Corkwoman helped Jewish brothers and many others avoid Auschwitz


RITE AND REASON:The recent opening of the Holocaust in Europe exhibition in Dublin brought to mind the little-known story of a remarkable Irishwoman who risked her life to save Jewish prisoners from the gas chambers, writes PADDY BUTLER

TWO OF the boys Mary Elmes rescued were René and Mario Freund. In September 1942 the young Jewish brothers were being held with their parents in a Vichy-French transit camp near the Spanish border. René was just two years old; his brother five.

The previous month they and their parents, Hans, a consultant engineer, and his doctor wife Eva, had tried to flee from France into Switzerland to avoid a round-up of Jews by the collaborationist Vichy authorities.

At the border the family was handed over to French police and taken to the notorious Rivesaltes holding centre near Perpignan in southwest France, from where a total of 2,551 Jews, including 440 children, were deported to Auschwitz.

Thanks to Mary Elmes the boys – as well as many other children and adults – escaped the fate of so many innocents.

Mary Elmes was born in Cork in 1908, where her family had a chemist shop on Winthrop Street. In 1928 she enrolled at Trinity College Dublin, where she became a scholar in 1931, graduated the following year with first-class honours in modern literature (Spanish and French) and won the gold medal.

She then attended the London School of Economics. In 1935 she gained a certificate there in international studies and won a scholarship to continue her studies in Geneva.

Contempories described her as tall and elegant, with a strong presence and a quiet determination. Before Rivesaltes, Mary worked with a volunteer ambulance unit in Spain during the civil war. Although not a Quaker she joined the Society of Friends’ relief efforts in Alicante, and was put in charge of the children’s hospital.

With Franco’s victory in May 1939 she joined the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled over the Pyrenees into France, where the Spaniards were held in dire conditions. The Quakers made Mary Elmes responsible for the Pyrenees-Orientales region.

When France fell in September 1940, thousands of Jews and others desperate to escape fled south. In early 1941, many of the refugees were transferred to a former army camp in Rivesaltes; after the 1942 round-up that netted the Freund family all Jews taken in the unoccupied zone were interned there.

Conditions were barbaric, with starving prisoners wearing rags. Rats and lice overran the camp, which was freezing in winter and scorching in summer.

René recently described the scene: “Children even younger than me were being transported from Rivesaltes. At the very time we arrived convoys were departing weekly in railway wagons. Thus, Mary Elmes was instrumental in saving our lives at this critical period.”

Children under 16 could be taken from the camp if their parents agreed. Mary and her colleagues organised children’s colonies and hotels to house them – a ruse to get them to safety since many simply slipped over the border.

René and Mario were brought to a hotel in Vernet-les-Bains, 70km from Rivesaltes, and eventually made their escape.

The nature of Mary’s work means it will never be known exactly how many lives she saved. She is said to have even smuggled children out in her car. She also arranged paperwork to allow adults on the run to “legally” leave France.

In January 1943 she was arrested on suspicion of helping Jews escape and spent six months in the infamous Fresnes Prison outside Paris. Once released she resumed her work.

René’s mother was freed in 1943. Her sons later emigrated to Canada, where they changed their names to Ronald Friend and Michael Freund.

Ronald, now living in Portland, is professor emeritus at the department of psychology, Stony Brook, New York. Michael became an industrial engineer in British Columbia.

Their father was deported to Majdanek extermination camp on March 4th, 1943. “He was among the 2,000 Jews requested by the Germans and delivered by the French authorities, in reprisal for the assassination of two German officers by the Resistance in Paris,” said his son.

After the war Mary Elmes married a Frenchman, had a daughter and a son and, although she often visited Cork, she spent the rest of her life in Perpignan.

She never sought recognition for the lives she saved or the risks she took– even refusing a Légion d’honneur. She died in 2002.

Paddy Butler is a Dublin-based freelance journalist. The Holocaust in Europeexhibition continues at the Department of Justice, Equality and Defence, on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, until Friday, February 10th.