Holocaust remembrance centre Yad Vashem but her heroism has long been overlooked in Britain.

The plaque, unveiled by Hull’s lord mayor, describes her as a “nun and humanitarian who protected Jews during the Holocaust”. 

Within a few weeks it will be displayed on the site of the house where she grew up – on Lowgate, opposite the Guildhall, where Hull’s council operates.

Born Ada Vallinda Walsh, Sister Agnes joined the Daughters of Charity, serving in Ireland, Jerusalem and then France, where she ended up at a convent in Cadouin, in the Dordogne region, during the war.

The mother superior, Sister Louise Garnier, struck up a chance conversation with a Jewish refugee, Pierre Cremieux, at a train station. He had fled the north of France at the urging of friends. 

Fifteen months later, amid increasing danger, Cremieux called the convent to ask for help. Sister Agnes, the deputy of the community, answered the call and pleaded with her superior to take the family in.

Cremieux arrived with his wife, two nine-month-old babies and their six-year-old son, Alain.

Alain told the Catholic Herald in 2009 that he had received a warm welcome at the convent. 

His mother was introduced as a distant relative of Sister Louise, who had come to rest after the birth of the twins. Many of the Sisters did not know the real reason they were staying there.

As a boy, Alain was sent to live with the parish priest in the local presbytery. He took advantage of the priest’s library where he read about the lives of saints. He was given English lessons by Sister Agnes.

Sister Agnes herself was pretending to be Irish, rather than English – she had an Irish passport from her time in the country. As an Englishwoman – an enemy alien – her presence was a further threat to the nuns’ community.

The Cremieux family kept in touch with Sister Agnes, exchanging letters with her up until her death. 

During the occupation of France it is thought that 76,000 Jews were deported from France to German death camps. About 2,500 survived.

Ian Judson, Sister Agnes’s great-nephew, told the Catholic Herald he did not know the full story of what she did until last year.

“I only found out a few months ago that she hid the family for nearly a year under the noses of the Nazis,” he said. “She was risking death on a daily basis.”

He said it was nice to see her being recognised in her home town at last. “It’s long overdue considering what she did,” he said.

Judson, who is studying journalism, said that, while homeless some time ago, memories of his great-aunt were “an inspiration for me to turn my life around and get to where I am today”.

“I’d think ‘What would Auntie Ada do in this situation?’, ‘what would she tell me I need to do?’. Her legacy is still going on,” he said. 

Sister Agnes was honoured as a Righteous Among the Gentiles in 1990. She is one of only 21 Britons to be recognised as such and to have her name inscribed on the memorial at Yad Vashem.

In 2009 her name was missed off a list of British heroes compiled by the Holocaust Education Trust. 

She was the only Righteous Among the Nations to be left out. 

The charity added her name after it was alerted to the error.

The next year she was honoured as a British “hero of the Holocaust”, an award created by Gordon Brown, the then prime minister.

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