DOES the name Mary Elmes mean anything to you? To my shame, I only recently came across the Cork woman who has earned the name “the Irish Oskar Schindler” for her work in France saving Jewish children from the Nazi gas chambers during World War ll.
In 2013, she became the first Irish person to be honoured as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by Israel’s official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem. A year later in France, her son and daughter — who still live there — were presented with a posthumous medal in memory of their mother’s life-saving work.
Yet here, in her native country, the name Mary Elmes is not widely known. Why isn’t this amazing woman a national heroine?
At least two upcoming events will help to change that. From September 14 to 16, the Smashing Theatre Company in Dublin will host an international symposium remembering the work of women in wartime, among them Mary Elmes and another woman, Ettie Steinberg, the only Irish woman known to have died in the Holocaust.
In Cork on September 30, Mary Elmes will be one of several women honoured at the national conference of Network Ireland.
Both events will do much to rewrite women into history — and more besides. Artistic director of Smashing Times Theatre Company Mary Moynihan said the event is designed to explore how the past can inform a new vision for the future.
And if there is something we need right now it is a vision of a future that takes us very far away from the present, which resembles the days before the Second World War, far too closely for comfort.
There’s the rise of populist politics, for one thing: Donald Trump is just one politician of many who appears to have dispensed with the truth in a cynical attempt to whip up the masses.
There’s the rise of the far-right in Europe, which plays on fear and must be called to account for the increasing number of racially motivated hate crimes. A wave of racial abuse followed in the wake of the Brexit vote, but who would want to be a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf in any country in Europe today, not just in burkini-banning France?
Then, of course, there is the ongoing shame of the refugee crisis.
Recalling Mary Elmes’ work with refugees, first during the Spanish Civil War and later in the Second World War, throws into sharp relief how poorly we have coped with the current refugee crisis. Her work might have been completely forgotten had it not been for Bernard Wilson, an Englishman and regular visitor to France who started to research the work Quakers had done in wartime internment camps in the southwest of the country.
When he blogged about it, American Professor Ronald Friend got in touch to say he was looking for a woman called Mary Elmes who had helped him and his younger brother escape deportation to the Nazi death camps. He wanted to get in touch to say thank you.
Bernard Wilson then started to chronicle Mary’s life from her birth in Cork on May 5, 1908 — her father, a pharmacist, ran the family business in Winthrop Street — to the gold medal she was awarded by Trinity College Dublin after graduating with First Class Honours in French and Spanish.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out, she went to work with the British and American Quakers as a relief worker and would spend the best part of ten years working to save lives in Spain and later in France.
There’s a reference to her hiding Jewish children in the boot of her car and driving them to safety in the Pyrenees, but nobody is sure how many lives she saved.
Fellow relief worker Lois Mary Gunden Clemens wrote on August 10, 1942: “… when I got back to colony found a little boy crying … Miss Elmes had brought us three Jewish boys in an attempt to save them when their parents leave; had quite some time quieting the poor little fellow; but finally his sobs died down …”
Mary Elmes did come under suspicion and spent six months in a Gestapo prison but being Irish and neutral helped to secure her release.
Ettie Steinberg was not so lucky. Born in 1914, she was reared with six siblings off the South Circular Road in Dublin. She worked as a seamstress — her sister said she had “golden hands” — before marrying Vogtjeck Gluck and moving to Antwerp.
The rise of fascism forced the couple and their son Leon to flee to France where, for two years, they moved from house to house, never staying more than a night, in a vain attempt to avoid deportation. They were deported from Drancy, outside Paris, on September 2, 1942, at 8.55am. They arrived in Auschwitz two days later and were immediately sent to the gas chambers.
Ettie, however, seems to have known what was in store. She wrote a postcard and threw it from the train window. Incredibly, it was found and sent to her family in Dublin. It read: “Uncle Lechem, we did not find, but we found Uncle TishB’Av”, which was a cryptic message thought to mean that instead of finding good fortune, we found destruction.
Her story will be brought to life in Ode to Ettie Steinberg, a play by Deirdre Kinahan reimagining moments in Ettie’s life. It runs at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Dublin on September 14-16.
It’s heartening to see that some of the forgotten stories about women and how they experienced the war are now being retold. As we know only too well, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.
But can we, as the organisers of the forthcoming symposium hope, go on to draw inspiration from those women to shape a better future? Who knows? But even if we do repeat the past, at least now we can’t say we’ve forgotten it.