Eighty-one years ago last week – July 18, 1938 – a hat factory, Les Modes Modernes, opened in Ireland. One of its purposes? To save Jews from the Holocaust. Indeed, this factory, along with two others, saved dozens of Jewish lives.
Ireland had no interest in saving Jews. In the 1930s, Ireland instructed all of its consul officials in Europe not to issue visas to Jewish refugees. But the country was also in a state of economic stagnation during this decade, and Sean Lemass – Ireland’s Minister for Trade and Commerce – realized that new industries would help the country. So he began searching for businessmen who were willing to relocate to Ireland.
A Polish-born Irish Jewish businessman, Marcus Witztum (1895-1948), became aware of Lemass’s search for industrialists and offered to assist him. He also knew that many Jews faced a perilous future in mainland Europe and would benefit from moving to the safe shores of Ireland.
In 1937, Witztum traveled to Paris where he met Henri Orbach who owned a small hat factory, Les Modes Modernes, and suggested that he open a hat manufacturing business in Ireland.
Yanky Fachler, founder of the Jewish Historical Society of Ireland, told The Jewish Press that at the “official opening ceremony of the hat factory,” Michael Browne, the Bishop of Galway, not only blessed the new enterprise, but “gave Les Modes Modernes a significant marketing boost by publicly announcing that his lady parishioners should henceforth wear hats instead of headscarves to church.”
Witztum recruited skilled and Jewish refugees to work as technicians, designers, and managers to train local employees at the factory. Witztum also secured visas for Jewish refugees who had no technical skills to come work there.
In early 1939, Witztum searched again for a factory that would help industrialize Ireland. He found a hat manufacturing company called Hugo Reiniger & Co. in Chomutov, Czechoslovakia and persuaded the owners to relocate to Ireland.
In August 1940, the factory commenced manufacturing and by March 1941, approximately 200 locals were employed. Additionally 20-25 skilled and unskilled Czech and Slovak Jews for whom Witztum arranged visas arrived in Ireland to work in the factory.
The last factory Witztum helped bring to Ireland was a ribbon factory belonging to wealthy Jewish Viennese businessman, Emil Hirsch.
“After the 1938 Anschluss, Hirsch was naturally open to the possibility of relocating with his Vienna factory and his family to safer pastures,” Fachler said. “When he learned from Witztum in late 1938 that Ireland was offering incentives to foreign industrialists to set up their businesses in their country, Hirsch expressed interest.”
Hirsch paid hefty bribes to Nazis and SS officials so he could ship out his entire factory consisting of 21 looms and reels of ribbon to Ireland. A year later, in May 1939, all the stock had arrived safely in Ireland.
“The head offices of all three Jewish-owned factories that Witztum helped bring to the west of Ireland – Les Modes Modernes hat factory in Galway, Western Hats Ltd in Castlebar, and Hirsch Ribbons Ltd in Longford – were all in Witztum’s office,” said Fachler.
Witztum, with the help of some other prominent businessmen, not only helped bring Jewish refugees to Ireland under the guise of being “experts”; they also provided the funds necessary to procure passports and entry visas for them.
“By successfully combining his business activities with his humanitarian activities, Marcus Witztum – dubbed ‘the Irish Schindler’ – saved the lives of dozens of Jews who would otherwise have been caught up in the Nazi murder machine,” Fachler concluded.