NUI Galway staff recount family histories of World War II

Luís Cortés Farrona (first from left) and a group of Spanish republican members of the French Resistance, 1944 or 1945. (Courtesy of Sara Farrona and family).
Nov 04 2021 Posted: 15:09 GMT

NUI Galway staff recount family histories of World War II

 Academics record wartime stories from colleagues across Europe


Staff at NUI Galway have shared personal family histories of World War II in a book which recounts the impact on those who lived through it and generations which followed.

The remarkable collection of stories ranges from an Irishman who flew for the Royal Air Force and was captured in Yugoslavia, to a Spanish communist working for the French Resistance, to two young Jewish girls caught up in the Siege of Leningrad. 

Family Histories of World War II: Survivors and Descendants was compiled by NUI Galway historians Dr Róisín Healy and Dr Gearóid Barry, specialists in modern Germany and France respectively.

It is made up of 13 fascinating accounts of individual wartime experiences from Irish and international staff at the University and their meaning for subsequent generations.

Dr Róisín Healy said: “After many years as a researcher in Germany, I got to know many Germans and had the privilege of hearing their families’ experiences of World War II." 

“It struck me that many others, including people living in Ireland, have war stories of their own. My hunch was that an approach to colleagues at NUI Galway, which now has a very international staff, would yield many such stories. I was bowled over by the response.”

Co-editor Dr Gearóid Barry, said: “We had no idea how deep an impact the war had on people we are working with every day.” 

The collection of stories and personal history includes:

  • Professor of German and Honorary Consul for Germany in the West of Ireland Hans-Walter Schmidt-Hannisa grew up under the impression that his family were more like victims of war than perpetrators only to discover his maternal grandfather was a racist and an inveterate Nazi.
  • In a unique mother-daughter essay senior technician in oceanography Sheena Fennell and her mother Gill wrote the wartime love story of grandparents/parents Cecil McCall and Patricia Fox. The engaged couple left Cork city in 1940 to join Britain’s war effort. Cecil was taken prisoner of war in Germany while Patricia worked as an ambulance driver in bombed-out Aberdeen. Grit and humour helped them survive until they were reunited and wed in 1945.
  • Professor of American history at NUI Galway Enrico Dal Lago grew up in Italy in the 1970s. His parents’ childhood memories of the Nazi occupation of 1943-45 haunted the imagination. Enrico’s father Olinto Dal Lago is from a proud peasant family in north-eastern Italy. Aged 10, he became a boy helper of the Italian Resistance.
  • Ciara Boylan, who has a PhD in History and teaches in Galway, once found her grandfather’s service as a dental officer to British soldiers in World War II problematic. Major J.J. McNamara, a native of Co Clare, also helped estimate the numbers killed at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He saw no contradiction between his nationality and his military service. His granddaughter came to appreciate his motives.
  • Sara Farrona, a scientist and lecturer from Spain, made a chance discovery of a mysterious wartime German map of Spain which led her back to her granduncle Luís Cortés Farrona, a veteran of both the Spanish Civil War and of the French Resistance during World War II. A Communist refugee, Luís escaped Franco only to see France occupied by Hitler. Exiled from Spain until 1980, Luís’ story is one of the return of a beloved uncle - and finding love a second time in old age.
  • English lecturer Irina Ruppo recalled her Russian-Jewish grandmothers, sisters Lucia and Raisa Greenberg who survived the Nazi Siege of Leningrad (1941-44), in which an estimated one million people died. They escaped the city in 1942 to face an arduous journey by train to Siberia: their mother refused to leave one sickly daughter behind.
  • The story of an American soldier and the Italian family who saved him. Sisters Colleen Williamson and Maureen Maloney, from Pittsburgh in the US Pennsylvania, only discovered the wartime adventures of their father Thomas Joyce Maloney in 1987. A pilot in the US Army Air Corps, he was forced to parachute into the Alps during a mission in northern Italy in February 1945. A local Italian family rescued and protected him until the Allied liberation. Some 45 years later there was a reunion with the villagers.
  • Lecturer in French Sylvie Mossay recounts the traumatic experiences of her maternal grandparents, Basyl Marczuk and Aleksandra Doronko. The couple met as Ukrainian slave labourers in wartime Germany, sought refuge in postwar Belgium, and reunited with family in Ukraine only in 1972.

The book reveals the many different ways in which descendants of these war witnesses came to learn of these stories.

Dr Healy added: “In some cases, memories of the war were popular topics of postwar conversations, as in one Greek village active in the resistance. In other cases, memories emerged only decades later, often prompted by the curiosity of younger family members.”

The collection also allowed the contributors to reflect on the long-term impact of their ancestors’ experiences on subsequent generations. 

Dr Barry said: “Again the variety is notable. The story of a grandfather who served the Nazis became a burden that divided one family while the story of a father who survived Nazi captivity became a lesson in resilience for a daughter with personal difficulties.”

Family Histories of World War II is published by Bloomsbury Academic, and is available from today 4 November 2021. 

The editors, well established historians of modern Europe, provide an introduction which describes the upsurge in interest in family history in recent decades and its value for both illuminating wartime experiences of ordinary people and understanding its legacy for subsequent generations.

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