The people of Galway were shocked and excited by the arrival of 430 survivors who were brought ashore from the Athenia which was sunk by torpedo off the Donegal coast only hours after war was declared on September 3 1939. The town was galvanised into action. An impressive and practical plan was put into place to receive the survivors, to ensure they were comfortably accommodated, and to care for the wounded. There were 10 stretcher cases, numerous minor injuries, and distressed children. The passengers, who included Americans and Canadians, and refugees fleeing a deteriorating political situation in Europe, were bound for Montreal.
Among them were Dr Rudolf Altschul and his wife Anni. He had been a professor of anatomy at the University of Prague. After the Germans had seized Czechoslovakia earlier that year, they had fled with the intention of making a new life in Canada. When Anni heard that their rescue ship the Knute Nelson, was heading for Galway she kept repeating to her husband : ‘ You know I have a cousin in Ireland. Edith lives there.’
Her first cousin, a hat-maker, had left Vienna when the Nazis took over Austria. Dr Altschul tried to explain patiently that there were several million people living in Ireland. It was highly unlikely that his wife’s cousin would be in Galway. However, he promised that he would make inquiries when they got ashore.
Once on dry land, and given hot tea and food, and registered with the gardai, Anni simply turned to the crowd of well wishers gathered to watch the drama, and shouted ‘Edith’!
Incredibly Edith was in the crowd. She shouted back and waved. The two cousins embraced. Older readers will remember that there was indeed a hat-factory at Prospect Hill, staffed by local girls, and several Austrian women who gave the whole enterprise a whiff of continental savoir faire. Edith was a manager at the factory, and immediately took Anni and her husband to her home and looked after them with ‘a truly motherly instinct.’*
A Christian reception
On Saturday September 9, five days after arriving in Galway, arrangements were made by the Donaldson Atlantic Line, the owners of the ill-fated Athenia, to move most of the survivors to Dublin by train. From there they travelled to Belfast or Glasgow to await transport across the Atlantic. Most of them eventually made it to their original destination.
By the end of the week most of the survivors had left Galway. Some were still in hospital, or accommodated in homes around the town. Others left independently for London. And Galway was sorry to see them go. The impact of the war was felt by everyone; and it released a generous outpouring of practical charity. It was the only topic of conversation. The survivors caused a fuss and attention when any of them went shopping.
When the survivors arrived Bishop Browne gave a statement saying: ‘The people of Galway have the greatest sympathy for these victims of the first casualty of the sea, and are anxious to give them the Christian reception which should be afforded to human beings in such circumstances.’
Countless stories are told of shopkeepers refusing to take money for goods, not to mention the offer of free drinks for any survivor who made it into a pub. Many of them did.
On Thursday September 7 the US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, sent a message to the Irish Government saying that the United States ‘is deeply appreciative of the hospitable assistance given to the American survivors of the SS Athenia by the authorities and people of Éire.’
The Galway Observer published Cordell Hull’s message in full: ‘ I cannot praise too highly the efficient handling of the situation by the Galway people and the Irish government and their splendid human spirit.’ An Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, wrote to both Bishop Michael Browne and Mayor Joe Costello expressing his pleasure at the remarks of Cordell Hull. He extended his own appreciation on behalf of the government for Galway’s good work.
The Canadian high commissioner in London also expressed his country’s gratitude: ‘ the government of Canada is deeply appreciative of this generous action, and wishes to extend to the government and the people of Ireland their sincere gratitude’ to both the people of Galway and the Government who had responded quickly and generously.
Despite our neutrality, World War II had come to Galway, and Galway had responded magnificently.
Next Week: International condemnation of Germany for sinking the Athenia; Hitler tries to blame Britian, and the fate of the submarine commander Fritz-Julius Lemp.
NOTES: I am taking this from ‘The first casualty of the sea’ by Francis M Carroll, Professor Emeritus at St John’s College, University of Manitoba, published in History Ireland, January/February 2011, Volume 19 No 1.