Meet Mary Elmes: The Irish woman who saved children from the horror of WWII concentration camps

A talented student from Ballintemple had a respectable academic career ahead of her, but as
Clodagh Finn discovers, she shelved that future to become an aid worker and helped to
spare countless children the horror of following their parents into WWII concentration camps

IT WOULD take Prof Ronald Friend almost 70 years to identify the person who saved his life. Then, one morning in January 2011, an email popped into his inbox with a name. The woman who had extricated him from a detention camp during the Second World War was called “Miss Elms”.

He would later discover that her name was, in fact, Mary Elmes. Other details would follow. She was born in Cork City in 1908 and she had helped to save hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazi gas chambers.

He and his brother, then aged 18 months and five years old respectively, were two of those children. Although Prof Friend had spent years piecing together the details of his early childhood, this final piece of the jigsaw had always eluded him.

He had the end of the story, but not the beginning.

He had known, for instance, of his family’s near-escape over the Swiss border in 1942. His father Hans and brother Mario had made it to safety over the border. They turned back, however, when they saw that police had stopped young Ronald and his mother, Eva. They would all be detained at Rivesaltes, a notorious holding camp near Perpignan in the south of France.

He had evidence, too, that he had been spirited away to a safe house in Toulouse. He even met the French priest, Fr Louis Bézard, who had hidden him and his brother in a suitcase as they passed through Toulouse train station under intense Gestapo surveillance.

In 1958, Fr Bézard went so far as to write an account of the escape, describing how the brothers arrived at the presbytery in Marssac in southern France “upset, frightened and starving” and spent a few days there to recover their strength.

The brothers — then known as René and Mario Freund — were fostered by separate families, baptised as Catholics, and mixed in with other children attending the local school. They stayed in that village until the end of the war.

At that point, Ronald Friend was five years old and has clear memories of what happened next: He and his brother crossed in “a horrendous storm” from Dieppe to England where they were met by an uncle.

“I remember him coming to collect us because he had some cherries. He put me in the baggage rack and I was spitting cherry pits down on top of him. That’s the part I remember,” the emeritus professor of psychology tells the Irish Examiner from his home in Portland, Oregon.

A 1943 school photo of Ronald Friend (middle row, 3rd from left) who was mixed in with local children at a school in the South of France. Mary Elmes extricated Ronald and his brother from the detention camp in 1942. Pic courtesy of Professor Ron Friend

However, he had never been able to establish who got him out of the camp until that long-awaited email in 2011. The archivist of OSE, a Jewish organisation, wrote to give him the name of his rescuer: Mary Elmes, head of the Quaker delegation at Perpignan.

“We have letters that Mary Elmes and her co-workers wrote. On 25 September 1942, Mary Elmes writes to say that we are going to be liberated the next day and taken to a Quaker hostel, or “colony”, in Vernet-le-Bains, called the Hotel du Portugal. The hotel is still there.” He and his brother were finally reunited with their mother Eva in 1947 but they found out their father Hans had been deported to Majdanek camp in 1943. He perished there.

Prof Friend started to research Mary Elmes and, with help from a British college lecturer Bernard Wilson, details of an extraordinary woman’s life started to emerge — her childhood in Cork City, her brilliant academic achievements, her work with refugees in the Spanish Civil War and Second World War, her six-month term in a Gestapo prison.

He would go on to nominate her for the “Righteous Among Nations” award at Yad Vashem, the official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. She is the first and only Irish person to receive the honour.

“I am still upset that no one had nominated her earlier. It’s an aberration. She was clearly a leader among those with whom she worked. She showed the way,” he says.

One of the most well-known “Righteous Among Nations” is Oskar Schindler who, with his wife Emilie, was honoured in 1993 for saving an estimated 1,100 Jews from certain death during the war.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many people Mary Elmes saved, but it is clear she played a pivotal role in saving the lives of at least hundreds of Jewish children.

Surviving documents describe how she risked her life to hide children in the boot of her car, driving them to safety in the French Pyrenees. She helped countless others to secure documents, allowing them to be evacuated through a well-established network operating undercover in Vichy France. Because she was an Irish citizen, and therefore neutral, she was able to stay on in the warzone when others were forced to leave. Letters to her colleagues discuss their plans to shelter Jewish children in the Quaker colonies (or homes) that had been established in France to help refugees.

