The destruction of Millisle barn

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2007), News, Volume 15

In an era of unprecedented public interest and pride in Ireland’s Jewish heritage, it is sad to report the avoidable destruction of one of its outstanding monuments. The demolition, in October 2006, of a barn near Millisle on the Ards Peninsula has removed from the landscape Northern Ireland’s most significant Holocaust memorial. During its construction in 1941, some of its refugee builders learned that their families had perished in the concentration camps. Millisle eventually housed over 200 refugees, including 60 survivors of concentration camps. For 65 years the barn symbolised a community’s determination to survive and rebuild.
The double-gabled barn was a Germanic anomaly in a County Down landscape. Robert Sugar from Vienna, one of the kinder-transporten at Millisle, has suggested that this was the only structure in Europe to be designed and built by refugees during the Holocaust. Refugees sent to the training farm, established by the Belfast Jewish community in June 1939 (see History Ireland, Winter 2001), initially slept in stables and tents. As numbers increased, prefabricated buildings were erected containing dormitories, a recreation hall and a synagogue. By late 1940 over 100 people were accommodated. The community still lacked a barn for livestock, stores and workshops. Construction began in 1941 under Adolf Mündheim.
Mündheim was a mechanical engineer from Hanover. He had been a foreman and had fluent English, having spent four years in America. In 1939 he arrived in Dublin, where he and eleven other refugees were directly supported by the local Jewish community before being sent on to Millisle, where training, education and work opportunities were more favourable. Though nicknamed ‘Mündheim’s Folly’, the barn was designed by a Polish student, Samuel Spielvogel, whose Viennese training had been halted by the Nazis. Spielvogel’s scheme comprised cellars for grain and cold storage, a ground-floor byre and engineering workshops on the top level. The windows were designed with blackout in mind. As Walter Hirsch from Dresden recalled, ‘the building was made from scratch, blocks and metal work included’. Mündheim’s work gang included kinder and chalutzim who had transferred from the hostel established in 1939 (and since demolished) for young refugees at Cliftonpark Avenue, Belfast. Building the barn was a rite of passage until they could join the forces. For younger boys such as Sugar, it was a fortress from which to repel the Germans if they reached Ards.
Spielvogel resumed his studies at Queen’s University, Belfast, between 1941 and 1944. After war service and graduate study at Yale, he became a town planner in Connecticut. The builders mostly moved on to England, America or Israel, though Mündheim died in Dublin. Hirsch settled in London and married another Millisle kind, Klara Nüssbaum. Sugar, an art director in New York, has celebrated the Millisle story in his writings, lectures and films.
After the farm’s purchase by a local family in 1948, the prefabricated buildings were removed and conventional farming resumed. The barn remained in use until recent years. Inside the now-derelict Victorian farmhouse, used by the refugees for offices and to sell produce, doorpost mezuzoth still bear witness to its Jewish guests. In 1941 the refugees believed that the barn ‘would be our monument, not because we had a view of history, but because its disproportionately thick walls looked as if they’d stand forever’. Though this prophecy, recalled by Sugar in 1996, was not fulfilled, Ards Borough Council currently plans to erect a memorial elsewhere in the village. Meanwhile, those concerned with preserving Northern Ireland’s Jewish heritage, including what remains at Millisle, should take advantage of the statutory facilities for listing and protecting historic structures and compensating owners for consequent economic losses.

Jane Leonard is a member of the Northern Ireland Holocaust Memorial Day Advisory Group.

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