Miss Mary to the rescue: How a Cork woman helped to save hundreds from concentration camps

Bernard Wilson has written a children’s book about Mary Elmes, the Cork woman who helped to save hundreds of youngsters from Second World War concentration camps. Rowena Walsh reports
Miss Mary to the rescue: How a Cork woman helped to save hundreds from concentration camps

Bernard Wilson has written a children’s book about Mary Elmes, the Cork woman who helped to save hundreds of youngsters from Second World War concentration camps. Rowena Walsh reports

Photograph taken from It Tolls for Thee, a documentary about the life of Cork woman Mary Elmes.
Photograph taken from It Tolls for Thee, a documentary about the life of Cork woman Mary Elmes.

It took Bernard Wilson seven years to unravel the mystery of Ireland’s answer to Oskar Schindler – the Cork woman Mary Elmes.

But helping to discover the extraordinary tale of this forgotten heroine has opened up an intriguing new chapter in his life.

Mary’s story has led the former computer lecturer on a journey and is now known to many as ‘the Quaker historian’. It has also now prompted him to write his debut children’s book at the age of 87.

Miss Mary is about the remarkable life of Mary Elmes – from her birth in Cork in 1908 to her work in refugee and prisoner-of-war camps and how she helped to save hundreds of children from the Nazis.

Although the subject matter is dark, he has achieved the remarkable feat of making the beautifully illustrated book accessible for those aged eight and older.

A single email changed the course of his life. It was from Ronald Friend, an American professor, who wanted to learn more about Mary Elmes, the woman who had rescued him as a child from a Nazi camp in the French Pyrenees.

Bernard and his wife, who live in Canterbury in Britain, had had a holiday home close to Perpignan for 20 years when he stumbled upon a book by Rosemary Bailey titled ‘Love and War in the Pyrenees’.

Through it, he discovered that there had been camps throughout the area during the Second World War.

After reading a blog by Bernard on these camps, Ronald contacted him. Together, they researched Mary’s story using the archives, including those of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker institution.

Bernard was able to find out about Mary’s family through some of his French colleagues.

Her children, Caroline and Patrick, knew of her work helping those in need during the Spanish civil war. But they were astounded to discover how she had helped save the lives of so many children in the Second World War.

Mary Elmes -center- and Alice Resch photographed with another man, fellow heroes who helped rescue Jewish children from occupied France. Photo by: afsc.org
Mary Elmes -center- and Alice Resch photographed with another man, fellow heroes who helped rescue Jewish children from occupied France. Photo by: afsc.org

“It was a very moving experience for all of us to have this wonderful story gradually emerging,” says Bernard.

His original mission was to get the evidence Ronald needed to send to Jerusalem to get Mary, who died in 2002, declared Righteous Among the Nations.

This is an honour bestowed by Israel on non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.

They succeeded in 2013. Mary is the only Irish person to receive the award.

Intrigued by her story, Bernard wanted to learn more about Mary’s life. He cooperated with Irish author Clodagh Finn who wrote a critically acclaimed biography of Mary Elmes, ‘A Time to Risk All’.

SPANISH REFUGEES

Mary was born in Ballintemple, Co Cork, and studied French and Spanish at Trinity College Dublin. She won a scholarship to the London School of Economics and later volunteered to help refugees during the Spanish civil war.

Although neither a Quaker nor a medical professional, she ran the American Quakers’ hospital in Alicante.

She came home to Cork after that conflict, but then she heard about the half-million Spanish people who crossed the Pyrenees and were trapped on the beaches of France surrounded by sea on one side and barbed wire on the other.

This prompted her to go to Perpignan, where, again working with the Quakers, she helped the Spanish refugees in the camps where they were interned.

Mary Elmes in the 1940s.
Mary Elmes in the 1940s.

As the Second World War broke out, she became involved with refugees of all nationalities. The Vichy regime had opened a camp at Rivesaltes, close to Perpignan, where Jews were being held prisoner.

By 1942, Mary knew these prisoners were in grave danger of being deported to their death.

She put her own life at risk to help children and adults escape. She smuggled children out in the boot of her car and succeeded in getting a number of adults off the convoys going to the Nazi death camps.

Although she was imprisoned for six months by the Gestapo, she would later shrug this off with characteristic modesty, saying “well, we all suffered some inconveniences in those days, didn’t we?”

when the war was over, she married Frenchman Robert Danjou and they settled in Perpignan. She never spoke of her part in the conflict, even turning down the French government’s highest honour, the Legion d’Honneur.

CHILDREN'S STORY

In Miss Mary, Bernard tells the story of people and particularly children that Mary Elmes helped. The first chapter is about a letter a young girl named Francine wrote to Mary to thank her for the food that she was bringing to their school.

Bernard hopes children can learn an openness of mind and a love for people from Mary’s story.

Mary in her flat in Perpignan
Mary in her flat in Perpignan

‘Miss Mary’ has been praised by children’s author Sarah Webb who describes it as “inspiring and important What makes this book stand out is the use of real children’s voices – from letters and interviews – to tell the tale.”

For Bernard, who was born in 1933, the stories of those Mary helped have real resonance. “It could easily have been me if I’d been Spanish or Jewish.

It wasn’t just a matter of ancient history, it all happened in my lifetime.”

He has drawn parallels between Mary’s work and the current crisis surrounding refugees, and he hopes that our experience of the Covid-19 pandemic will change attitudes.

A great grandfather, Bernard says that he has found lockdown hard, missing his family. “When you’re 87, you know you haven’t got long to go. You can’t even afford a few months lost because you don’t know.”

But he takes solace in his passion for history. He is already planning a second book about Mary, this time aimed at teenagers.

“I know people my age who say that they’ve got nothing to do since they retired. I’m so lucky, I’ve got so much to do.”

Miss Mary, by Bernard Wilson, illustrated by Julia Castano, Gill Books, €8.99

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