Professor Ron Friend with some of Mary Elmes’s china bowls, a gift from her children. Picture courtesy of Professor Ron Friend

Others detail what needed to be done to rescue children in danger. In one letter, dated April 25, 1942, Mary Elmes’s friend and colleague Alice Resch writes: “The permission for your 12 children from Rivesaltes to come to Larade [a Quaker home] has been obtained, so you can ship them off to us anytime you like.”

She adds, however, not to bring them on a Thursday or a Sunday, if possible, as the home had prepared “terrific washing and disinfection schemes”.

She helped dozens more by getting parental permission to bring them to safer Quaker colonies, or to help them leave the country entirely. Many of those children would never see their parents again.

Mary Elmes also helped thousands of non-Jewish refugees, providing food, shelter and medical help to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were displaced by the Spanish Civil War and put in makeshift camps near the Spanish border with France.

She had first-hand experience of the Spanish Civil War too, helping Spanish refugees until 1939. Now, that those people had fled over the border into France, she wanted to join them.

“I cannot tell you how glad I am to have the prospect of doing something for my Spanish friends again,” she wrote in July 1939.

Conditions in the refugee camps were horrific. “The scenes I witnessed might have been from Dante’s Inferno,” Catalan cellist and refugee Pablo Casals wrote in Joys and Sorrows, a book of reflections on his life published in 1970.

He knew Mary Elmes and worked with her to help those who had been, to quote his description of one camp, “herded together like animals, penned in by barbed wire, housed — if one can call it that — in tents and crumbling shacks”.

Those camps would later reach breaking point when the Second

World War broke out and they started to fill with German refugees, who were now considered aliens in France.

The early days – a brilliant linguist and scholar

When Mary Elmes went to school in Rochelle School in Cork, it must have been evident that she was exceptionally bright.

She was born on May 5, 1908, and christened Marie Elizabeth Jean. The middle name was after her mother Elizabeth (nee Waters), who grew up in Cork. Her father Edward moved to Cork from Waterford after qualifying as a pharmacist and ran J Waters and Sons, dispensing chemists, on Winthrop St. His son, John — Mary’s only and younger brother — would eventually take it over.

Mary as a very small child on her mother Elizabeth’s lap

It’s not clear what prompted Mary Elmes to study modern literature (French and Spanish) at Trinity College Dublin, but she was to excel in her field. She graduated with first-class honours and was awarded a gold medal, which her son still has at his home in the south of France.

More academic plaudits followed. She won a London School of Economics scholarship, earning a place at an international relations summer school in Geneva in 1936.

While she was there, the Spanish Civil War broke out. It must have had a profound effect on her because she quickly made enquiries about joining the relief effort.

The first indication of her wish to do so comes in a letter from a Mrs Small at the Geneva office of Save the Children. She mentions that “a certain Miss Elmes” wanted to work in Spain as a volunteer in early 1937.

When she arrived in Gibraltar, she had a permit to stay for just five days, but would go on to stay two years. Initially, the relief office didn’t know what to do with her. An urgent call had been put out for doctors and nurses, but Mary Elmes had no medical training. They assigned her to the London University Ambulance Unit and later to a feeding station at Almeria.

The horror of the Spanish Civil War

Nothing could have prepared Mary, then 28 years old, for the suffering she would witness in Almeria, on the southeast coast of Spain. Some 80,000 people had taken refuge there after walking through machine-gun fire and daily bombardment on the 120-mile journey from Malaga. Some 5,000 died en route and thousands more had turned back.

She started work in a children’s hospital in Almeria and must have shown an aptitude because she was soon put in charge of a new and well-equipped hospital in Alicante. However, her spell there was short-lived.

As a young girl on the beach.

When continual destroyer bombardment put the children in her care in real danger, she fled with them to Polop, a village near Benidorm. A British nurse and friend Dorothy Litten describes how she made a refuge out of “the summer residence of a rich man who had fled to a more suitable spot for rich men”.

The nurse goes on say that she was “marvellous in planning meals out of our very meagre resources”.

Despite the chaos of war, word reached her from Cork to say that her father died. She wanted to go home but told her mother she wouldn’t go unless she could find someone to replace her.

