Irishwoman Mary Elmes is often spoken of in the same breath as Oskar Schindler, the Czech industrialist who saved well over 1,000 Jews from the Nazi concentration camps. They bear comparison – Mary Elmes too saved Jews, most of them children, when they were about to be deported from France to those same camps. The difference is one of scale – she saved perhaps 50 children – and the level of risk she faced. Schindler was in Poland, working alone at the centre of the Nazi machine. Elmes was in southern France dealing with French police who tended to be more sympathetic and, working for the formidable Quaker Refugee Relief organisation, was surrounded and supported by many others engaged in the same enterprise. She was also a citizen of a neutral country. None of this takes from her achievements, of course. The worst could easily have come to the worst.
Who was Mary Elmes? What motivated her? With this biography Clodagh Finn has taken pains to find out but really she remains something of an unknown. Being neither a writer nor interested in talking about herself, Elmes left behind little for a biographer to interpret. There’s an occasional tantalising comment to be gleaned from her letters or diaries, or an event that suggests something of interest, but Finn tends to leave them as stones unturned. Her biography is a bit on the hagiographical side.
Working keenly, however, with the little she has, Finn lays out the bones of the story. Mary was born in Ballintemple, Co Cork, in 1908, to a prosperous Church of Ireland couple. Her father Edward was a pharmacist in his wife’s family’s business, a pharmacy and glass suppliers in Winthrop Street. Elizabeth Waters, her mother, was involved in the suffrage movement. Edward Elmes’s brother was a surgeon in the Boer War and a sister had served as a nurse, while a family friend was a Quaker volunteer in France during the first World War. When she volunteered with Save The Children in the Spanish Civil War, Mary could be said to have been following a tradition.
This was in Geneva where she was studying international affairs, after studies at the LSE and Spanish and French at Trinity – she may have been taught by Samuel Beckett. Though an “excellent” student, she found her métier in aiding people caught up in the catastrophes of war.
Working with the Hispanophiles and humanitarians, Sir George and Lady Young, who had put out the call for volunteers, Mary found herself in Almeria, running food stations for the hordes fleeing the bombardment of Malaga by the Nationalists. When Almeria in turn was bombed, the refugees,100,000 of them, were moved to Murcia and she was sent there. She described what she was like then in one of her few statements. “. . . I got things done. I had a fixed point of view and I went on with it. I was not emotional but rather clinical, like a doctor or a soldier, I suppose . . .’
Elmes had no medical training but her steadiness and capableness were useful in administration and organisation. She ran the American Quakers’ new hospital in Alicante and set up food canteens in the province. In 1939, after Franco expelled the Quakers, the Friends appointed her to Perpignan to establish a cultural programme for the thousands of Spanish who had fled there.
She had an agreeable respite in Paris with a colleague, Dorothy Morris, buying 4,000 books – they were given a generous budget – for refugee camps. In a rather stiffly expressed letter from Perpignan to Dorothy, who was worried about the plight of intellectuals under Franco, she wrote that she felt the struggle in Spain was about “raising the level of culture” generally and that the plight of “intellectuals” should not be their first concern.
The war in Europe proceeded on its darkening course. A new camp was opened at Rivesaltes by the Vichy regime and used to intern Jews. Conditions were terrible, worse than in the others along the coast. Mary drove from camp to camp, providing food, necessities and comforts. As plans for the deportations were put in train in the summer of 1942, the camp authorities met the relief agencies and told them that, contrary to their hopes, the children would be deported along with their parents. Aware already of the fate that lay ahead for deportees – a Quaker representative had spoken to Vichy of his fears of “annihilation” – they took action. Mary left the camp that evening with several children in her car and returned for more the next day.
She was by no means alone in this. And such escapes were abetted by the commandant at Rivesaltes who, Mary’s boss said, “simply ‘gave’ children to our delegates with the urgent admonition ‘Make them vanish’.” It was Mary who “spirited away” nine children when the first convoy left Rivesaltes for Auschwitz on August 11th. In all, more than 400 children were rescued, brought to the Quaker childrens’ home at Canet Plage, to a hotel, the Angleterre, at remote Vernet Les Bains, or taken in by sympathetic families.
Meanwhile, Mary was managing to live a kind of normal life. She went climbing in the mountains, entertained visitors on her flower-filled apartment balcony and was seeing Robert Danjou, a forester and farmer, whom she would marry after the war. This was interrupted in 1943 when she was imprisoned for five months by the Gestapo on suspicion of espionage, first in Toulouse and then at Fresnes near Paris.
With the reliance in this account of good people – the Quakers – doing good things in bad times, Mary Elmes is a vehicle for their story as much as her own – fitting perhaps for someone who never sought the limelight. She died in 2002 aged 93 after an apparently contented married life in Perpignan where she reared two children and rented holiday gites.
Anne Haverty’s ‘A Break In The Journey’, a collection of poems, will be published in 2018