BY RON FEINBERG / WEB EDITOR //
Murray Lynn was in Ireland earlier this year, traveling between Dublin and Delvin, a small village 50 miles north of the capital. He was momentarily lost in thought, recalling how much his life had changed since the first time he’d been driven along the same highway more than six decades earlier.
Lynn, 82, a retired business executive who now lives in Sandy Springs, knew the journey across the Atlantic might be a melancholy trip back in time. After all, he’s a Holocaust survivor and the distant past can be a dark and disturbing place.
But Ireland is filled with light. It’s the country that offered him hope and a place to heal after the Nazi war machine was brought to a grinding halt in 1945. And in Delvin he had found something special, a castle – yes, a real castle – that opened its doors to war orphans; a sanctuary where life and death challenges weren’t routine parts of each day.
On the road to Delvin, Lynn was distracted, paying little attention to the lush and rolling landscape. The past, meanwhile, remained filled with aching memories of a time and world gone mad.
Cesspool of Hatred
In the 1930s, Lynn was known as Alfred Leicht and lived with his family – father, mother and three brothers – in Bilke, Hungary, a small city of 30,000 people and about 200 Jewish families. It wasn’t exactly Anatevka from Fiddler on the Roof, but there was definitely an “us” and “them” vibe about the place. The divide would grow worse in coming years as the world moved toward war and Hungary aligned itself with Germany and Italy.
In the late ’30s and early ’40s, the country enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws that set limits on the jobs Jews could hold, schools they could attend, where they could live and who they could marry. The draconian measures eventually found their way to Bilke and the Leicht’s front door. In 1942, Lynn’s father was arrested by the Hungarian secret police and, along with other community leaders, taken to the outskirts of the city and murdered.
Two years later, in the spring of 1944, Jews across the country were rounded up and forced into ghettos. Only weeks later the first transports to Nazi death camps began. Even as Soviet troops neared the Hungarian border and freedom loomed precariously on the horizon, the trains continued to roll. By mid-summer, over half the Jews in Hungary — about 500,000 men, women and children — had been deported.
The Jews of Bilke, including Lynn, his mother and brothers, weren’t spared. They were hustled onto cattle cars one evening and shipped off to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous Nazi death camp in Poland. Once inside the sprawling complex, Lynn was pulled aside and sent to a series of forced labor camps. His family was murdered.
Nearly a year later, after working 12-hour shifts on construction sites with little rest and food, Lynn was mostly skin and bones. The only good news was that allied troops were on the move and the Nazis were on the run. In a final effort to conceal the truth of the camps and the “final solution”, Lynn and other inmates at Auschwitz were forced to march hundreds of miles into Germany. It’s a journey many didn’t complete.
The following spring, in April of 1945, Lynn was liberated by American forces. He was 15 years old; tired, sick and semi-comatose. After spending several weeks in an army hospital all he wanted to do was go home, back to Bilke.
“It really took a lot of chutzpah,” Lynn said during a recent interview. “There were no trains to that part of Hungary and I had no idea how to get there.”
So he improvised and figured out directions on the go, leaping aboard freight trains heading east. A month or so later he made it back to the little community of his childhood. There was no one left to welcome him home.
“I was in a pensive mood and one day decided to walk over to the Synagogue,” Lynn said. “When I got there I was overwhelmed with grief.”
The structure had no windows, its doors broken open and all the furniture carted away. Prayer books and other debris were scattered around the floor and chickens and goats were roaming about freely. Worse, anti-Semitic epithets were scrawled over the walls.
“All I could think is that these people had not changed and never would change,” Lynn said. “I realized at that moment that Bilke had become a cesspool of hatred, uncivilized hatred, and I wasn’t willing to put up with it for another day.”
Finding a Refuge
Much of Europe was on the move, refugees streaming back home, others looking for families and friends. Russian troops were pouring into Eastern Europe, securing the borders of what would come to be called the “Iron Curtain.”
Lynn was also on the move, following a tortuous route through Hungary, into Romania, back through Hungary and then into the region around the Czech Republic.
