Corkwoman Mary Elmes fed over 80,000 starving French schoolchildren during WWII

Corkwoman Mary Elmes was awarded Israel’s highest honour for saving countless Jewish children from deportation to Nazi concentration camps during WWII. Less well known is her work helping to feed over 80,000 French schoolchildren who faced near-famine conditions. In an area of southwest France the size of Munster, all of the children knew her name...

Corkwoman Mary Elmes fed over 80,000 starving French schoolchildren during WWII

Exclusive edited extract from Clodagh Finn’s biography of Mary Elmes: A Time to Risk All

Dear Mademoiselle,

All of the pupils in my school, even the littlest ones, know your

name – Miss Elmes. Those words will always conjure up for us the idea of snacks that we have been without for so long: chocolate and jam. Thank you so much for

all that we owe you.

FRANCINE Delmas, a pupil in the village of Cases-de-Pène, north-west of Perpignan, was nine years old when she wrote those words, but her elegant script, beautifully spaced on a copybook grid, belies her years.

Another note, from seven-year-old Marcelle Mas at the same school, reads: “Please, Mademoiselle, pass on lots and lots of thanks-you to our friends in America.”

Yet another, from 12-year-old Rosette Arnaud, said: “In exchange for all your good things, we have nothing to offer you but our friendship, but we do so with all of our heart.”

Mary Elmes and her colleagues received thousands of similar letters from grateful French schoolchildren and their parents who wanted to convey “truckloads of thank-yous” for the food, medical aid and clothes received during the war years and afterwards.

As well as helping the refugees in the camps, the Quakers did what they could to alleviate the acute suffering that also affected the French population. Food shortages were already severe in the first winter after the fall of France. In November 1940 the mayor of Carcassonne, Dr Tomey, warned that the region was facing “near-famine conditions”.

The mayor happened to mention to Mary, in passing, that the local council was no longer able to finance the school-feeding scheme that it had run in crèches and nursery schools for years.

She was said to have been “profoundly moved” by the news and immediately contacted her superior, Howard Kershner, asking him to intervene.

Children being fed at a children’s home set up by Mary
Children being fed at a children’s home set up by Mary

He was able to rally 50 days’ worth of food supplies and sent 1,600kg of rice, 128kgs of cocoa and 512kg of sugar to Carcassonne, the makings of a comforting chocolate-pudding snack.

Some days later a local newspaper published an account of the Quakers’ generosity, praising Mary Elmes in particular. The mayor said he was “profoundly touched” by the gesture.

During her tenure Mary and her Quaker colleagues provided school snacks or a midday meal to more than 84,000 children in schools in the south of France. The most common — and most popular — snack was the famous Quaker chocolate pudding, made from rice, chocolate, and sugar.

It was a favourite with schoolchildren, but delegates also spent considerable time trying to work out the right proportion of ingredients to maximise the nutritional content. They also wanted it to taste good and on occasion sampled it for themselves.

“I tasted the pudding and found it quite palatable,” Mary’s colleague Donald Stevenson reported after one school visit.

“The children evidently liked it for it disappeared very rapidly. I wish that the ration for each child could have been larger. Double the amount would seem to me to have given them more of a meal.”

But food was increasingly scarce, and children in the region lost a tenth of their weight in one 10-month period in 1941, Howard Kershner reported with alarm in a letter to Mary.

Her office in Perpignan monitored the crisis by distributing weight charts to schools. They noted each pupil’s weight increase — or loss— after the distribution of food aid. Some gained weight, but many remained the same and often lost weight.

The Quakers responded by issuing millions of doses of vitamins incorporated in little squares of chocolate. Each one was done up in a small wrapper explaining that it was a gift from the American people which was delivered by the Quaker workers as a symbol of friendship.

In every school, grateful recipients wrote postcards and letters of thanks, like the ones written personally to ‘Miss Elmes’.

A Christmas card from refugees at St Cyprien camp (Pictures Courtesy of MCUSA Archives)
A Christmas card from refugees at St Cyprien camp (Pictures Courtesy of MCUSA Archives)

A pupil was chosen to say a special word of thanks; then everyone would shout ‘Vive l’Amérique’ and ‘Vive la France’ before tucking in.

There are hundreds of surviving examples of children’s poems, drawings and handwritten notes of thanks. From a school at Elne, south of Perpignan, Marguerite Chalverat addressed her note to the ‘dear Americans’ and told them that she had gained two kilos (4½ pounds) because of their gift and was now in good health.

Her classmate Simone Baile wrote: “Thank you for the good things that you have sent us and that do so much good. I am always very happy at 4 o’clock when we are given our snack.”

Meanwhile, the class at the Jules Ferry school in Montpellier was inspired to write a poem:

We, the little children of France

We salute our faraway friends

We thank with all our hearts

Our generous benefactors,

Who give us every morning

A good American meal.

