The story of a nine-year-old Jewish girl's escape, rescue and new life with the help of a Jersey family has been revealed for the first time today, 81 years later.
Now 90 and believed to be the last living survivor of the Saint Malo evacuation, Irène Probstein (née Weindling) has opened up about what has been described as St. Helier Yacht Club's "finest hour" with Express...
Irène was only nine years old when she was rescued from the port along with her mother, Claire, and her older brothers, Sylvain and Irwin, by a boat owned by Jim Langlois’ family of Sion Hall Farm at Longueville.
Now living in Brookline, near Boston in Massachussets, Irène recently found out about the St. Helier Yacht Club’s annual rally and race to Saint Malo held in commemoration of the act of heroism that is recalled every time a member hoists the club’s defaced Red Ensign – a unique battle honour awarded by the Admiralty in recognition of the members’ response to the request for help.
Pictured: Irene and Ronald celebrated their 70th anniversary last year.
Whilst undertaking research to put together an account of the evacuation for her children and grandchildren, Irène came across images of last year’s parade of sail in St. Aubin’s Bay “by accident".
She contacted the club to ask if there were any documents or books they could send, and was surprised to hear they were interested to hear about her and gladly agreed to share her memories of the day with the club.
On the 81st anniversary of the Saint Malo evacuation today, she shared her vivid recollections of that day, and the "overwhelming" generosity of those who helped her...
Before the war, Irène's family lived in Belgium where her father, Samuel, who was originally from Poland, ran a business. After their home in Antwerp was bombed on 10 May 1940, they fled to Paris.
Leon, Irène’s eldest brother, had been taken prisoner when the Belgian Army capitulated and while Samuel stayed in Paris in the hope of making contact with him, Claire took the other three children to Dinard.
“The situation had gotten very bad with the Germans coming closer,” Irène said. “We couldn’t contact my father who was in Paris. We waited for my father but when the trains stopped coming, my mother decided it was time to leave.
“We went to Saint Malo and my mother tried to hire a fishing boat to go to Bordeaux, she gave him half of the money and said she would give him the other half the day after when we left. The fishing boat never showed up.
“It was terrible chaos at the dock, it was full of clouds of burning petrol. There was lots of chaos, it was nothing like it ordinarily was. The dock was not functioning properly.”
Irène says her mother was “really desperate” to get away and told an Englishman standing on the deck of a boat that she would have to jump in the water if she couldn’t get to safety with her family.
“My mother was English, they heard her accent and asked if she was British, and she said yes. ‘I am a mother with three children trying to save herself,” she said.
Pictured: A watercolour of the family's escape painted by Irène.
Irène and her family were told to come onboard and took with them one of her mother’s friends and two children. They all huddled in the cabin where they found a French priest.
“It was all chaos and there was lots of noise, we heard explosions, it was very chaotic,” Irène said. “At one point, they started running the point and the French said ‘allez’ and we started going. The German planes started coming round and the English took up their guns to try and shoot the planes. They stopped following us after a while.
“The trip was very rough. I was very seasick, it was awful, everyone was sea sick. We were below deck downstairs. I didn’t know if we could make it
“The captain asked my mother, ‘Would you please make tea?’ as the sailors really wanted tea. It was impossible, she was so sick, and my mother was a good sailor. It was a really rough trip.
“My mother asked if I could go on deck, she thought some fresh air would help me. I was on a ledge holding on for dear life. It went on for some time, I have no idea how long.
“It was dark when we reached the dock, I presume it was St. Helier.”
When Irène’s family reached the dock, she remembers “a lovely looking lady” from the Langlois family who owned the boat waiting for them. She took them back to her home where Irène says an “unbelievable” spread was waiting for them on a “large-scale” table.
“It looked like a feast,” she said. “We had been travelling on this awful sea voyage for god knows how long… It was incredible, the generosity of the family was overwhelming. They were so kind and considerate.”
After the “very warm reception”, the Langlois family put both families up for the night. Irène still recalls the “great big house”, the big ball room and the high beds she had a hard time getting onto. “I am a short person, I had to use a step to get on the bed!”
Pictured: Irène and Ronald with their grandchildren.
“Then it was decided that Jersey would be an open city,” Irène continued. “My mother decided that we should leave. Mrs Langlois said there was a boat leaving for Southampton the day after and she went with my mother to the dock and to settle immigration papers.
“She was just so helpful. We had no English money and she gave us some English money.
“My mother bought tickets, they were two boats leaving that day, a paying ferry and a non-paying ferry. The next day, they took us down to the dock to get on the ferry boat. The non-paying ferry was there and my mother said ‘we are going to get on that one’, the other boat never left, we were very fortunate!”
Irène and her family kept in touch with the Langlois family for many years and even sent them packages with “whatever” they could use during the war and after. She says none of them ever forgot the rescue and how helpful the Langlois family were to them after, describing the events as a “very special part” of her life.
After staying in London for a while, where the family experienced “lots of bombing raids”, Irène’s parents were able to get in touch with each other and decided that the only way for the family to be reunited was to go to the US.
“The next aim was to find passage to New York - it was very difficult because it was wartime and there was heaving submarine warfare,” Irène said. “When you tried to book a passage, you were never told which boat you would be on.”
In September 1940, the family travelled to America aboard the Duke of Athol as part of a British convoy which included the City of Benares. The ship, carrying 90 British children whose family had sent to the US for “safe keeping”, had been sunk by a German submarine.
“Only seven children survived, it was so heartbreaking, it has haunted me for the rest of my life,” Irène said.
Irène’s father and brother eventually joined her, her mother and brothers in New York, a city where Irène would later meet her husband, Ronald Probstein, a former leading space engineer and Emeritus Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with whom she celebrated their 70th anniversary last year.
Irène is hoping to bring Ronald, as well as her children and grandchildren, to Jersey next year, once travel returns to normal following the pandemic.
“The generosity of this family was something that was one of the most significant experiences of our lives, it was something truly memorable, just like the courage of the people from the island who came on that boat,” she said. “They did not know what was in store for them, but they did it anyway. It was incredibly courageous. It was something really quite extraordinary that stayed with me.
“The Langlois were extremely nice people and generous and kind. It is something I have always had very fond memories of. You have all sorts of memories from the war, I found the most pleasurable are the memories of people who showed exceptional kindness and certainly the Langlois are among them.
"There are so many negative experiences in war, coming across something like that makes you think they are some good things left in the human condition, it’s an optimistic thing to remember."
Pictured top: Irene in Belgium at the age of eight and the Callou, the boat that rescued her and her family.
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