The lat­est re­views and in­ter­views

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

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Contents -

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

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