But there wasn’t anyone to take her place and it would be another two years before she returned to her native city in 1939.

She stayed in Spain until the end of the war when she was rescued by Howard Kershner, head of the American Friends Service Committee. He drove her and some fellow workers across the border into France, bringing with them the records of their work in Spain.

Decades later, those records would be read by fellow Quaker, Englishman Bernard Wilson. He was fascinated to read that Quakers had been involved in Spain and later in the internment camps of the South of France. He began to unravel that story and, in doing so, he also brought Mary Elmes’s considerable contribution to light.

Saving Jewish children

“Phew, what a lot of writing back and forth about my kids…” Alice Resch wrote in a letter to Mary Elmes on 22 May, 1942.

Alice, a nurse from Norway, was based at the Toulouse office of the Quaker American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and she wrote regularly to her friend and colleague, Mary, who ran the committee’s office in Perpignan.

As Alice put it so chirpily, “writing back and forth” was how they managed to secure identity papers, food, clothing and medical supplies for the refugees in the camps — or colonies as they were known — that had been set up by the Quakers in France.

References to Mary often say she was a Quaker but she was not. Her family are listed as Church of Ireland in the 1911 census. In fact, many of the people who worked with the American Friends Service Committee at that point in the war were neither Quaker nor American.

In the Toulouse office, a sign read “American Quakers”, but Alice Resch would later recall that there was only one American who was not a Quaker and one Quaker who was not American.

However, those were unimportant details to Mary and her colleagues who were focused on helping in every way they could. Their letters talk of getting books and writing material so that they could continue to school the refugees. They mention individuals and their particular needs; a doctor who needed support after a stroke; a man who needed clothes after being released from hospital; the need for extra food to feed an arriving refugee train.

Bernard Wilson, who has written a children’s book based on her life, takes up the story: “She was now in charge of the AFSC office in Perpignan. Her work included the various camps for Spanish refugees on the coast and canteens in schools throughout a region about the size of Munster. There was scarcely a town or village in the whole of that huge area that did not receive help in some form or another from the AFSC office in Perpignan.” The volume of work was overwhelming. “The world is chaos here on account of all the happenings,” Alice Resch wrote in August 1942. “We are swimming in work here but you are too, certainly, with all these sad events,” she said in a letter to Mary a week later.

A painting of Mary made in 1941 by a well-known Spanish artist who was a refugee in France, it was a personal gift to her.

Though, the friends still managed to talk of everyday things and the possibility of, one day, getting some time off to climb the Canigou, a mountain in Pyrenees.

It is evident, too, that the women were firm friends. In one letter, Alice writes to thank Mary for being so nice to her during her two-day visit to Perpignan: “You really are a peach, and you don’t know how I enjoyed staying with you.” She was obviously popular. In 1942, a visitor from the AFSC office in Philadelphia remarked: “Everywhere Mary went she was greeted with great warmth and affection and we could not walk very far without being stopped by someone who wished to talk with her. One could see very plainly that ‘Miss Mary’ as they all call her, brought joy to many people on her regular frequent visits to the camp”.

The camp in question was Rivesaltes, an army camp near Perpignan that was never used because it was said to be unsuitable even for horses. It was too cold in winter and too hot in summer.

Yet thousands of people were sent there when it first opened as a refugee camp in 1941.

By the end of its first year, there were more than 4,000 people in the camp, a third of them children.

An American Friends Service Committee report highlighted their plight: “The internees… are cold during the night, they are cold during the day and their food is served to them cold. They crouch in unheated barracks and have no extra blankets or clothes to protect them against the searching wind.” From 1942 on, the letters fill with a new sense of urgency as it is now very clear what is happening to the Jews who are being rounded up.

Mennonite aid worker Lois Gunden was in charge of Canet-Plage, a centre on the Mediterranean established by Mary Elmes. On August 9, 1942, she wrote in her diary: “Mary [Elmes] informed me about return of Polish and German Jews to Poland where death by starvation awaits them.” The next day she writes: “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.” Lois Gunden goes on to describe the steady stream of children brought by Miss Elmes to the relative safety of the Villa St-Christophe colony.

