Categories: Guest Blog

Lill Fanny Saether, who lives in Norway, recently gave an online presentation for Newry and Mourne Museum to mark World Holocaust Day, describing the experiences of her mother and her family during the Second World War and the German occupation in Norway. Her mother’s grandparents had emigrated from Lithuania to Ireland in 1890 and settled in Newry but Lill’s grandparents left Newry and went to live in Norway in 1911. Lill, who until her retirement worked in the Norwegian Ministry of Justice, spends part of the year in county Clare and has just a book written a book, ‘How My Mother Survived the Holocaust’, based on family diaries. The Museum Education Officer, Declan Carroll, invited Lill to share her researches on her family in a two-part article. In this first part Lill looks at her family’s arrival in Newry and their life in the town. 

In the view of anti-Semitism and persecution of the Jewish people in Tsarist Russia, my mother’s maternal grandparents, Abraham Simon and Rhoda Yetta Freeman, escaped with their nine children from a ‘shtetl’ (a small village) in Kaunas in today’s Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire, coming to Ireland and settling in Newry in 1890. They had intended to emigrate to America, but they were frauded by the captain of their boat and let ashore in Newry, and not in New York! It is unlikely that the emigrants knew what either of the cities looked like, or that they knew English, speaking only Russian and Jiddish. They probably didn’t have any money left to travel on to America and thus had to make the best out of the situation.  

The family lived in Queen Street, then in Cecil Street and, thereafter, at 30 Mill Street. My great-grandfather was involved in the drapery trade and his daughter, Florence, called Florrie, my grandmother, attended Ballybot National School. My mother’s grandparents and seven of their children, including my grandmother, became British citizens in March 1903.  

On 1st August 1906, my grandmother married Joseph Mendel, a draper from Canal Street in Newry, and my mother, Else, was born in 1909. Two of my mother’s siblings were also born in Newry. At the time they were living in Kilmorey Terrace and Joseph earned a living as a credit travelling drapery salesman. He and the three children became British citizens in January 1911. In August of that year the family left Newry for Norway, a move which was to seal the family’s fate in 1942. 

The family first settled in the town of Trondheim, living there until 1928. The two youngest children in the family were born in Trondheim, and my mother spent her childhood and all her school years there. During the First World War, 1914 to 1918, three of Florrie’s brothers enlisted as soldiers. One brother got a lifetime disability, and another brother, Isaac Michael, was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. My mother’s oldest brother emigrated to USA in 1930.  

Joseph and Florrie Mendel became Norwegian citizens in 1937.  My mother and her sister, on the other hand, kept their British citizenships. This should prove to be a stroke of luck. The two youngest siblings, born in Norway became Norwegian citizens, which did not a protect them against arrest and deportation in 1942.   


Rhoda Yetta Freeman (seated) and her daughter, Florence, pictured c.1911 when they were living in Newry. 

Courtesy of Lill Fanny Saether