Friday 20 October 2017

Unearthing a true Irish war heroine - the Irish Oskar Schindler

While researching the life of Mary Elmes, an Irish Oskar Schindler, Clodagh Finn found a mother's last words to one of the children Mary saved. She delivered them - 75 years later

Mary Elmes
Mary Elmes

I did a double-take when I saw the letter. It was among the tens of thousands of documents in the US Quaker archives that detail how Irishwoman Mary Elmes and her colleagues saved hundreds of children from deportation to the Nazi gas chambers during World War II.

They had not been able to save Polish woman Zirl Berger (31) who was deported on convoy 31 to her death at Auschwitz on September 11 in the darkest year of the war, 1942, but Mary Elmes and her colleagues risked their lives to save her five-year-old daughter, Charlotte Berger.

She was spirited away from Rivesaltes, a holding camp for Jews in the south of France, and hidden in one of the children's respite homes that Mary had established in her role as head of the Quaker delegation in Perpignan.

When convoys left the camp on their way to Auschwitz, via Drancy in Paris, Quaker volunteers gathered at the stations en route to give food to those on board. The train carrying Zirl Berger stopped at Montauban, north of Toulouse, and she asked that this message be sent to her little girl: "Send her my most affectionate thoughts and a thousand kisses."

It was faithfully written down by Mary Elmes's colleague, ambulance-driver Nora Cornelissen, and sent to a children's home called Chateau du Masgelier in central France. Charlotte Berger would spend time there, but not for several years. She never received that letter.

By an extraordinary coincidence, months earlier, in February 2017, I had met and interviewed Charlotte Berger (now Berger-Greneche). She said that she had nothing of her mother's, not a picture, not a memento, just a vague memory of being dressed by her while they were detained behind barbed wire in Block K of a camp that acted as a sorting centre for more than 3,000 adults and 174 children who were deported to Auschwitz in 1942. Just 84 of those people returned.

I found Charlotte's mother's note in May during the final stages of research on a biography of Mary Elmes, a Cork woman who refused any recognition for the lifesaving work she did in two of the 20th-century's worst wars, the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

Thanks to the meticulous records kept by Mary's employers, a Quaker aid organisation called the American Friends Service Committee, Zirl Berger's words were archived.

Seventy-five years after they were first written, I was able to send Charlotte Berger her mother's last words.

"It is the most moving message I've had," she said. "A thousand thank-yous." Later, she said she felt as if some little part of her mother was still alive.

But more was to come.

A few months after that, Charlotte brought the document to the Shoah Memorial in Paris, where Mary Elmes is also honoured, to make sure that a copy would be kept in its archive.

The Memorial already has the immense digitised Quaker archive, but an employee asked Charlotte to wait; there was a chance there might be a photograph of her mother on file.

One hour after that, I happened to be meeting Charlotte in Paris again.

"I have a photo of my mother," she said, a little overwhelmed.

We sat in a cafe, looking at it between sips of tea, trying to fit words to the incredible thing that had just happened - Charlotte Berger-Greneche was looking at her mother's face for the first time at the age of 80.

We did what most people do when they look at pictures of relatives; we tried to find a resemblance. There was something about the nose perhaps, then again, perhaps not.

"It's astonishing," Charlotte said.

That single word also describes many of the details which have come to light while writing a book about the life and times of Mary Elmes. This woman, born in Cork on May 5, 1908, touched the lives of so many in ways that we will, perhaps, never fully know.

Her courage and bravery were brought back into the public consciousness in September 2016 when the Smashing Times Theatre Company featured her in an evocative piece written by Mary Moynihan that formed part of The Woman Is Present: Women's Stories of WW2. (That production is now on tour, see www.smashingtimes.ie)

In the same month, Mary Elmes was honoured in her home city, Cork, by Network Ireland President Deirdre Waldron who nominated her for the Trish Murphy award.

At the time, I wondered why Mary Elmes was not a household name and I began to research this forgotten woman.

It was a fascinating journey that started with the discovery that she had lengthy absences from Rochelle School in Cork in the early 1920s, possibly due to the Spanish flu. I met her Cork-based cousin, Mark Elmes, who offered a family history. A little later, Dr Sandra McAvoy got in touch with the telling information that Mary's mother, Elisabeth Elmes, had campaigned for women's voting rights.

Mary Elmes came from a prosperous home on Blackrock Road in Cork, but it was also a progressive one. I sat in the room where she came into the world, thanks to the generosity of its current owner Jacinta Ryan, and heard that she had never returned to the house after it was sold in 1946, although her children had visited.

On one of her many trips back to Ireland from her adopted home in France, Mary had driven right up to the gate, but never ventured inside. "She didn't dare," her daughter Caroline Danjou said.

Her reticence in later life was very much at odds with her remarkable courage in wartime. I tracked down three sets of brothers, four of whom are still alive, and one woman, Charlotte, who were saved from deportation to Auschwitz, directly or indirectly, by Mary Elmes.

