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As recently as 2012 there was almost no recognition in Ireland of Mary Elmes’ humanitarian bravery. She is estimated to have helped save hundreds of .Jews in the Second World War, writes JP O’Malley
IN October 2016, Des Cahill, the mayor of Cork, invited Patrick Danjou and his daughter, Marie-Maude, to a ceremony at the Council Chamber to present them with a silver brooch of Cork. The symbolic event was set up to honour Patrick’s mother, Mary Elmes.
During a two-month period in autumn 1942 — while working for a Quaker aid organisation called the American Friends Service Committee — the Cork woman risked her life to hide several hundred Jewish children in safehouses in the PyrénéesOrientales region: All were about to be deported to the gas chambers in Auschwitz, Poland.
Elmes — who was born in Ballintemple, Cork, in 1908, and died in Perpignan, in the south of France, in 2002, aged 93 — is the subject of a recent film, entitled It Tolls For
Thee, narrated by Hollywood star Winona Ryder. Elmes’ brave wartime efforts to save hundreds of Jewish children at the Rivesaltes camp is also the central theme of a recently published book, A Time To Risk
All, by Irish freelance journalist Clodagh Finn.
Finn’s book documents how, in June 1940, the Franco-German Armistice divided France in two. Paris and the northern region were in the German-controlled occupied zone. The unoccupied zone in the south, meanwhile, was run from the town of Vichy, by the staunchly anti-Semitic Marshal Philippe Pétain.
In the unoccupied zone, Rivesaltes would become the most prominent assembly centre for Jews.
By autumn 1942, 2,289 Jewish men, women, and children took a train from Rivesaltes, northwards, to Drancy; before continuing a longer journey — eastwards — onto death camps in Poland.
“The camp authorities were working for the Vichy [government],” explains Finn: “But some were very unhappy and when they heard the deportations were going to start, they gathered all the aid agencies and said: They are grouping up all of the families and the children are going.”
“When Elmes heard that in August of 1942, she began to take children in groups of five and six in her car at a time.”
Of the 2,289 Jewish adults and 174 children deported in convoys from Rivesaltes to the east — between August and October 1942 — it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number of Jewish children Elmes and her colleagues rescued. It’s estimated to be 427.
“And in those months Mary Elmes was personally responsible for saving 80 children,” Finn reminds me.
In mid-April 1942 Rivesaltes had more than 9,000 people living within its bleak enclosure; 40% of these were Jews.
Conditions began to deteriorate. Food was scarce, weather conditions were harsh, and the children were infested with fleas too.
By June 1942, target numbers for Jews to be deported from different countries across Europe were being set by the Nazis. In France the figure stood at 100,000.
The Quakers at Rivesaltes received the first definite information about Jewish deportations in the unoccupied zone in July 1942. There was an initial plan by the Vichy government to deport 10,000: and Jews were taken from a number of camps in the south of France, including Rivesaltes, Gurs, Vernet, Les Milles, Récébédou, and Noé. The first trains were scheduled to leave between August 6 and 12 .
On August 7, the camp administration called a meeting of all the relief agencies, informing them that children were to be deported, along with their parents, to Poland.
It was at this stage that Elmes personally began to take groups of Jewish children in her car and drive them away from Rivesaltes.
While Elmes was technically breaking protocol, Finn says she had the backing of most of her Quaker colleagues, who commended her bravery at the time. The new Quaker director in France, Lindsley Noble, for instance, wrote in his private notes on August 11, 1942, how Elmes had “spirited away nine children”. Noble also noted how Elmes had rescued 34 children from Rivesaltes, as 400 Jews were being loaded onto cattle wagons towards Drancy.
Elmes began working as a humanitarian volunteer not in France, but in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Her first posting there was as a volunteer worker in Almería, Andalusia, in February 1937. Elmes even missed her own father’s funeral back in Ireland at the time, such was her commitment to helping war-torn refugees.
“When Elmes went to Almería they were looking for doctors and nurses, and I think she must have been very persuasive, because she was neither,” explains Finn. “But she got a job running a hospital. By the time her father died in Christmas 1937, she would not leave her post. It shows a determination, a single-mindedness, and a stubbornness as well.
“I imagine this must have been very difficult for her mother at home. Because you find a lot of letters which show Mary’s mother asking the Quakers, ‘Where is my daughter?’ And the following May Elmes’ mother came to the Quakers in London asking to bring her daughter back from Spain.”
But in 1939, as the Spanish Civil War ended, and the Second World War begun, Elmes did not return to Ireland. Instead, she drove to the southern French border, then coping with millions of refugees from the war.
The Rivesaltes concentration camp — where Elmes soon found herself working — was officially named Camp Joffre. It was initially built in 1938 as a military barracks to house troops in transit. The idea of using the camp as a place to intern refugees began to gain traction in November 1940.
By November 1941 it opened its doors: “During the Spanish Civil War about 500,000 Spanish people came over the border to France. So the French authorities set up Rivesaltes to house these so called “undesirable Republicans,” says Finn. “Then when the Second World War broke out, 8m people started to come down from the north — Germans, Belgiums, and then, increasingly, Jews.
“Rivesaltes was the sorting centre in the south of France [for Jews],” says Finn. “[A kind of] Drancy of the South of France. The journey [towards] genocide was beginning here for Jews. But Rivesaltes was also the camp where most rescues took place.”
Finn’s book includes interviews with those personally transferred to the safety of the children’s home Elmes was running at La Villa Saint Christophe, where they escaped deportation.
Among these testimonies are interviews with brothers George and Jacques Koltein, as well as a rather moving interview with a woman named Charlotte Berger-Greneche.
Finn tears up a little when she speaks of this latter interview; pointing to a letter she encountered in her research that came from Charlotte Berger-Greneche’s mother. It consisted of her last words to her daughter. This >>>
A photograph taken from ‘It Tolls for Thee’, a recent documentary about the life of Cork woman Mary Elmes.
A Time To Risk All Clodagh Finn Gill Books, €16.99