Jewish survivors remember Norwich’s Holocaust heroine, Elsie Tilney
Two Holocaust survivors whose lives were touched by the humble heroism of Norwich missionary Elsie Tilney travelled to the city for a poignant memorial event in her honour.
The extraordinary story of the determined middle-aged spinster, who defied the Nazis to help protect threatened Jewish people during the second world war, had never been told until London barrister Prof Philippe Sands began researching his family history.
He discovered that his mother had been rescued from annexed Austria as a one-year-old in 1939 and taken to Paris by the devout Surrey Chapel missionary, who was subsequently held for four years at an internment camp in Vittel, in occupied France.
And on Holocaust Memorial Day, Mr Sands explained the rest of the tale to a 100-strong audience in Elsie’s former church – joined by his mother Ruth, now aged 74, and 89-year-old Shula Troman – a fellow Vittel internee who may be the last remaining survivor to remember Elsie’s exploits first-hand.
Mrs Troman, who travelled from her home in Brittany, France, said: “I was young, only 17, so to me she was an old woman. She was very modest – you would not notice her. She told me once that the Jews would save the world, and she would protect them.
“I was young but I am 89 now and I must tell people, just as the proof that people like Miss Tilney exist.
“She gave her life, not for power or recognition. To nobody did she say anything to say that she saved Ruth as a baby. She may have done it with others, I don’t know. Such a life should be recognised.”
Vittel was used to intern foreign nationals, and was not a concentration camp – but there were still dangers for Jewish people held captive there.
One of the most extraordinary accounts of Elsie’s selfless bravery involves Sashe Krawec, a Polish soldier who was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, but was transferred to Vittel along with 400 other Jews on the basis of his South American passport, probably bought on the black market. Elsie became his English teacher.
When orders were issued for all those people to be taken to Auschwitz for extermination, Sashe mysteriously disappeared – until Vittel was liberated by French forces in 1944.
Mrs Troman said: “He was not white, he was green. He had been without air. He had been in Miss Tilney’s bathroom for five months. “It was already summer, but she had kept the blinds shut for five months so nobody could see him.
“We learned that there had been a train waiting to take him away. He wrote a note to Miss Tilney asking: ‘What shall I do?’ and she said: ‘Come to my place, straight away’. She saved his life. Not everybody had the courage to take somebody into their room who should be going to Auschwitz.”
The visit to her saviour’s spiritual home was also an emotional occasion for Mrs Sands.
“Today, I don’t know how I feel,” she said. “I make sure that I do not feel. I am very good at that, maybe because of my past, I don’t know. But when I entered the chapel I started crying, very briefly, and that was it.
“But of course I am very pleased to be here. Somebody asked me if I was happy to be here. I said I could not say I am happy. There is a good French word – bouleversée. It means overwhelmed. That is how I feel. I find it hard to swallow.”
When her father was deported from Austria in 1939, Mrs Sands’ mother stayed to look after her in Vienna until Elsie took her to her father in France. Unlike so many other Jewish families which were cruelly ripped apart during the genocide, all three were safely reunited after the war.
“I knew what had happened to me but for many, many reasons I was never interested in finding out more,” said Mrs Sands. “When I eventually fell in love with an Englishman I came to live in England and my father kept saying: ‘What a coincidence, that you were helped to Paris by an English woman and now you are married to an English man”.
“When my father died Philippe asked me what I had of my past and I only had two suitcases, which I did not like looking at. We opened them together and found a piece of paper with Elsie’s handwriting and her address (on Bluebell Road). It had been there all those years, and that was where my son started.”
Mrs Sands said it was difficult to express her emotions on the day the world remembers the six million victims of the Holocaust.
“It is difficult to say how we feel,” she said. “Shula has been staying with me for three days and from the moment we met we felt an affinity with each other and we have not stopped talking – except last night when there was no talking at all.
“This morning, I did not ask how she felt. There is nothing to say.”
More than a 100 people gathered to hear Elsie’s story at the church on Botolph Street yesterday.
Mr Sands told them: “This extraordinary woman, to whom I obviously have such a huge debt of gratitude, was driven by the highest of human values to do what she did, and on behalf of all my family I want to say a big thank you to Elsie Tilney, and to the Surrey Chapel, for this remarkable individual.”