Ulster man most hated figure in Nazi Germany
Honoured at last: the grocer’s son from Carrickfergus who became a thorn in the side of the Third Reich
He was the grocer’s son from Carrickfergus who became the scourge of the Nazis.
Although little remembered in his native Northern Ireland, Sean Lester is hailed as a hero akin to Oskar Schindler by many in Poland because of the way he fearlessly opposed the Nazis in the east European country.
Last week the former diplomat, who died in 1959, was recognised for his contribution to freedom when one of Gdansk city council’s meeting rooms was named in his honour in a touching ceremony attended by his daughter.
For three years to 1937 Sean Lester, a League of Nations High Commissioner, watched the rise of the Nazis in Danzig (Now Gdansk) and warned of the looming disaster for Europe, the Second World War.
His lone, opposing voice so irritated the Nazis that he was dubbed “the most hated man in the Third Reich”.
Yet he came from humble origins. Lester was born in Carrickfergus in September 1888, the son of Robert Lester, a local grocer.
Despite coming from unionist stock, he joined the Gaelic League as a youth and was won over to the cause of Irish nationalism.
As a young man he worked as a journalist for a number of publications, including the Belfast Telegraph, before he moved to Dublin.
In 1923 he joined Ireland's Department of External Affairs and was sent to Geneva in 1929 to become Ireland's Permanent Delegate to the League of Nations.
Despite having no diplomatic experience and no foreign language skills, his hard work and a skill for networking got him noticed and, in 1934, landed him with the high representative job in Danzig.
The Free City of Danzig was the scene of an emerging international crisis between Nazi Germany and the international community over the issue of the Polish Corridor and the Free City's relationship with the Third Reich.
During this period Lester repeatedly protested to the German government against its persecution and discrimination of the Jews. For this reason he was boycotted by representatives of the Nazi Party in Danzig.
Finally, in 1937, the League of Nations bowed to pressure from Hitler and ended Dr Lester’s term in Danzig and he moved to Geneva.
His daughter Ann Gorski, now 86 and still living in Geneva, told the Belfast Telegraph of the persecution the family suffered.
She said: “My sisters and I were very conscious of the stresses of the time. Gradually our Danzig friends could no longer meet with us.
“The SA did a lot of marching in the streets, flying swastikas. They would pass the house to try and show my father what’s what. As children we were attracted by the noise but he would tell us not to show any interest in people like that.”
Last week a plaque was unveiled in memory of Sean Lester in Gdansk City Hall.
City council chairman Bogdan Oleszek said: “Sean Lester is remembered in Gdansk as a very courageous, uncompromising man who stood up for law and order. He was the only High Commissioner of the League of Nations for the free city of Danzig who had the spirit to oppose the Nazis’ demands. His firm attitude gave the citizens of Gdansk hope that they would not be doomed to live in the totalitarian system.”
Ann, who attended the cermony, said: “The Poles are hospitable by nature and its wonderful people should remember him, as he has been somewhat forgotten over the years.”
Sean Lester retired to Connemara where he died in 1959.
Dr John Ernest “Sean” Lester (right) was born in Carrickfergus on September 27, 1888.
He was educated at Methodist College Belfast and worked as a journalist in Bangor, Portadown and Dublin. After the 26 counties gained independence and became the Irish Free State, Lester joined the Department of External Affairs. In 1929, he was sent to Geneva to represent the Republic. In 1933 Lester took up the post of High Commissioner of the League of Nations in Danzig and was forced out of the city in 1937.
He retired to Connemara in Co Galway, where he died in 1959 aged 71.