On August 11, 1942, she writes: “While we were eating supper Miss Elmes brought seven Jewish children — some of whom can’t speak French; [Isidore] Mussoles cooked some extra macaroni; quelle comedie pour les laver en lavabo! [what a comedy to wash them in the washbasin] Les garçons ne voulaient pas enlever leurs culottes [The boys didn’t want to take off their pants]”.

It was far from comedy, however, but a chilling reminder of how parents had warned their circumcised sons to keep their pants on to hide the fact that they were Jewish.

“The worst was yet to come,” says author Bernard Wilson.

“In 1942, Rivesaltes became the holding centre for all the Jews in non-occupied France. They were brought there from wherever they could be found.”

In a two-month period in autumn 1942, nine convoys left Rivesaltes for the transit camp, Drancy outside Paris. A total of 2,141 Jewish adults and 110 children were on board.

“The number of children would have been considerably greater had it not been for the intervention of Mary and her colleagues in the other organisations,” says Bernard Wilson.

But now the children in the colonies were in danger too. Children had been exempt from deportation, but in September 1942, the Vichy authorities withdrew that exemption.

When Mary heard the news that children could now be deported, she immediately put a group of children into her own car and drove them to safety, relief worker Andrée Salomon wrote in her memoir Rescuing the Children.

She came back the next day to rescue others, she adds.

Meanwhile, Mary’s colleague Alice Resch was smuggling children away from a French orphanage called Aspet in the Pyrenees: “We claimed that the colony was too far away and gave Coste (the Director of the Office for Aliens) a fictional list of people who were willing to take the children into their homes. The youngest came to Larade where we erased the ‘Juif’ [Jew] mark from their papers,” she writes in her memoir, Over the Highest Mountains.

Jailed by the Gestapo

There’s no record of how Mary Elmes felt when German police arrested and imprisoned her on February 5, 1943. However, her mother Elizabeth Elmes would say it came as “a dreadful shock” when the news filtered through, a month later.

Mary Elmes was to be charged with espionage, Bernard Wilson tells the Examiner.

She was suspected of a series of hostile acts against Germany, secret border crossings, information of all kinds, and propaganda against the Reich, he says, quoting the contents of a letter from the French Interior Ministry dated 1943, which is now in Mary’s daughter’s collection.

At first, her colleagues at the Geneva office were under the impression that it was something she had written in a letter. “Apparently,” one of them wrote, “it was a question of having too freely spoken of certain matters in censored letters.” Whatever the charges — though none were ever pressed — her employers, the American Friends Service Committee, were “deeply distressed” by news of her arrest. They immediately sent a telegram to the Irish authorities looking for help.

The telegram read: “Request intervention international Red Cross and Irish Minister Lisbon on behalf of Mary Elmes, trusted Quaker relief worker since 1938. Stop.”

Mary Elmes and Friedel taken just a few months before her death at the age of 94. She is on the left, and is being presented a painting of the Rivesaltes camp by her fellow worker Friedel Bohny-Reiter of the Swiss Red Cross

At first, she was held in Toulouse prison. Her colleagues were nearby and were allowed to visit and bring food parcels. But they lost all contact when she was moved to the Gestapo-held Fresnes prison, outside Paris.

Mary must have been aware that many of the people held in Fresnes never got out again. Members of the French Resistance and captured British special operations executives were held there.

An unnamed British officer wrote of the prison’s atmosphere at that time: “The threat of violence was almost as bad as the reality. They left you on your own a lot to stew and to worry — and it worked.”

In June 1943, Mary Elmes’s employers become concerned for her welfare. They wrote to the honourable Robert Brennan, minister from Ireland in Washington, and appealed to him to make representations to the Irish government to have her released.

“She is now held incommunicado in Fresnes prison in Paris,” the committee’s foreign service secretary James G Veil told Mr Brennan. “She is said to be in very poor health, although under ordinary circumstances she is a vigorous person.”

He goes on to say: “Miss Elmes is a person of good will, exceptionally effective in dealing with the problems of distressed people. She speaks Spanish and French without accent and we are convinced that there is no valid reason for her detention.”

Several letters went back and forth between France, Ireland, and America.

Meanwhile, at home in Ballintemple in Cork City, her mother Elizabeth Elmes made sure to include nothing more than “family chit chat” in her letter of March 13, 1943. She wasn’t hopeful that it would ever reach her daughter, but she left the envelope open anyway in case wartime censors checked its contents.

