'Better to have a bridge than a wall': Mary Elmes Bridge officially opened by her son

The son of the remarkable woman known as Ireland's Oskar Schindler, who is crediting with saving the lives hundreds of Jewish children from Nazi death camps, said it is better to build bridges than walls.

'Better to have a bridge than a wall': Mary Elmes Bridge officially opened by her son

For decades, her remarkable story of bravery, heroism and humanity during the Holocaust was virtually unknown in her native city.

But thanks to public involvement for the first time in the naming of public infrastructure in Cork, Mary Elmes's family say they are pleased that people are now beginning to learn about her incredible wartime exploits.

Not that she would appreciate all the fuss, her son, Patrick Danjou said yesterday at the official naming of Cork's newest bridge in her honour.

"As children, we knew her story. But she wanted nothing. No fuss. She refused medals and money. She always said 'I did it because I had to do it'," he said.

Born in Ballintemple, Cork, in 1908, Mary Elmes won a scholarship to study at the London School of Economics, and travelled to Europe in the 1930s, where she volunteered to help refugees during the Spanish Civil War.

Thanks to detailed research by journalist Clodagh Finn, it is known that after the fall of Barcelona to Franco's forces, Ms Elmes followed Spanish refugees to southern France, and continued to help them where they were interned.

By 1942, when Jews were being deported to Nazi death camps, Ms Elmes risked her life to help people escape, smuggling children out in the boot of her car.

She was arrested herself and detained by the Gestapo on suspicion of espionage.

Mary Elmes
Mary Elmes

After the war, she married a Frenchman and settled in Perpignan, where she spoke rarely about the war.

Mr Danjou said as children, he and his sister, Caroline, knew some of what their mother had done during the war, but didn't appreciate it until years later.

He recalls how a few years before their mother's death, the family found a blanket "you wouldn't keep for a dog" and planned to throw it out.

"My mother said, 'Stop, that's the blanket I had in the prison camp' - so we kept it," he said.

Ms Elmes, who turned down the Legion d'Honneur, died in 2002. In 2013, she became the first Irish person to be named Righteous Among the Nations during a ceremony at Israel's official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Archdeacon Adrian Wilkinson and Fr. Dermot Lynch performing a blessing at the new bridge. Picture: Brian Lougheed
Archdeacon Adrian Wilkinson and Fr. Dermot Lynch performing a blessing at the new bridge. Picture: Brian Lougheed

Mr Danjou said even though his mother was not have liked the fuss, he and his family were very proud and pleased to see a bridge being named in her honour in her native city.

"I think it's better to have a bridge than a wall like some friends of ours in America want to do, and like some friends in England want to build," he said.

Ms Berger-Greneche said it was an emotional day meeting relatives of the woman who saved her life.

"I don't recall the detail. I was just four or five. I owe her everything. We had a life because of her," she said.

"The people who took care of us were like our parents.

It was later, as an adult, I began to find out the story.

It was not only Mary, it was teamwork. There were many women and men who I owe my life to.

And she said it is important now more than ever to remember the work and legacy of Mary Elmes.

"I hope that now people will realise what she did and be careful that such things she had to face don't rise up again," she said.

It is hoped that the new pedestrian and cycle bridge will be used by up to 11,000 people a day.

Delivered by the city council's Strategic Infrastructure Directorate, the bridge was funded by the National Transport Authority and EU designated urban centre funding from the Southern Regional Assembly.

The 170-ton bridge was built off-site by Clare-based engineering firm, Keating, was transported by road in sections to Cobh, from where it was shipped on a custom-built barge upriver to the city quays, for lifting into place earlier this year.

It was blessed today by Capuchin, Fr Dermot Lynch and Archdeacon Adrian Wilkinson, of the Douglas Union. A commemorative plaque on the bridge has been sponsored by the Cork Hebrew Congregation.

Journalist and documentary maker, Paddy Butler who made a TG4 documentary on Mary Elmes and journalist and author, Clodagh Finn, who wrote A Time to Risk All about Ms Elmes were also at the ceremony.

This story was updated at 6.50pm.

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