Saturday 15 December 2018

Remembering a forgotten Irish hero of the Holocaust

  • History: A Time To Risk All, Clodagh Finn, Gill Books,€16.99
  • The Extraordinary Story of Mary Elmes: The Irish Oskar Schindler, Paddy Butler, Orpen Press, €14.99
Mary Elmes saved hundreds of Jewish children from Auschwitz death camp while in France
Mary Elmes saved hundreds of Jewish children from Auschwitz death camp while in France

JP O'Malley

In the Shoah Museum in Paris a wall of remembrance commemorates the lives of 76,000 French Jews. All were deported from France during World War II to death camps in Poland by the collaborationist Vichy regime: the French government which succeeded the Third Republic from July 1940 to August 1944.

The Wall of the Righteous, also in that same museum, is dedicated to 3,900 brave souls who saved the lives of Jews in France during the war.

Under the letter M, an entry honours the name of an Irish woman: Mary Elmes. Born in Ballintemple, Cork in 1908, Elmes died aged 93, in Perpignan, in the south of France in 2002.

During a two-month period in the autumn of 1942, Elmes risked her life to hide several hundred Jewish children in safe houses in the Pyrenees-Orientales region.

Most of these children were staying in Rivesaltes: a concentration camp where Jews were temporarily held by the Vichy regime.

Between August and November 1942, some 2,289 Jewish camp internees at Rivesaltes were delivered by France to Nazi gas chambers in the east.

But thanks to Mary Elmes and her colleagues at the American Friends Service Committee - a Quaker aid organisation - an estimated 84pc of those children staying at the camp escaped deportation.

A Time to Risk All, by journalist Clodagh Finn, includes an impressive amount of research, including interviews Finn has conducted with those personally saved by Elmes, such as brothers George and Jacques Koltein, and Charlotte Berger-Greneche, whose mother was deported to Auschwitz. The journalist makes good use of archival evidence too, as well as a number of written testimonies that survived the war.

The book has just one minor weakness though: the reader is left with little sense of who exactly Mary Elmes was. However, the number of interviews Elmes gave in her own lifetime was limited. Therefore building a character profile is not easy.

Moreover, Finn suggests that a culture of denialism in post-war French society may be one reason for Elmes's consistent reticence to speak about her war-time experiences.

Still, Finn manages to build an intriguing narrative, given the limited information available. The Vichy regime was sending Jews to death camps in Poland voluntarily; sometimes when Nazi Germany was not even insisting that it do so. And so silence became the chosen option which French society used to deal with its shameful collaborationist past.

Indeed, as Paddy Butler points out in The Extraordinary Story of Mary Elmes: The Irish Oskar Schindler, until 1995, no French President publicly acknowledged the state's role in the rounding up of Jews. That changed when Jacques Chirac officially apologised to Jews on behalf of France. Butler, also a journalist, first broke the story about Mary Elmes in a 2012 article in The Irish Times. He is also executive producer on It Tolls For Thee: a recent documentary on the life of Mary Elmes, narrated by Hollywood star Winona Ryder.

Much of the limited material on which both Finn and Butler draw overlaps, and, most importantly, the subject they are writing about is identical. There are, however, subtle differences between both books.

Butler's tome is more concise; he gives the reader a firmer grasp of the bigger global historical political picture within which Elmes was working. And he dedicates considerable time and effort to sketching details about the Spanish Civil War, as well as anti-Semitic policy in Vichy France. Finn's book does this too.

Butler also gives us a brilliant insight into the history of the Rivesaltes camp itself, which he spends an entire chapter investigating.

Mary Elmes studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and later at the London School of Economics. Her love of European languages and culture took her on a sojourn to Spain to study in the early 1930s.

But Elmes's first posting as a humanitarian worker was not until February 1937 in Almeria, Andalusia, during the Spanish Civil War. This humanitarian aid mission was under the auspices of a venture known as the George Young Ambulance Unit: it would go on to save a number of lives in Spain at the time. In 1939 as the Spanish Civil War ended and World War II began, Elmes moved to the southern French border, then coping with millions of refugees, following the German invasion. This then brought Elmes in contact with thousands of French Jews: many of whom were not rescued. Instead, they faced eventual extermination. Both Finn and Butler pay tribute to some of these heartbreaking stories.

In February 1943, Elmes was subsequently arrested by the German security police on suspicion of espionage, although she was never officially charged with any offence as such. First, she was taken to a military prison in Toulouse, and then later transferred to the notorious Fresnes prison, south of Paris. But with the help of both her Quaker employers and the Irish consulate in Vichy France, Elmes was eventually released in July of that same year.

As recently as 2012, there was almost no recognition in Ireland of Elmes's brave wartime efforts. But as Finn and Butler point out in their respective books, the most likely reason the story never came to light is because Elmes purposely shied away from the public limelight.

In 1947, the American and British Quakers were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their relief during World War II. The French government wanted to pay a personal tribute to Elmes for her work, as head of the delegation in Perpignan; offering her the Legion d'Honneur: the highest French order of merit for military and civil merits. Elmes, however, turned it down. In 2013, Elmes was posthumously awarded the Righteous Among the Nations award at Yad Vashem: an honour conferred by the state of Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Such recognition ensures this heroic tale of exceptional moral courage - during one of the darkest hours of modern European history - will not be forgotten any time soon.

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