Mrs Elmes was far more forthright in her letters to Margaret Frawley of the American Friends Service Committee, which reveal her deep worry. She was sure, too, that her daughter had done no wrong. She had planned to visit her in Paris but her doctor advised her against it, saying it would put too much strain on her heart.

Eventually, the International Red Cross succeeded in getting messages through to Mary. They delivered food parcels too. Messages were relayed out to say that her health had improved.

Her brother visited Paris iniste and obtained permission to visit Mary iniste and finally in July 1943, after many representations, she was released.

In a Red Cross message to her aunt, Mary wrote: “Well, 52 kilos. Wrote mummie today, also week ago. Glad to be back in nice flat with all belongings.” Her mother had asked her for her weight in a previous despatch and was glad to report that Mary was no lighter now than she had been when she went to France in 1939.

She also appeared to be in good form.

Her friend Alice Resch wrote: “Mary managed to talk her way out after only a few months. She arrived in our office [in Toulouse] as attractive and well-groomed as always, as if she had just made a journey like any other.” Mary would later say when asked about her time in prison: “Oh, we all had to suffer some inconveniences in those days!” Her mother had hoped that Mary would leave France for Switzerland or Portugal, but she had no intention of abandoning the people who needed her. She went straight back to work.

While she was in prison, six months’ salary had accrued but she wrote to her employees saying she didn’t want it. She returned the money, asking head office to spend it on whatever was needed.

She would stay on at her office in Perpignan until the end of the war.

Legacy

In 1947, the British and American Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their relief work during the war. Mary Elmes’ children say the French government offered her its highest honour, the Légion d’Honneur. She turned it down, preferring instead to try to put the war behind her.

She married Roger Danjou and the couple had two children, Caroline and Patrick. Both of them tell the Examiner that their mother preferred not to talk about the war and they knew little of her work with refugees growing up.

Mary Elmes and her children returned to Ireland several times and her children would visit her old house at Ballintemple.

“My mother never had the courage to return to her former home, but we were welcomed there with opened arms,” Madame Danjou recalls.

The gold medal presentation made to Mary Elmes posthumously by the Israeli Ambassador. At the back are Caroline and Patrick Danjou, her two children. In front of them are three of her great grandchildren. Pictures courtesy of Caroline and Patrick Danjou

When Prof Ronald Friend contacted the family in 2012 to ask their permission to nominate her as a Righteous Among Nations, they were initially reluctant as their mother had been so discreet. However, they were keen to see her work recognised. In 2014, friends, relatives and Prof Friend commemorated Mary Elmes at an award ceremony at Canet-en-Rousillon in the south of France.

A remarkable thing happened during Prof Friend’s visit. He and his son Sean went to see his old school at Marsaac. He asked directions from a man who immediately recognised him as a former classmate — from 1943! Guy Brunet invited father and son to his house for a drink and later presented him with a photo of their time in school together.

Others, though, seem to have forgotten the past. It bothers Caroline Danjou that her mother is so little known in her own country.

Her brother Patrick wrote to her old alma mater Trinity College in 2014 to invite them to commemorate an exceptional past pupil, but received no response. The London School of Economics didn’t reply either, he says.

Next week, the man who has done so much to highlight her work, Bernard Wilson, will talk about her at the national conference of Network Ireland in Cork.

Earlier this week, Mary Elmes was one of five women remembered in an international symposium on women in wartime organised by Smashing Times Theatre Company.

The company’s artistic director Mary Moynihan said: “Mary Elmes was an extraordinary woman; very brave, courageous and selfless in her efforts to help others. It is not known how many children’s lives she saved, however, there is a ripple effect in terms of three generations of people who would not be alive today if it wasn’t for her work.

“Also, her story has many parallels today. Mary was actively involved in helping refugees who were fleeing from war and persecution. Today, we are witnessing the flight of ordinary men, women and children from the war in Syria and there is an onus on all of us to help in whatever way we can.” The boy she saved, Professor Ronald Friend, thinks she should be honoured in her own country. “Perhaps a statue or plaque in Cork,” he says. “She should be written up in history books and recognised by the Irish government.” Whatever honours come now are too late for Mary Elmes. She died in 2002, aged 94.

“Thank you for trying to take my mother out of the shadows of history,” said Caroline Danjou.



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