The last survivor of ‘Little Dunkirk’ – the evacuation of Saint Malo in June 1940 – has praised the “overwhelming” reception that she and her family has received in Jersey.
Returning to the island for the first time in 82 years, 91-year-old Irène Probstein said that the visit had been unbelievable.
She and her family have been guests of honour over a weekend of commemorations organised by the St. Helier Yacht Club, whose members answered a call of the British Admiralty in 1940 to sail to the Breton port to pick up servicemen and refugees fleeing the advancing German forces.
One of those was a nine-year-old Jew, Belgium-born Irène Weindling travelling with her mother and two brothers.
An incredibly sprightly and ever-so lucid Irène said that the visit was not only to help solidify some the hazy memories of that dramatic escape but also to teach her grandchildren that kindness exists in the most traumatic of circumstances.
Not only was she and her family given safe passage to Jersey under the threat of aerial attack but they were put up overnight by the Langlois family, whose boat she had travelled on.
CLICK TO ENLARGE: Irène with the plaque that she and her family have donated to the St. Helier Yacht Club.
“The reception in Jersey has been unbelievable, and my family is absolutely overwhelmed,” she said. “We’ve had such a good time.
“I really wanted my family, especially my grandchildren, to know the story and show them where this all happened and to show them especially how good people can be.
“I don’t want young people to be disillusioned. This was something so uplifting and I said ‘what better legacy can I give these grandchildren than to show them that there is such kindness in the world. You know, that there are people who would take refugees in, not knowing anything about them.
“I think it has been the right thing to do and they have been thrilled by the reception we’ve received.”
Pictured: Irene looking at an exhibition about the evacuation at the War Tunnels.
On Saturday, Irène and her family sailed to Saint Malo with members of the St Helier Yacht Club.
There, she went on board Elvin, a sister ship of the Langlois’ boat Callou, which she sailed in in June 1940.
She also visited the slipway, where the vedettes now sail to and from Dinard, from which she departed all those years ago.
Pictured: An eight-year-old Irène, pictured in Belgium, and the Callou, which brought her and her family to relative safety in Jersey.
“The old stone buildings of Saint Malo were imprinted on my memory,” she said. “I cannot say the slip they showed me [on Saturday] was familiar because when I saw it in 1940, it was full of smoke; it was such a chaotic scene, and you had the feeling that things were not where they should be.
“I couldn’t rationalise the dock in my mind; that was a little problematic for me. But when I looked at the wall and the stone, that looked familiar.”
More familiar was a visit on Sunday to Sion Hall at Longueville, where the Langlois family had put her and her family up, before they continued their journey onto England and, eventually, the United States.
Pictured: It was researching before painting this picture that Irène found details of the St Helier Yacht Club's role in her evacuation.
“This weekend’s visit to the Langlois home was emotional,” said Irène. “In the minibus outside, I thought ‘I don’t know if I can do this’. It was very, very emotional.
“I remember that in 1940, it was such an incredible welcome; I remembered the house and I remembered the dining room, and the dining table, which was laid out with some extraordinary sets of meats, salads and vegetables. It was like Mrs [Desirée] Langlois was expecting an army; she was a marvellous, incredible person.
Mrs Langlois had been waiting on the dock when the Callou pulled in. It was late at night; her sons [Jim and Eddie] were the ones on the boat. They had set out not knowing what they would face and whether they would come back safely.
“I suspect everyone standing at the dock would have been anxious. All these great people went there to do what that had to do, and they didn’t know if they would come back in one piece.
“But Mrs Langlois told my mother afterwards that she felt sure that the boat would come back with refugees. She then stood there on the dock and said: ‘I will take that family”. We had with us my mother’s friend and her two children who spoke no English. She said that she didn’t want to be separated from us, so Mrs Langlois said she would take in both families.
“So, she took all of us: three of us children and our mother with my mother’s friend and her two children. There were seven people, and Mrs Langlois put us up and fed us. I remember my mother and I slept in a bedroom and the bed was so high that I had a little step to get up to it; I was probably the same size then as I am now!”
On Monday, the diminutive Irène was centre stage at the St Helier Yacht Club, where she unveiled a plaque that she and her family have donated to the club, stating their “eternal gratitude” to the Langlois family, who were also present at the reception and lunch.
Irène was also presented with a defaced Red Ensign, a unique battle honour awarded to SHYC by the Admiralty in recognition of the members’ response to the request for help.
Photographs courtesy of Gary Grimshaw.
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