Please accept the gratitude

Of all the mothers in France.

They will never forget

Your goodness.

A new year card from one of the refugees.
A new year card from one of the refugees.

However, the letters and cards were not only touching expressions of politeness: they were a vital part of a well-oiled publicity machine that was designed to keep American donations flowing.

Howard Kershner frequently reminded volunteers that propaganda in America was of the utmost importance for replenishing the funds. He knew the burden of the work load on volunteers but said it was vital to send stories and pictures of the children who benefited from American largesse.

One Quaker delegate, Katrina McCormick Barnes, put it more bluntly in a letter to Mary Elmes: “The London and Philadelphia offices have been howling for human interest stories. I know how swamped you are with work, and so I don’t dare to set a date in the month for the stories and pictures.”

But she added: “I can’t stress too much the importance of these two items.”

Some of those stories were written on postcards with studio-produced images of idealised French children: unrealistic representations of perfect boys and girls.

The contrast between those images and the contemporary photographs taken of schoolchildren eagerly drinking from bowls could not be more marked.

The head office of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia was particularly interested in the latter, as they were more likely to provoke a generous public response. In January 1942, the committee’s executive secretary, Clarence Pickett, issued a press statement to warn that the conditions of malnutrition and starvation throughout Europe were becoming increasingly acute.

It read: “The results of hunger are already manifest not only in arrested growth, pale and ashen complexions, thin legs, and lack of resistance to contagious diseases, according to Quaker workers.”

They quote a principal of a large school who states: “A rule understood and known the day of the lesson is forgotten the next day, and absolutely forgotten as though they had never learned it, and this by painstaking, studious pupils. There is less [gaiety]. A badly nourished child is a sad child. What will become of our schoolchildren if this keeps on? The future of our race is at stake.”

Until food could be sent from America, Europe’s people would live in misery. “If Europe is ever to find her way back to enduring peace we must find some way to save her children.”

Mary Elmes Quaker ID. Postcard image: courtesy of the American Friends Service Committee
Mary Elmes Quaker ID. Postcard image: courtesy of the American Friends Service Committee

HOWEVER, getting that food from America to Europe posed another problem. The delivery of food was being severely hampered by the Allied blockade, which had been implemented to restrict the supply of goods to Nazi Germany but was causing widespread hardship.

The English Quakers pointed this out in a declaration to the office of the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, in April 1942:

“Hunger is a weapon that affects an entire population, taking no notice of gender, friend or foe, age or youth, but ravages the young to the greatest extent. The food blockade does not only contribute to hunger, it also creates and encourages a heartless attitude in those responsible for the blockade.

“This results, in the end, in the destruction of our Christian values, such as charity, empathy, etc. Values our land is fighting for.”

The Quakers acknowledged the “serious political and technical difficulties” that could be caused by food parcels but urged the British government to find a solution so that food and clothing could be delivered to the countries that were cut off. Their appeal did not lead to any concessions.

There was the added complication of trying to stay on the right side of the Vichy and German authorities, a point made on several occasions by Howard Kershner in France. In one memo he warned the staff to be careful of what they said when it came to publicity:

“Nothing should be said that might make it more difficult to carry on our work in cooperation with the many authorities of different nationalities with whom we have to deal. For instance, not a can of milk comes from Switzerland without the approval of the German control.

“Without going into details, I think you will see, therefore, the necessity for preserving strict neutrality and speaking most respectfully for all. When we remember furthermore that our life-line goes through Spain and know all the influences that are at work there, we are reminded that we must not allow anyone who is supporting us to make statements or engage in activity which is not directly in accordance with our well known principles of impartiality in conducting relief work.”

If hunger was an issue among the French population as a whole, it was even more so in the camps. In January 1942, Mary Elmes’s report on the Rivesaltes camp told of the “terrible hunger” among the internees (968 men, 1,833 women and 1,209 children): “They never can eat their fill even of the miserably unpalatable and un-nourishing soup served to them twice daily.”

The memory of those deprivations stayed with Carmen Canadell for the rest of her life. She had fled her home town, Girona, in 1939 with her sister Mercedes and her mother, María, while Mary was still working in Spain. Mary would later play a role in their lives, but in the intervening two years Carmen’s family endured untold suffering.

The Canadell sisters Carmen and Mercedes (Picture courtesy of MCUSA Archives).
The Canadell sisters Carmen and Mercedes (Picture courtesy of MCUSA Archives).

When they arrived in France they were moved from camp to camp. In February 1941, at Récébédou camp, south of Toulouse, María’s mother gave birth to her third child, Josefa.

Her husband, José, worked on a farm, but, like so many other Spanish refugees, the rest of the family had to apply for documents to be able to join him, a process that could take years.

In June that year, María and her three daughters were moved to Rivesaltes, where they were separated. María and her baby were interned in the improvised nursery in Block J, while her older daughters were left alone in Block K.

