Heroine of the Holocaust - The extraordinary story of Norwich missionary Elsie
A special service this weekend will celebrate the extraordinary story of Norwich’s unsung heroine of the Holocaust – Surrey Chapel missionary Elsie Tilney.
Elsie Maude Tilney was born in Norwich in 1893. In 1919 she applied to the North Africa Mission (NAM) and was appointed jointly with the Mildmay Mission to the Jews.
She was sent to Algeria in 1920 and spent several spells in northern Africa until the of the second world war loomed.
In 1939, Elsie travelled to Vienna, in Austria, and brought a one-year-old Jewish girl called Ruth Buchholz back to Paris on July 23. Ruth later became the mother of Philippe Sands QC, whose family research helped uncover Elsie’s exploits.
Elsie continued working in Paris until it fell under German occupation in June 1940.
Along with hundreds of other foreign nationals, she was placed in an internment camp at Vittel – described as one of the more “hospitable” camps, as it was located in requisitioned hotels.
A letter included in a NAM newsletter tells of some of Elsie’s actions. It says: “She hid for a period of 16 weeks a young Jew condemned to be sent to an annihilation camp in Poland.” A second letter says: “When the Germans abandoned the camp in September, she again put herself in great personal danger by hiding the camp records and papers, for she had been camp archivist.”
Elsie stayed at Vittel until the Germans abandoned it in September 1944, and then remained to help with the repatriation of about 200 Jewish people.
After the war, Elsie travelled to Lisbon, and worked with the Swiss Mission in South Africa. She eventually moved to Florida in the USA, where she lived close to her brother, Frederick. She died there in 1974.
The persecution and annihilation of Jewish people during the second world war remains one of history’s most chilling episodes.
But when the world falls silent for the annual remembrance of the six million dead, a Norwich church will honour its own redoubtable heroine of the Holocaust – whose story is only now coming to light.
Surrey Chapel will host a series of events on Sunday in tribute to its late missionary Elsie Tilney, the determined spinster who stood firm against the darkness and helped protect Jewish internees at an internment camp in occupied France.
The Holocaust Memorial Day services will give people the chance to meet Ruth Sands, who was rescued from Nazi-annexed Vienna as a one-year-old, and hear a presentation by her son, London QC Prof Philippe Sands, who has researched Elsie’s remarkable story.
There will also be first-hand memories from Shula Troman, now in her 90s, who was interned with the Norwich missionary.
After bringing Ruth to safety in France in 1939, Elsie remained in Paris until it fell under Nazi occupation in June 1940.
She was interned in a prison camp at Vittel, where she remained for four years, helping to hide Jewish internees and using her administrative position to shield their religious background from the murderous prejudices of their Nazi captors.
But despite her courageous exploits, the humble missionary’s story was not even known among her former congregation at Surrey Chapel – until Mr Sands contacted the church in autumn 2011.
Surrey Chapel pastor Tom Chapman said: “It is tremendously exciting to hear about this sort of thing. It makes history come alive. We suddenly realise that greying sepia pictures represent real people with real lives and real heart-beats.
“We only found out about this when Philippe was researching his family’s history. As far as we know, no-one in the church was even aware of what went on at the camp.
“It also goes to show her humility. Ladies of her generation did not speak too much about their achievements. From her point of view, Elsie would have been doing it for God, and there was no hint of wanting glory for herself. She probably wouldn’t have considered herself to be remarkable.
“We are accustomed to thinking the world cannot be changed and we just need to get our head down and enjoy our own life. But here was a lady who saw something happening and said: ‘I’m not going to put up with this’ – and as a result the lives of any number of people has been changed for the better.
“She stood against the darkness completely on her own to bring hope to the needy and I think that is a great challenge and inspiration to other people.”
Dr Rosamunde Codling, archivist for Surrey Chapel, said she hoped more people will now hear the story of Elsie’s heroism.
“The first thing is to publicise her story and simply inform people of the courage and – although its an unfashionable word - heroism of people like her who had strong convictions and who lived out those convictions,” she said.
“We are still not 100pc certain of the role Elsie played in the camp, but she had obviously gained enough confidence from the German officials to be involved in administration.
“The thing that amazes me is that in doing so she would obviously have put herself in a very difficult position with all the other inmates. She would have been seen to be collaborating with the Germans. It is a very fine line, yet she was doing it out of her own convictions and her confidence that she would be able to help Jewish people by maintaining that administrative role.
“The only thing we can assume is that she was specifically trying to hide their background. Many of those interned at Vittel were foreign nationals who were in Paris as it fell, as Elsie was, and were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“They were there because they were English or Dutch or whatever, and their Jewish background might not have been known. Elsie used her position to protect them.”
Elsie’s time at Vittel is mentioned in a book, which says: “One man (a Jew) survived in the bathroom of Miss Tilney; an old, devoutly Protestant English spinster, who was so annoying that he was almost driven to give himself up.”
Dr Codling suggested the observation was a reflection of society’s general attitudes towards middle-aged spinsters in the 1940s.
Mr Chapman said: “She was obviously one of those cantankerous characters who has a heart of gold, but perhaps a little bit difficult to deal with. You can imagine how a teenager living in the bathroom of this missionary must have felt.”
The Holocaust Memorial Day services at the Surrey Chapel Free Church on Botolph Street begin with a memorial service at 10.15am on Sunday, January 27.
At 4.30pm, a special presentation of The Elsie Tilney Story will be made by Philippe Sands QC, Professor of Law at University College London. Also present will be Ruth Sands, who was rescued as a one-year-old from Paris, and Shula Troman who was interned with Elsie at Vittel during the war.
The presentation will be followed at 6.15pm by a Service of Thanksgiving. Entrance to all events is free and open to all.