Re­mem­ber­ing a for­got­ten Ir­ish hero of the Holo­caust

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - BOOKS - The Ex­tra­or­di­nary Story of Mary Elmes: The Ir­ish Oskar Schindler JP O’MAL­LEY

HIS­TORY A Time To Risk All

IClodagh Finn, Gill Books,€16.99

Paddy But­ler, Or­pen Press, €14.99

N the Shoah Mu­seum in Paris a wall of re­mem­brance com­mem­o­rates the lives of 76,000 French Jews. All were de­ported from France dur­ing World War II to death camps in Poland by the col­lab­o­ra­tionist Vichy regime: the French gov­ern­ment which suc­ceeded the Third Repub­lic from July 1940 to Au­gust 1944.

The Wall of the Right­eous, also in that same mu­seum, is ded­i­cated to 3,900 brave souls who saved the lives of Jews in France dur­ing the war.

Un­der the let­ter M, an en­try hon­ours the name of an Ir­ish woman: Mary Elmes. Born in Ballintem­ple, Cork in 1908, Elmes died aged 93, in Per­pig­nan, in the south of France in 2002.

Dur­ing a two-month pe­riod in the au­tumn of 1942, Elmes risked her life to hide several hun­dred Jewish chil­dren in safe houses in the Pyre­nees-ori­en­tales re­gion.

Most of these chil­dren were stay­ing in Rivesaltes: a con­cen­tra­tion camp where Jews were tem­po­rar­ily held by the Vichy regime.

Be­tween Au­gust and Novem­ber 1942, some 2,289 Jewish camp in­ternees at Rivesaltes were de­liv­ered by France to Nazi gas chambers in the east.

But thanks to Mary Elmes and her col­leagues at the Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee — a Quaker aid or­gan­i­sa­tion — an es­ti­mated 84pc of those chil­dren stay­ing at the camp es­caped de­por­ta­tion.

A Time to Risk All, by jour­nal­ist Clodagh Finn, in­cludes an im­pres­sive amount of re­search, in­clud­ing in­ter­views Finn has con­ducted with those per­son­ally saved by Elmes, such as brothers Ge­orge and Jac­ques Koltein, and Char­lotte Berger-greneche, whose mother was de­ported to Auschwitz. The jour­nal­ist makes good use of archival ev­i­dence too, as well as a num­ber of writ­ten tes­ti­monies that sur­vived the war.

The book has just one mi­nor weak­ness though: the reader is left with lit­tle sense of who ex­actly Mary Elmes was. How­ever, the num­ber of in­ter­views Elmes gave in her own life­time was lim­ited. There­fore build­ing a char­ac­ter pro­file is not easy.

More­over, Finn sug­gests that a cul­ture of de­nial­ism in post-war French so­ci­ety may be one rea­son for Elmes’s con­sis­tent ret­i­cence to speak about her war-time ex­pe­ri­ences.

Still, Finn man­ages to build an in­trigu­ing nar­ra­tive, given the lim­ited in­for­ma­tion avail­able. The Vichy regime was send­ing Jews to death camps in Poland vol­un­tar­ily; some­times when Nazi Ger­many was not even in­sist­ing that it do so. And so si­lence be­came the cho­sen op­tion which French so­ci­ety used to deal with its shame­ful col­lab­o­ra­tionist past.

In­deed, as Paddy But­ler points out in The Ex­tra­or­di­nary Story of Mary Elmes: The Ir­ish Oskar Schindler, un­til 1995, no French Pres­i­dent pub­licly ac­knowl­edged the state’s role in the round­ing up of Jews. That changed when Jac­ques Chirac of­fi­cially apol­o­gised to Jews on be­half of France. But­ler, also a jour­nal­ist, first broke the story about Mary Elmes in a 2012 ar­ti­cle in The Ir­ish Times. He is also ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on It Tolls For Thee: a re­cent doc­u­men­tary on the life of Mary Elm- es, nar­rated by Hol­ly­wood star Wi­nona Ry­der.

Much of the lim­ited ma­te­rial on which both Finn and But­ler draw over­laps, and, most im­por­tantly, the sub­ject they are writ­ing about is iden­ti­cal. There are, how­ever, sub­tle dif­fer­ences be­tween both books.

But­ler’s tome is more con­cise; he gives the reader a firmer grasp of the big­ger global his­tor­i­cal po­lit­i­cal pic­ture within which Elmes was work­ing. And he ded­i­cates con­sid­er­able time and ef­fort to sketch­ing details about the

‘Both Finn and But­ler pay trib­ute to some of these heart­break­ing sto­ries’

Span­ish Civil War, as well as anti-semitic pol­icy in Vichy France. Finn’s book does this too.

But­ler also gives us a bril­liant insight into the his­tory of the Rivesaltes camp it­self, which he spends an en­tire chap­ter in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

Mary Elmes stud­ied at Trin­ity Col­lege, Dublin, and later at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics. Her love of Euro­pean lan­guages and cul­ture took her on a so­journ to Spain to study in the early 1930s.

But Elmes’s first post­ing as a hu­man­i­tar­ian worker was not un­til Fe­bru­ary 1937 in Alme­ria, An­dalu­sia, dur­ing the Span­ish Civil War. This hu­man­i­tar­ian aid mis­sion was un­der the aus­pices of a ven­ture known as the Ge­orge Young Am­bu­lance Unit: it would go on to save a num­ber of lives in Spain at the time. In 1939 as the Span­ish Civil War ended and World War II be­gan, Elmes moved to the south­ern French bor­der, then cop­ing with mil­lions of refugees, fol­low­ing the Ger­man in­va­sion. This then brought Elmes in con­tact with thou­sands of French Jews: many of whom were not res­cued. In­stead, they faced even­tual ex­ter­mi­na­tion. Both Finn and But­ler pay trib­ute to some of these heart­break­ing sto­ries.

In Fe­bru­ary 1943, Elmes was sub­se­quently ar­rested by the Ger­man se­cu­rity po­lice on sus­pi­cion of es­pi­onage, al­though she was never of­fi­cially charged with any of­fence as such. First, she was taken to a mil­i­tary prison in Toulouse, and then later trans­ferred to the no­to­ri­ous Fresnes prison, south of Paris. But with the help of both her Quaker em­ploy­ers and the Ir­ish con­sulate in Vichy France, Elmes was even­tu­ally re­leased in July of that same year.

As re­cently as 2012, there was al­most no recog­ni­tion in Ire­land of Elmes’s brave wartime ef­forts. But as Finn and But­ler point out in their re­spec­tive books, the most likely rea­son the story never came to light is be­cause Elmes pur­posely shied away from the pub­lic lime­light.

In 1947, the Amer­i­can and Bri­tish Quak­ers were jointly awarded the No­bel Peace Prize for their re­lief dur­ing World War II. The French gov­ern­ment wanted to pay a per­sonal trib­ute to Elmes for her work, as head of the del­e­ga­tion in Per­pig­nan; of­fer­ing her the Le­gion d’hon­neur: the high­est French or­der of merit for mil­i­tary and civil mer­its. Elmes, how­ever, turned it down. In 2013, Elmes was posthu­mously awarded the Right­eous Among the Na­tions award at Yad Vashem: an hon­our con­ferred by the state of Is­rael to non-jews who risked their lives to save Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust.

Such recog­ni­tion en­sures this heroic tale of ex­cep­tional moral courage — dur­ing one of the dark­est hours of mod­ern Euro­pean his­tory — will not be for­got­ten any time soon.

Mary Elmes saved hun­dreds of Jewish chil­dren from Auschwitz death camp while in France

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