Brothers Rene and Mario Freund were aged just two and six when they held their breath, hidden in the boot of Mary Elmes's car on a mild day in September 25, 1942.
Cork native Mary Elmes, today known as the ‘Irish Oskar Schindler’, was risking her own life to help Rene and Mario escape from the Rivesaltes internment camp, a short drive from Perpignan in the Pyrénées-Orientales department in southern France.
She smuggled the boys past the French prison guards posted at the imposing wooden gates of Rivesaltes, now a military camp which is also known as Camp Maréchal Joffre. Rene and Mario were among 200 Jewish children saved by Mary Elmes during the war years.
Rene and Mario Freund remained thankful all their lives that they were among the Jewish boys saved from eventual deportation to Auschwitz in occupied Poland, where they would have faced certain death in the Nazi gas chambers.
And they never forgot Mary Elmes, who was aided by the staff at Maison St Christophe orphanage, located at Perpignan, just 12km away from their Rivesaltes internment camp. The story of these children went untold for generations, part of the forgotten dark history of France's collaborationist Vichy government.
Years later, however, Rene and Mario, who had since changed their names to Ronald Friend and Michael Freund, worked to ensure Mary Elmes was nominated for the title of 'Righteous Among the Nations', an honorific title used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives for altruistic reasons during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazi.
Brothers Ronald and Michael were among the interviewees to feature in 'It Tolls for Thee', a 2016 movie documentary narrated by Hollywood star Winona Ryder.
Ryder herself had family members who died during the Holocaust. She was separately nominated for a Grammy award for her narration of 'The Diary of Anne Frank'.
Some will recall seeing 'It Tolls for Thee' when it was broadcast on TG4 in 2017. The film was also screened at the Irish Film Institute’s Documentary Festival in Dublin the same year.
“I owe my life to Mary Elmes and I feel very grateful. But I am just one of many who should feel the same,” said Michael Freund in the documentary.
Mary Elmes was born in the city of Cork in 1908. During the Spanish Civil War, she manage a hospital in northern Spain. She went on to volunteer in France, and was allowed to stay on in Rivesaltes due to Ireland's neutrality. She was eventually arrested by the Gestapo. When she was released six months later, there were no longer any Jews residing in the camp at Rivesaltes.
After the war, Elmes remained publicly silent about her actions, always seeking to protect the identities and safety of the innocent children she has saved. She turned down the Légion d’honneur, the highest civilian honour in France.
Ronald Friend, who went on to become a college professor in New York, was determined to tell Elmes's story. And in the years following her death in 2002, many of the children she had helped, along with members of her her family, also came forward to spread word of her heroism.
She has since received several international recognitions.
It seems appropriate that this heroic woman's steely nerves in the face of a deadly threat should have been honoured in 2019 with the erection of the Mary Elmes pedestrian bridge in Cork city, linking St Patrick’s Quay and Merchants Quay. The bridge is a relative haven of calm in the bustling city centre.
Mary Elmes’s name was among five finalists selected from 35 public submissions put forward for the new bridge. Cork City Councillors voted on the top five finalists and, ultimately, selected Mary Elmes for her work during the Second World War.
The cost of the project was €5m, €1.5m of which was covered by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), through the Southern and Eastern Operational Programme. This programme has provided €500m to the south and east of Ireland between 2014 and 2020.
The project was granted EU funding as it comes under the category of ‘integrated urban development to revitalise urban areas’, which is one of the priorities for the ERDF.
This article is the fifth in a series of 'Green Deal' stories promoting community-led actions in Ireland, in which the European Commission in Ireland is showing the work that has been done by people living in Ireland to engage with and try to protect their natural environment.
In time, up to 11,000 pedestrians and cyclists will benefit each day from the improved connectivity offered by the Mary Elmes bridge, travelling between the busy city centre and the Victorian Quarter.
John Stapleton, senior engineer in the infrastructure development directorate at Cork City Council, says that when Mary Elmes was chosen, they were surprised that the story of her courage wasn’t that well-known.
“Her son was at the opening of the bridge, as were two of the Jewish children Mary rescued from being sent to Auschwitz,” says John. “They went around a few schools to tell theirs and Mary’s story, which has been a great aspect of the project.
“We’re trying to invest in pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in the city centre to encourage people to use that as their mode of transportation,” he said.
“It’s been a phenomenal success and it’s actually become an attraction. We put seating on the bridge to create a tranquil space, right in the heart of the city. We are also planning to add cycle lanes leading to and away from the bridge, so it looks like it will continue to be successful.
“We have received funding from the EU, the National Transport Authority, and Cork City Council have also contributed. It was really a collaboration of parties, but the EU grant was the trigger that allowed us to progress the project.”
This series of 'Green Deal for Europe' stories illustrates what communities can achieve with the help of the European Commission.
There are many great stories north, south, east and west of the country that demonstrate the commitment of the Irish public to preserving their natural environment. The Green Deal will serve to strengthen and build on such efforts.