“I heard the easiest way to get to the west was in the Czech Republic,” Lynn said. “Most everyone knew the borders were porous and lots of refugees were coming to the area.”
Lynn settled in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. He began attending classes at the Pressburg Yeshiva, what he calls the “Harvard” of Jewish schools, and spent his days studying and trying to figure out how to escape the Iron Curtain. He didn’t know it yet, but after nearly a decade of misfortune, his luck was about to change.
Half a continent away, a rabbi in England was putting the finishing touches on a daring plan that would change Lynn’s life and dozens of other young refugees in the region. Solomon Schonfeld isn’t as well known as Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg, but the young rabbi managed to rescue thousands of Jews during World War II.
Among his most memorable exploits, Rabbi Schonfeld organized one of the first Kindertransports of close to 300 Jewish youngsters in 1938, offering the British government his personal guarantee to secure their entry into England. Over the next several years, he’s credited with rescuing hundreds – perhaps thousands – of children, rabbis and teachers.
His efforts continued even after peace was declared in Europe and World War II came to an end.
He formed a one-man agency, the “Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council,” and after several years of work, managed to get the British and Irish governments to accept 100 Jewish war orphans from Slovakia. There were two conditions: The children could remain in Great Britain for only a year and any costs – food, lodging and such – would be borne entirely by the rabbi.
Schonfeld accepted the offer, not having a clue how he’d get the funds or where the children might live. He had little problem, at least initially, raising the needed cash and when a Jewish businessman from Manchester, England learned of the project he bought a castle in a small village in Ireland and gave the property to the rabbi.
In late spring of 1948, Murray Lynn and 100 or so other orphans steamed into Dublin harbor after a short stay in London. They were welcomed by the local Jewish community, fed breakfast and hustled onto buses. By lunchtime they had arrived at their new home, Clonyn Castle, a stone fortress atop a hill.
“We were emotionally distraught; some even emotionally disturbed,” Lynn recalled. “Many of the young children needed immediate support and there were counselors to work with them.”
It was a start; a very good day. For a while time managed to both stand still and move forward. Clonyn Castle became a refuge for Lynn, a place where he felt safe and secure after a decade of turmoil. He made a few friends, picked up his studies, even attended some college classes in Dublin.
“They tried to normalize our lives,” Lynn said. “We played football, a little tennis; we had counselors and teachers. They worked with us, trying to rehabilitate our minds and our bodies.”
And all too quickly it was time to say goodbye.
A Joyful Reunion
Lynn shrugged off the past like a dusty old coat after overhearing the excited chatter of the men and women around him. He had met them all 65 years earlier in Slovakia when a young rabbi pulled them together for a trip to a castle in a distant land.
Now they were only moments away from Devlin yet again, survivors returning to a special place that, for a time, had been an oasis in a troubled world. Years earlier, Lynn and the others had found a bit of peace at Clonyn Castle and then went off in search of their futures.
A few managed to stay in Ireland or nearby in England; others moved to countries in Europe and at least a third ended up in Israel. Three received scholarships to colleges in the U.S., including Lynn. He would spend nearly a decade in New York before moving south to Atlanta in the 1950s where he married and started a successful career as a businessman.
This past spring, the trip to Delvin was nearing its end and off in the distance a crowd was gathering as Lynn and the other survivors arrived. When they stepped from the vehicle, a smattering of applause began rippling through the group, quickly replaced with cheers and shouts of welcome.
“This was the most emotional experience I have ever had,” Lynn said, recalling the moment. “There was a huge crowd and they formed a circle around us and started applauding; they were hugging and embracing us. They wanted to honor us and it was very touching.”
Moments later the crowd was touched. The Delvin residents – all descendants of the men and women who decades earlier had welcomed a frightened group of war orphans into their community – listened to Lynn explain the importance of their village and Clonyn Castle.
“Most of us were frightened orphans; all of us were destitute, uprooted from our homelands, robbed of our parents, our families, our identities and our moorings,” Lynn told them. “Ireland was a transformational experience for us. It restored our hope, dignity and self-confidence; it gave us a new lease on life.”