The great events of our past – the wars and the genocides – are just a series of small steps strung together… steps that when looked back upon appear to be a seamless, momentous journey.
And because of that, we tend to overlook many of those very people who created the events that make history so extraordinary.
The name Mary Elmes is not one that conjures up any special memory to most people, and that’s probably just the way the Corkwoman would have wanted it.
Look at her photo and words like ‘refined’, delicate’ and ladylike’ spring to mind. Mary Elmes was all those things and more besides. She was also fearless, iron-willed and relentless in her cause – to bring help and succour to frightened, dispossessed people in fear for their lives. Were it not for Mary, hundreds of children would have died at the hands of the Nazis and thousands of refugees could have starved to death.
Put plainly, Mary Elmes was a humanitarian par excellence, who was locked up in a Gestapo prison for doing good work… work that has until recently been forgotten – work which, in 2014, earned her the Jewish accolade of Righteous Among Nations… the only Irish person to be so honoured.
Born on May 5, 1908, and raised in Cork, Mary graduated with a first-class honours degree in modern languages from Trinity College and was awarded a gold medal for her efforts.
She went on to win a scholarship at the London School of Economics, before earning a place at an international relations summer school in Geneva in 1936.
Then the Spanish Civil War broke out and everything changed. Hearing about the plight of refugees, Mary volunteered with Save the Children, and was assigned to the aid station at Almeria, on the southeast coast of Spain.
An estimated 80,000 people had sought refuge there, walking 120 miles from Malaga and suffering daily bombardment and machine-gun fire along the way. Some 5,000 had died en route.
Mary’s humanitarian work began in that hot climate of fear and despair. She would go on to help the refugees, feeding them and ensuring they were educated and clothed, until the civil war ended.
Her aid work continued when she moved across the border into France to work with the Quaker organisation, the American Friends Service Committee.
By 1940, Mary was running the AFSC office in Perpignan on the Spanish border and gave assistance at another refugee camp at nearby Argeles. The workload was overwhelming, and Mary became a vital cog in the humanitarian effort to help the thousands who were fleeing Spain.
Mary Elmes was an administrative powerhouse, as is revealed in journalist Clodagh Finn’s thoroughly researched and well-written book, A Time to Risk All.
According to Clodagh, she ‘organised school for two thousand children, set up a library with four thousand books, established a maternity wing in one of the barracks, distributed clothes, blankets, reading glasses, medical aids, established classes for adults, set up sewing and carpentry workshops, distributed food and milk… oh, and established a hospital, equipping it with medicine and instruments’.
She did similar work in several other refugee camps and administered aid in the region’s general hospitals and schools.
The following year, the army camp at nearby Rivesaltes was used by the French government as a refugee centre. Mary and her colleagues helped the thousands who were sent there. By 1942, it had become a holding centre for all the Jews in non-occupied France. Conditions were dreadful; food, clothing and all other necessary support were in scant supply, and Mary was working round the clock to improve things.
Her work stretched beyond the camps themselves, and in nearby towns she set up a series of hostels or ‘colonies’ – holiday homes to which children could be sent as a place of respite from the very difficult conditions in the refugee camp.
Then, the Vichy government instructed that Jews from the centres be transported out of the country. It didn’t take long for people to realise the evil motivation behind the order as the wheels of the transports began taking tens of thousands to Nazi death camps.
Mary spirited away nine children from the first convoy bound for Auschwitz when it left the Rivesaltes camp in August 1942. From then on, she brought a steady stream of children from the camp, smuggling them out in the boot of her car before sending them on to other care homes, where the children were hidden or passed along to safer environments.
One colleague recalls that Mary brought between three and seven children from the camp to the Quaker respite centre at Cane-Plage every fortnight. But this was just one centre Mary used to rescue children, there were many others.
Nine Nazi convoys deported 2,289 Jewish adults and 174 children between August and October 1942. It’s estimated that thanks to Mary and her friends, 427 children were saved from deportation that autumn.
There is no proper record of how many children Mary Elmes saved. The children themselves were not in her care for long – she would whisk them from the camp and then deposit them in a safe home and then depart, so the children never got to know her well.
When she wasn’t physically rescuing children, she was using bureaucracy to safeguard them… changing details on forms so that children weren’t included on the transports. She helped adults, too… on one occasion hiding an Austrian family in her flat before the tried to escape into Switzerland.
In short, she was doing everything she could to save lives and run a huge humanitarian operation to sustain thousands of others.
Of the estimated 1,193 children aged under 16 at Rivesaltes, 174 were deported and 13 died in the camp due to the conditions there. Mary and her colleagues managed to save the rest – 84pc of the children – from the Nazis clutches.
The same can’t be said for Mary herself. In 1943, she was arrested by German security police on suspicion of espionage, making secret border crossings and for anti-Reich propaganda.
After months of lobbying for her release by the Quakers, the Irish government and the German ambassador to Ireland, Mary was finally freed from the Gestapo-run Fresnes Prison.
She continued her aid work after being released, but when the war ended she settled down to married life with her French husband and busied herself raising her two children.
Mary was offered the Legion d’Honneur – France’s highest accolade – but refused as she thought others were worthier. She rarely spoke to her family about her life-saving work during both wars.
Author Clodagh Finn travelled throughout Europe and Ireland picking up the pieces of information to reveal the story of this brave, unknown woman, even meeting some of the children Mary saved from Auschwitz. Clodagh’s excellent book, A Time to Risk All, is a testament to the courage and spirit of Mary Elmes.
We often look to politicians and soldiers as being the shapers of history but were it not for extraordinary people like Mary, the story of our past would be very different, and much, much bleaker.
Mary Elmes died in 2002, aged 93. She provided sanctuary for the most vulnerable, gave them hope amid despair, saved lives and created futures where none looked possible. What greater legacy could a person leave?
Whether she’d like it or not, she should not be forgotten. We should treasure her memory and, in our own small ways and in these times when refugee crises are rife, we should continue her good work.
Mary Elmes – Corkwoman, humanitarian and Ireland’s forgotten Holocaust heroine.