Righteous Among the Nations – An Irishman’s Diary on Mary Elmes, who saved Jewish children in wartime France

  Mary Elmes: risked her life to save Jewish children

Mary Elmes: risked her life to save Jewish children


In 1942 a remarkable Irishwoman repeatedly risked her life to save Jewish children being held in a Vichy French holding camp from transport to the gas chambers in eastern Europe.

Her name was Mary Elmes, a 34-year-old native of Cork who spoke fluent French and Spanish and had enjoyed a brilliant academic career in Trinity College Dublin and the London School of Economics.

Despite her academic qualifications, she turned her back on a conventional career to work among refugees and the victims of war.

On September 26th 75 years ago, Mary rescued two young Jewish brothers – René and Mario Freund – from the camp at Rivesaltes, near Perpignan, driving them to freedom in her own car. René was two years old; Mario was six.

Decades later René would finally identify his saviour and successfully nominate her as Righteous Among the Nations, Israel’s highest award for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Mary Elmes is the only Irish person to be so honoured.

Rivesaltes had become the holding centre for all those Jews desperately trying to escape from France who were arrested in the Vichy or Unoccupied Zone following a massive round-up that began on August 26th, 1942.

The brothers and their parents, Eva and Hans, had been arrested by French police while trying to flee into Switzerland and taken to the Rivesaltes.

For several years Mary had been working with a Quaker aid agency known as the American Friends Service Committee in Spain and France. She herself was not a Quaker. In defiance of directives from superiors that her work in the camp was at all times to remain strictly within the legal boundaries set by the Vichy authorities, Mary adopted a number of ruses to help children escape the convoys, the first of which had left the camp on August 11th, 1942.

A total of 2,289 Jews – including 110 children – were deported from Rivesaltes.

Mary could legally take children under 16 years from the camp to children’s colonies if she had written permission from their parents.

The colony stay was supposed to provide children with a period of respite before they returned to Rivesaltes.

But once the deportations began Mary was determined to take children out and keep them out, regardless of the legal position.

Armed with the necessary paperwork , on September 26th, 1942, she drove René and Mario to a Quaker colony high in the Pyrenees, later arranging for them to be spirited away by a village priest who took them to his presbytery nearly 200 miles from the camp. Their mother survived but they never saw their father again. Hans Freund was murdered in Majdanek camp in Poland in 1943.

Mary’s career as an aid worker began in 1937 when she travelled from London to Spain with a voluntary ambulance unit to help those caught up in the savage civil war then convulsing the country.

As Franco’s victory became inevitable in 1939, half a million republican men, women and children fled over the Pyrenees into France, where they were held in squalid, hastily erected internment camps, with little food, shelter or medical facilities. Mary worked in many of these camps.

Since 1938 France had begun interning “undesirables” in a network of camps all over the country. As stateless Jews in flight from Hitler poured into France, they too found themselves being interned in various camps before being sent en masse to Rivesaltes.

Because of the nature of her work, it will never be known how many people Mary saved, although eye-witnesses have reported seeing her, on several occasions, loading groups of children into her car and driving them past the guards.

In February 1943 she was arrested by the Gestapo and jailed for six months. Once released she went back to her work.

After the war she married a Frenchman and had two children.

Mary Elmes died in 2002 at the age of 93. She was made Righteous Among the Nations in 2013.

René and Mario – now known as Ron Friend and Michael Freund – live in the United States and Canada.

Speaking from his home in Portland, Oregon, Ron Friend said: “Mary Elmes saved our lives, my brother and I. At the time of our release children and babies – even younger than myself – were being put into cattle wagons to be deported. Seventy-five years ago Mary Elmes took us out of the camp. If it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t be here now.”

Paddy Butler’s book The Extraordinary Story of Mary Elmes, The Irish Oskar Schindler, is to be published by Orpen Press on September 26th. He is an executive producer of the Midas Productions’ documentary on Mary Elmes, It Tolls for Thee, which will be shown at 1pm on October 1st, as part of the Irish Film Institute’s Doc Fest (September 28th to October 1st).