Two of those brothers, Michael Freund and Ronald Friend (Friend is the English-version of Freund), nominated her for Israel's highest honour, which is given to non-Jews who saved the lives of Jews in World War II. In 2013, she was named Righteous Among the Nations, the first and only Irish person to be so honoured.

Ronald Friend, along with British Quaker couple Bernard and Janet Wilson, had amassed a large archive on Mary Elmes and they shared four years of research with me.

Thanks to their work and documents in other archives, we can tentatively estimate that Mary Elmes saved as many as 70 children between August and October 1942, when nine convoys left Rivesaltes camp where Mary was working to deliver aid to internees.

She bundled them into the boot of her car and drove them to safe houses on the coast and in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

In the years before that, she proved to be an able and savvy administrator and rented a number of properties in the region and converted them into children's hostels. They were intended to give children temporary respite from the harshness of the camps.

However, when deportations began, they sheltered countless Jewish children whose parents were, in many cases, taken to their death.

Mary Elmes helped adults too. She wrote hundreds of letters trying to secure them travel documents and visas to get out of France. She later told her own children that she once hid an Austrian family in her apartment in Perpignan, but there is no documentary trace of that.

It might have ended abruptly in 1943 when she was arrested by the German security police on suspicion of espionage and sent to a notorious Gestapo prison outside Paris. However, she was released after six months and simply said of her time there: "Well, we all experienced inconveniences in those days, didn't we?"

She went straight back to work and continued to help refugees of all nationalities until she married Frenchman Roger Danjou in 1946. In post-war France, women were encouraged to go back into the home. The new French head of government Charles de Gaulle urged women to have 12 million bonny babies for France. In any case, Mary was happy to put the past behind her and concentrate on being a wife and mother to her two children, Caroline and Patrick Danjou.

While she spoke little of her wartime work, she did tell her children snatches of stories and kept a collection of photographs, documents and letters that open a tantalising window on a woman who, in another era, might have been a brilliant academic, or on the staff at the United Nations. She once said she would have liked to work at the UN.

Traces of her life and work survive in archives and letters here, in France, the UK, New Zealand, Canada and America - perhaps I had expected to find those. What was particularly surprising, however, were the personal testimonies that are still so vivid, decades later.

In one description in the archives, her former colleagues describe how Mary - or 'Miss Mary' as she was known - was greeted with great warmth and affection in the squalid camps that had been hastily thrown up to shelter the 500,000 Spanish refugees who came streaming over the Spanish-French border after Franco's victory in 1939. The fond nickname appears in several documents, but it came as a tremendous surprise to meet someone who still remembered Miss Mary.

Last December, thanks to French authors Simonne Chiroleu-Escudier and Mireille Chiroleu, I met Gilbert Susagna (82) in Perpignan. He was only four when he first met Mary Elmes - "she is a silhouette at the edge of my memory now" - but he remembers her with exceptional clarity because his mother talked of her for years afterwards.

"She spoke about Miss Mary, Miss Mary, Miss Mary and when she spoke of her, it almost brought tears to her eyes. Miss Mary never once let her down."

Another Spanish refugee, Catalan poet Agusti Bartra, spoke while he was alive of Mary Elmes's kindness and how she had sent him her own Spanish-English dictionary when he wrote to the Quakers requesting one.

"I will never forget it," he said. "This dictionary which has travelled with me during all my exile, is for me a luminous example of love."

Mary Elmes had used that very dictionary when she studied Spanish and French at Trinity College Dublin in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Samuel Beckett lectured her briefly and while she loved French, it is likely that the college's first professor of Spanish, Dr Walter Starkie, who regaled students with tales of his travels through Spain with the gypsies, instilled in her a lasting love of the country and its people.

She excelled at her studies. Mary Elmes was a first-class honours student from day one. She won a gold medal in 1931 and, after graduating, she was awarded a scholarship to study at the London School of Economics (LSE).

Her references are still in the school's archive. They describe a student "of unusual intelligence" who "had an exceptionally brilliant academic career".

That could not have prepared her for what she would see when she volunteered to join the University Ambulance Unit which went to Spain after the fall of Malaga in February 1937. The first letter she would have seen when she arrived in Gibraltar was from another aid worker, Violetta Thurstan, who told Mary Elmes's party how, during an attack, "the Red Cross man had been blown, chair and all, from one side of the room to the other".

He lived to tell the tale, but Mary Elmes was not for turning. When she was assigned to Sir George Young's ambulance unit, it was the first posting in a career as a volunteer that would span nine years. The women she met in those first months were courageous nurses and volunteers whose composure had been developed while working on the front-lines of other wars.

Mary Elmes would prove to be just like them: clear-headed, unsentimental and focused in the chaos of war.

'A Time to Risk All' by Clodagh Finn is published by Gill Books, €16.99. It is out on Friday

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