Carmen’s daughter Brigitte Twomey recounts her mother’s memory of that time:

“Carmen and Mercedes could only talk to their mother through a wire fence. To go from one Ilôt [block] to the other, they needed a pass. There was no adult supervision and the children were left to fend for themselves. It was sweltering hot in summer and freezing in winter. The conditions were desperate.

“There were rats and lice; latrines without doors; thin mattresses made of straw always damp; not enough blankets, no tables, chairs, toiletries. The ground was very rocky and hard to walk on for kids without shoes, or just cloth wrapped around their feet.

“My mother and aunt didn’t have any shoes and only very few clothes. Kids were left to themselves with nothing to do all day. Idleness weighed heavily upon them.”

But, she says, what stayed with her mother most forcefully was the memory of hunger:

“Starvation was the worst, always the worst. During the war, the French people did not have enough food for themselves; refugees had even less and always came last. When my mother was nine and living in one of the camps, she would go out at night to steal fruit from local orchards.

“One farmer chased her and shot at her with his rifle. When I asked her if she had been very scared, she told me that it did not matter, she was too hungry. Starvation took over everything.”

Mary Elmes in her flat in Perpignan.
Mary Elmes in her flat in Perpignan.

Brigitte’s mother also related stories of seeing the bodies of the many who died of malnutrition and other diseases in the camp. She and Mercedes would visit the dead and pinch their toes: they believed that could bring them back to life.

When both sisters contracted scabies they were sent to the Hôpital Saint-Louis in Perpignan. They have memories of mould on the hospital walls and having to scrounge in the bins for food. They also spoke about the terrible pain of having their scabs buffed with hard brushes as part of the treatment.

IN January 1942, the sisters were sent back to the camp at Rivesaltes and were moved to the infirmary. The register at the children’s home, the Villa Saint-Christophe at Canet-Plage, has a note of their arrival later that month. Their transfer to the home would have been overseen by Mary Elmes, although it was her colleague Friedel Bohny-Reiter who drove them from the camp to the home on the coast.

Their six-month stay provided a blessed reprieve. “My mother remembered the long walks along the water’s edge,” Brigitte says.

And, of course, she recalled the food. Many years later the thought of the big bowls of vegetable soup and thick crusty bread and the four o’clock snack of bread and chocolate brought a huge smile to her face.

As adults, neither sister spoke much of those painful times, but the experience of being deprived of so much — food, shelter, security, parental support — in their early years had a lasting effect. Brigitte says her mother made sure that food was always available in their house, and in great quantity.

Meanwhile, the Quakers and other relief agencies were attempting to distribute scarce resources as widely as possible. There were increasing tensions within the organisation about how aid should be allocated: to the needy French population or to the refugee ‘undesirables’ in the camps.

In a reply to Mary Elmes, Howard Kershner said he was against asking the already overburdened government at Vichy to improve conditions in the camps. However, he agreed to support Mary’s efforts to provide assistance to the camp refugees and gave her permission to go “full speed ahead” to do everything within her power.

His attitude was a source of disquiet among volunteers. Mary’s colleague Helga Holbek had furious exchanges with him on the subject of food. Another colleague, Ross McClelland, head of refugee camp work in Marseille, accused Kershner of making ridiculous general statements to the effect that “many children in the camps are better fed than lots of children outside”.

He said that Kershner was interested in French children only because it might bring him positive publicity.

Mary Elmes in a picture taken by Emily S. Parker in Spain
Mary Elmes in a picture taken by Emily S. Parker in Spain

Mary wasn’t prepared to mince her words either. When Noel Field of the Unitarian Committee singled out Rivesaltes as ‘the sore spot’ after a week-long tour of the camps, she wrote a fierce rebuttal, tackling his accusations point by point. She didn’t accept his charge that the internees were practically on a starvation diet.

An incident described by Marjorie McClelland opens another window on what was happening in the south of France in late 1941 and early 1942. By then many of the Spanish refugees had been contracted to work in France; others had joined the French army, and some were being repatriated to Spain.

In a letter to Margaret Jones at the Quaker headquarters in Philadelphia, Marjorie described meeting a convoy of about 20 Spaniards as they were being repatriated to Spain.

They begged a gendarme to call at the Quakers’ office in Toulouse, as they had heard there was a chance they might get something to eat. The gendarme called at the office and was told to bring the group of men immediately. Marjorie was struck by the desperation of the group of wan men who ate what they were given in silence. She said their eyes lit up when plates of steaming beans were put in front of them; for many it was the first real food they had seen in months.

At least, she thought, the Quakers had been able to provide a little oasis between two lost existences: the miserable camp they had left and the uncertain future that awaited them when they returned to Spain.

The Spanish refugees were repatriated to Franco’s Spain. The Quakers were not able to say what became of them.

A Time to Risk All: The Mary Elmes’s story

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