‘Ireland didn’t really want Jews’: Family whose relatives perished in Auschwitz feel betrayed by then government

Briscoe family say senior civil servant Peter Berry lied about attempts to help Jews fleeing Nazi persecution

Before the first World War, Robert Briscoe went to stay with his maternal aunt Hedwig Kudesch-Salomon and her husband, Adolph, in Berlin. He was there to learn business and to return to Ireland where his father owned a furniture manufacturing business.

When the war broke out, Briscoe, then a British citizen, fled Germany. He joined the Irish revolution and found himself returning to Germany to procure arms for Michael Collins. Later, he joined the anti-Treaty side and was a founder member of Fianna Fáil in 1926. He spent 38 years as a Fianna Fáil TD while his son Ben spent a further 37 years.

In the 1930s, Robert Briscoe pleaded with Peter Berry, the then personal secretary to the minister for justice, to take in Jews who wished to flee Nazi Germany. Among those seeking refuge were his aunt, her husband and their children.

Briscoe had assured his aunt that he was doing their best to get them out. He had a friend in Berry who would regularly call to the Briscoe family home to play cards. It was only generations later that it became apparent that Berry had made no effort to get his relatives or other Jewish refugees out of Ireland.


Berry would later make clear his views on Jewish refugees. In a memo written in 1953, which was not made public until 2003, he described Jewish immigrants as a “special problem” and, therefore, “the alien laws have always been administered less liberally in their case”. Berry asserted that Jews in Ireland refused to assimilate and created widespread anti-Semitic feeling among the Irish people. He also suggested that “international Jewry” was using financial influence to secure preferential treatment for Jewish refugees.

The sense of betrayal by the Briscoe family three generations later is still apparent. Robert Briscoe’s grandson Dr Daniel Briscoe, an ophthalmologist based in Israel, weeps as he recalls his maternal great-great aunt and her family waiting for the summons to Ireland that never came. Two of the couple’s daughters made it to Palestine before the war but Hedwig and Adolph were murdered in Auschwitz in 1942 and 1943 respectively.

Dr Briscoe got to know the couple’s two daughters in Israel. “They could never understand why Robert did nothing to get them out and her parents died,” he told The Irish Times.

“I told them that he did try but the records were not open. I often shed a tear because I can still see it. All of that side of the family died except for the two daughters.

“There was even one person in the Department [of Justice] who felt it could happen but he was simply cut out of correspondence. That was the policy at the time.

“I always remember one of grandfather’s aunts asking me why he [Robert Briscoe] did nothing to help her parents. She was very angry. He did try but there was nothing he could do.”

Éire, despite being one of the few countries in Europe left untouched by the Nazi invasion, only took in approximately 100 Jewish refugees during the second World War.

“I think there was a general policy of Ireland going to be for herself, which is fine. Ireland for the Irish. They didn’t really want Jews. They took in a lot of Nazis after the war. They didn’t want to have anti-Semitic riots. The response was disappointing. At that time, people were really suspicious of Jews. Some people still are.”

Joe Briscoe, a son of Robert, told a TG4 documentary to be broadcast on Wednesday night, that Berry – one of the most powerful civil servants in the history of the State who died in 1978 – had repeatedly lied to his grandfather about helping the Jews flee Germany. “I’m glad my father was not alive when these memos were published because he died believing that Peter Berry, who was a good friend of his, was doing his best to get a few Jewish refugees into this country.”

The Briscoe family story is told as part of a TG4 documentary series entitled Tráma Teaghlaigh which tells the story of intergenerational trauma arising out of the Irish Revolution. It also tells the story of the families of Emmet and Charlie Dalton, Michael Mallin and Terence MacSwiney.

It is a story of emigration, incarceration, mental illness and bitterness that accompanied the end of the Civil War and the creation of the new Irish State.

Tráma Teaghlaigh is broadcast on TG4 at 9.30pm on Wednesday June 14th and is also available on the TG4 player

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times