Remembering Mary Elmes: A remarkable woman who ‘got things done’

Remembering Mary Elmes: A remarkable woman who ‘got things done’
Mary Elmes pictured in the in the 1940s. Along with her co-workers, she helped save 427 children during the Second World War.

We must never forget. Four simple words, yet they have breath-stopping resonance when they are spoken by Charlotte Berger-Greneche, one of the children saved by the Cork woman who was memorialised yesterday at the official opening of the Mary Elmes bridge.

Two of the children she helped rescue from deportation to Nazi extermination camps were in the city to recall how the Ballintemple native, along with her co-workers, saved 427 children during one of the darkest periods of the Second World War.

Charlotte and Georges Koltein both travelled from Paris to remember Mary Elmes, the only Irish person honoured at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel. They also came to remind us to never to forget.

“We must tell the young people what happened,” said Charlotte at the launch of an exhibition on Mary Elmes, which was opened by Lord Mayor John Sheehan on Wednesday at Cork City Library.

The Holocaust, which claimed the lives of more than 6m Jews along with millions of political opponents, did not begin with the death camps, she said.

It started many years before, with careless words and hatred of other people. And, she warned, it could happen again, particularly now at a time when we are witnessing the rise of the far-right all over the world.

Charlotte was just four years old when her 31-year-old mother Zirl Berger was taken from Rivesaltes camp in southwest France in the autumn of 1942 and sent, first to Drancy outside Paris, and then to be murdered in Auschwitz.

The little girl was due to be deported too, but the authorities were waiting until she turned five, so that she could be sent to her death.

Later, the age at which children could be deported was reduced to just two.

In the weeks before her birthday, Mary and other camp aid workers arranged for Charlotte to be hidden in the relative safety of a children’s home nearby.

As head of the Quaker delegation in Paris, Mary worked full time at Rivesaltes camp and when she first heard, in August 1942, that children were to be deported along with their parents, she bundled six of them into the boot of her car and drove them to the homes she had established months earlier to provide temporary respite from the unspeakable hardship of camp life. Those homes now acted as safe houses.

After she had deposited the first group of children, she drove back and got six more.

Days later, when the first convoy left Rivesaltes on August 11, 1942, she “spirited away” nine children.

That remarkable detail, damning in the wrong hands, survives in pencil-written notes taken by the Quaker director in France, Lindsley Noble.

Over three months, more than 2,000 adults and 171 children were sent to Auschwitz but that number would have been much higher had Mary and other women who worked for the Red Cross and a French charity, Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, had not acted on their wits and risked their lives — to get as many people as possible to safety.

Auschwitz, the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centres. More than 1.1m people lost their lives at the camp.
Auschwitz, the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centres. More than 1.1m people lost their lives at the camp.

Georges Koltein and his brother Jacques were among them. It’s not clear how they got out of the camp, but Mary was the one who made sure they were transferred to a children’s home, La Villa St-Christophe, nearby.

He too highlights the importance of speaking about the past: “Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have spoken about it. Now I am one of the last witnesses. If we don’t talk, people can say it didn’t happen.”

Some months after the deportations, Mary was arrested by German security police and jailed in a Gestapo-run prison outside Paris for six months.

At home in Ballintemple, Cork, her mother Elisabeth Elmes conducted a determined campaign to have her released — and succeeded.

It helped that Mary was a native of a neutral county and that she was known for her aid work, not only in France, but in Spain where she ran hospitals during that country’s civil war.

When both wars were over, she married a Frenchman Roger Danjou, had two children, Patrick, who was also in Cork yesterday, and Caroline. She never spoke about what she did which, in part, explains why she was not known until relatively recently.

Many of those who helped to bring her name out of obscurity were at the official opening of the bridge to recall her early life at Rochelle school, her brilliant academic achievement as a gold-medal winning student at Trinity College Dublin, and her life-saving work in two of the last centuries.

Among them, her Cork-based cousin Mark Elmes, Jacinta Ryan (who lives in Mary Elmes’s former house), Quaker couple Bernard and Janet Wilson, journalist Paddy Butler, and Fuzion founder and businesswoman Deirdre Waldron who, three years ago to the day, nominated her for Network Ireland’s Trish Murphy award.

Her former school, now Ashton Comprehensive School in Blackrock, also honoured Mary, inducting her into its Hall of Fame award at the school’s annual prize day.

Meanwhile, an exhibition on her life, compiled by librarian Helen McGonagle, runs at Cork City Library until the end of October.

The exhibition, I Got Things Done, came about after Cork woman Sheila Barry approached the library and suggested it tell the city about Mary, the remarkable veteran of two wars who once said herself that she simply “got things done”.

- Clodagh Finn is the author of A Time to Risk All, a biography of Mary Elmes.

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