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‘We’d have perished’: woman, 91, returns to Jersey where she fled Nazis in 1940 | second world war

She was last on these sandy shores eight decades ago when her family – just about – managed to stay a step ahead of the rapidly advancing Nazis.

On Friday, Irène Probstein, a 91-year-old Jewish woman who lives in Massachusetts, was back on Jersey to remember her family’s dramatic escape and thank the Channel islanders who rescued them and offered refuge and kindness.

Probstein, née Weindling, was nine when she, her mother and two brothers were evacuated with British troops from St Malo in north-west France just as German forces reached the outskirts of the town.

“I think we’d have been sent to a camp and perished,” said Probstein, almost certainly the last living survivor of the evacuation. “This visit is a wonderful opportunity to close a circle, to say thank you to the people of Jersey. The people who helped us were brave and good-hearted. That’s what I want to commemorate – the goodness that is in so many people.”

Before the second world war, the Weindlings lived in Antwerp, Belgium, where Irène’s father, Samuel, ran a business. Her mother, Claire, was English and the couple had three boys as well as Irène.

Watercolor by Irène Probstein depicting her family's escape from St Malo
Watercolor by Irène Probstein depicting her family’s escape from St Malo. Photograph: Family handout

In May 1940 their home was bombed by the Nazis and the family fled. Samuel Weindling paused in Paris to try to track down their oldest child, who had been taken prisoner, while Claire and her three other children pushed on to St Malo.

Luckily for them, their arrival in the French port in mid June 1940 coincided with a rescue mission involving the St Helier yacht club, which had answered a call from the admiralty to send all available craft to St Malo to evacuate stranded British troops. Twenty vessels made the 35-mile trip to northern France.

The British troops had done their utmost to destroy the port to try to halt the German forces. “I remember clouds of billowing smoke and a sense of confusion,” said Probstein.

Among the Jersey sailors who had headed to France were brothers Jim and Eddie Langlois in their family’s 41ft motor cruiser, Callou. Jim asked one of the military leaders if they could take the Weindlings. The answer was: “Definitely not, but I’m not looking.”

Probstein said: “We knew terrible things would happen if we didn’t get on the boat. The situation was dire. We scrambled aboard and huddled in the cabin where we found a French priest. Someone shouted: ‘Allez!’ and we were off. German planes chased us and fired at the boat. Soldiers took up their rifles and fired back.”

There was a strong north-easterly wind and a choppy sea and Probstein was horribly sick. It was nighttime when they reached Jersey. “It was very dark but we could see people waiting on the dock for the boat.”

The Langlois family took them back to their farmhouse. “We hadn’t eaten much for days and there was a long table full of meats and salads,” said Probstein. “We did justice to it. Such a welcome.”

Probstein recalls sleeping in a bed so far off the floor she needed a stool to get to it. They stayed a couple of days but had to get out as the Nazis were about to seize the Channel Islands.

The final act of generosity from the Langlois family was to give Claire Weindling an English pound to help when they reached the UK. They boarded a ferry to the UK and after being reunited with Probstein’s father and brother, set off for the US.

Probstein went on to marry Ronald Probstein, a world-renowned professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who died last year. They had a child and three grandchildren.

“It would have been a very different story if we had not made it on to Callou,” said Probstein. “It was a very narrow escape.”

Probstein was greeted at Jersey airport by the commodore of the yacht club, Rhys Perkins. She had an emotional meeting with Jim Langlois’ son, also Jim, who was a baby in a cot when his family gave her refuge. Over the weekend, she is planning to visit sites that tell the story of the Nazi occupation and to head to St Malo – on a ferry rather than a small boat.

In a week when the UK government tried to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda, and at a time when so many Ukrainian refugees still need help, Probstein’s visit feels timely. “It is necessary to remember how good the human heart can be,” she said. “You have to celebrate the good stuff.”

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