The heroine who said nothing – a Christian missionary who saved Jewish children from the Holocaust

Heroine who said nothingIt is a great privilege to belong to a church with a history.

This year held a great surprise. Surrey Chapel, Norwich, has its own Holocaust heroine! The story first emerged when London barrister Professor Philippe Sands was researching his family history following the death of his father. He opened an insignificant suitcase belonging to his mother. Out fell a yellowing scrap of paper, with a handwritten note which reads: ‘Miss E.M. Tilney, “Menuka”, Blue Bell Rd., Norwich, Angleterre’. After careful research, this clue brought a fascinating story to light.

Confronting the Nazis

The address referred to Miss Elsie Tilney (1893-1974). She was one of a cohort of doughty missionaries sent by our church to far away places in the early years of the 20th century. Her initial calling was to North Africa, but over time she felt drawn to the Jewish people. As the Nazi shadow darkened over Europe in the 1930s, she found herself in Paris. Occasional messages to the church described her ministry of practical and spiritual care to the numerous Jewish refugees accumulating from Germany and Eastern Europe. When Paris fell, she was interned, and, when finally freed, she returned home saying little or nothing about her experiences.

Only now do we know what she was up to when she was in France. Elsie had form when it came to facing up to the Nazis. Days before war began, a Jewish refugee had asked her to travel to annexed Vienna to extract his baby daughter. This she did — risking freedom if not perhaps life at this point — and giving her a first taste of confrontation with Fascist authorities. In July 1939, baby Ruth came to Paris, survived the war in hiding with her parents in France, and eventually became the mother of Professor Sands.

Choosing to remain

Meanwhile, with the fall of Paris imminent, Elsie chose not to flee, but to remain with people she loved. She was imprisoned in Vittel, an internment camp for foreign nationals. These included hundreds of Jews with foreign passports, some obtained through the black market. Theses passports gave protection for a time — ironically, Nazis were sticklers for bureaucracy. Elsie, in her 50s, worked in the prison administration; we suspect this enabled her to help hide the true origins of Jewish internees. Vittel was not a concentration camp; life was bearable in a converted hotel — but for Jews it did not last.

Train to Auschwitz

In 1944, the Final Solution began in earnest; no longer could a mere passport protect you. A train to Auschwitz was due, and hundreds of Jews were to depart. With great consternation in the camp, Elise’s greatest act of courage took place. Sashe Krawech, a young Polish machine-gunner who had survived the Warsaw ghetto because he was ‘South African’, somehow missed the train… It turns out Elsie had hidden him in her bathroom. This continued for the next five months.

Working in the camp office was no holiday — it was a daily life-or-death test of nerve. (‘Is there a Jewish girl in your room, Miss Tilney?’ ‘No, there is no Jewish girl in my room, Herr Commandant.’ Very truthful people, Surrey Chapel missionaries!)

To be discovered assisting Jews by the Nazi authorities at this time would be to die with them. But she did not; and when the Americans liberated the camp, Sashe emerged from the bathroom — distinctly green, but definitely alive!

And so lives were saved and a heroine was born — almost immediately to be forgotten. Elsie later moved to America to live with her brother (who trained body-builders, funnily enough, including Charles Atlas). And, in common with many ladies of her ilk and generation, she said absolutely nothing about it. It was, after all, for God’s glory, not hers, and she will get her reward. So why have we unearthed it? It’s for his sake and for ours, not hers, that we remember the story.

The people God uses

What kind of heroes does God use for his purposes? Read the Bible casually and some famous names appear: David, Moses, Samson…. Big, hairy and male, they famously saved the people of God by their mighty deeds. But please read it again more carefully; look for some other heroes, less well known. You have heard of Esther, I’m sure. But how about Shiprah and Puah, Jochebed and Jehosheba? Look them up. They only get one or two Bible name-checks (guess why?) — but their heroic roles were just as crucial in saving the people and purposes of God as David or Moses. Without them — no people of God, no line of David, no Jesus Christ, no salvation.

In heaven, the ordinary, humble, unsung heroes will outnumber the superstars by several million to one. They reflect God’s glory with equal splendour. And they may include you or me, even if there are no Nazis involved.

So what does it take?

First, Elsie was a lady of character — and let’s not pretend it was all smooth perfection. Sashe Krawech, so it is said, found her so annoying that he was almost driven to giving himself up to the Gestapo! Imagine that young man trapped in the wardrobe or the bathroom of a life-long missionary spinster intent on converting him. It is quite likely Elsie was, shall we say, ‘of a sort’. But it was not the perfection of her personality that made her useful to God; it was her devotion to him that made a heroine. Anyone can do it.

Secondly, Elsie was a lady of compassion and courage. She was willing to risk and sacrifice herself for others — and, of course, in this Christians have no monopoly. By God’s common grace, this human ideal remains evident in people of all convictions and none. We cannot say: ‘As a Christian, Elsie was more compassionate and courageous than others’. But perhaps what we can say is: ‘As a Christian, Elsie was more compassionate and courageous than she would have been otherwise’.

But, thirdly, Elsie had a calling. Everyone deserves compassion — but why was Elsie in Paris with the Jews and not back home in Norwich? She felt a specific call, in her case to the Jewish people, and it was to convert them. She was motivated by her theology to see them come to Christ, not just escape from Hitler.

This may be an embarrassing truth today, but it remains the Christian mission. We are to ‘make disciples of all nations’ by a gospel which is ‘first for the Jew, then for the gentile’. She believed that through the Jews all peoples would be saved. One survivor recalls how, as a teenager, Elsie had met her in a corridor, knelt before her and sworn to do all she could to protect her as a member of God’s Old Testament chosen people. Elsie saved life because of her specific calling, not general humanitarian ideals. So what are mine?

Holocaust Memorial Day

I am glad we have unearthed our own Holocaust heroine. But there have certainly been hundreds of other stories in my church that remain untold. Perhaps most have never risked their physical lives for Jesus, but they certainly gave their lives to him, for him to use day by day, month by month, year by year. And I look forward to hearing all their stories one day.

On January 27 2013, we had the privilege of being joined at Surrey Chapel for Holocaust Memorial Day by Professor Philippe Sands and his family, including his mother, Ruth Sands (74), and Shula Truman (89), who knew Elsie in Vittel.

Professor Sands’ account of Elsie’s life can be downloaded here:

Tom Chapman

This article was first published in the July 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057