Monday 14 October 2019

A bridge of honour for Irish woman who saved hundreds of Jewish children

The Mary Elmes bridge in Cork
The Mary Elmes bridge in Cork
Mary Elmes

If all the children saved from deportation to Auschwitz by Mary Elmes and her colleagues stood shoulder to shoulder on the new pedestrian bridge named after her in her native Cork, they would cross the River Lee several times over.

Some 427 children were rescued from the cattle-wagons that took thousands from an internment camp in south-west France to almost certain death, according to aid worker Vivette Samuel's tally. She worked alongside Mary at Rivesaltes camp near Perpignan during the darkest days of World War II.

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Two of those children will travel from Paris to Cork to attend the official opening on Friday of the €5m bridge that now bears Mary Elmes' name.

Charlotte Berger-Greneche and Georges Koltein will recall the woman who arranged for their transfer to a safe house as over 2,000 adults and 174 children were taken to the gas chambers of Auschwitz in nine convoys in the autumn of 1942.

Charlotte was four years old when her mother, Zirl Berger, was sent off "as if she was a parcel" on September 4, 1942. She never returned, although she did succeed in sending a message to her daughter from the window of a train. She asked a Quaker volunteer on a station platform to send her daughter her "most affectionate thoughts and a thousand kisses".

That message never reached Charlotte, although it did survive in the archives of the US Quakers. Seventy-five years later, she finally received it and later discovered a picture of her mother in a Parisian archive. She saw her mother's face again for the first time, aged 80.

Her experience underlines the importance of keeping the stories of World War II alive. As Georges Koltein puts it: "It is the time to speak of those things. If we don't talk, people can say it didn't happen."

His earliest childhood memory is of the early morning knock on the door when French police rounded up thousands of Jewish men, women and children in July 1942 and held them in a cycle track in Paris before sending them to their deaths in Auschwitz.

"Of the 13,000 people who were rounded up in Paris, there were 4,000 children, none of whom came back after being deported. I have always thought that I might have been one of them," he says.

Georges and his family fled to the south of France where they ended up in Rivesaltes, a camp where Mary Elmes spent her days helping refugees. As head of the Quaker delegation in Perpignan, she was responsible for an area about the size of Munster.

By then, Mary was already a veteran of war. In 1937, a year after the Spanish Civil War broke out, she volunteered to work with Sir George Young's University Ambulance Unit in Spain. When her father, Edward Elmes, a pharmacist, died unexpectedly in December 1937 she was unable to get home. She finally got to visit her mother after the war started in 1939.

Soon after she got a job with the American Quakers, returned to France and found herself in the middle of World War II. The camps, set up to house unwelcome Spanish refugees, soon started to fill with displaced Jews. When aid workers discovered that children were going to be deported along with their parents in August 1942, Mary immediately bundled six of them into the boot of her car and drove them to the children's respite homes she had set up in the foothills of the Pyrenees, which now served as safe houses. Then, she came back for more.

Days later, on August 11, 1942, she managed to "spirit away" nine Jewish children as the first convoy bound for Auschwitz left Rivesaltes, as a document written by her Quaker boss Lindsley Noble tells us.

One of those she saved, Professor Ronald Friend, nominated her for Israel's highest award when he found out what she had done in 2011. Three years later, she was named Righteous Among the Nations, an award given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the war.

Mary Elmes' life was certainly at risk. She was arrested on suspicion of espionage in 1943 and spent six months in a Gestapo-run prison. Later, she said she wouldn't have been without the experience. When the war was over, she never spoke about what she had done. She married a Frenchman, Roger Danjou, and lived in Perpignan until she died a few months short of her 94th birthday in 2002.

From his home in Portland, Oregon, Professor Friend said: "What a wonderful way to memorialise a talented and courageous citizen of Ireland who did so much to help the refugees fleeing Franco Spain and Jews from the Nazis. "

Prof Friend's brother, Michael Freund echoes that sentiment. Speaking from Canada, he said: "I think it is wonderful that the people of Ireland want a permanent memory of a great humanitarian. Mary Elmes' legacy is an example of the empathy the world still needs. The people of Ireland can rightfully be proud."

Her son, Patrick Danjou, will be at the opening on Friday along with Mary Elmes' second cousin, Mark Elmes, who lives in Cork. Her daughter Caroline cannot be there but she said the bridge represents a link between Cork, France and Spain. "I think my mother would be pleased."

The Mary Elmes bridge, which will be used by up to 11,000 cyclists and pedestrians daily, was jointly designed by ARUP Consulting Engineers and Wilkinson Eyre Architects. It opens officially on Friday.

Clodagh Finn is the author of 'A Time to Risk All', a biography of Mary Elmes

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