The remarkable story of a heroic Irishwoman during World War II is only now coming to the fore, writes Clodagh Finn
On a clear, bright morning in late June 2014, Prof. Ronald Friend set out along the Rue du Nord to find the school where he and his brother had been hidden in plain sight, along with other Jewish children, in the latter years of the Second World War. He was looking for landmarks on the quiet road that goes down to the Tarn, the river that gives Marssac-sur-Tarn in south-west France its name, but he had no real memories to speak of.
Yet, despite the passage of time, he had flown from his home in Portland, Oregon, specifically to recall those dark years. A few days earlier he had attended a ceremony to honour Mary Elmes, the Irishwoman who had extricated him and his older brother from a notorious detention camp in 1942, saving their lives. She played a vital role in rescuing hundreds of Jewish children from the cattle wagons that were destined for the Nazi death camps that year. Later the Gestapo arrested and imprisoned her for six months, but she continued to work to help refugees of all nationalities. Her work went unheralded for decades, but, thanks to Ronald Friend’s nomination, she had just been awarded Israel’s highest honour for risking her life to save Jews during the Holocaust. Now Ronald, his son Sean and a French friend were revisiting the community that had protected them as children while the occupying Germans held their parents.
He reached the town square and went into the church, where he took photographs of a plaque honouring Resistance fighters. It was signed by Fr Louis Bézard, a name familiar to him. The local priest had played a big part in his escape. When Ronald first revisited France, in 1956, Fr Bézard had been able to recount, in great detail, what had happened. He had described how, in November 1942, Ronald (then three years old) and his brother (aged six) were smuggled to a safe house in Toulouse and taken to Marssac.
In a six-page written account, the priest described how he and his colleague André Violier hid the children on that perilous journey. He wrote: “The return [to Marssac] was difficult…in particular going across Toulouse and at the train station, which was under heavy Gestapo surveillance. We had to hide the children in our luggage and under a big overcoat.” By the time they got to Marssac the little boys were “upset, frightened and starving”.
They were not the only Jewish children taking refuge there: five others had found refuge at the presbytery too. After a few days, when they had regained their strength, the Freund brothers were placed with foster families and they were soon absorbed into daily life in the town.
They were baptised as Catholics and mixed in with local children at the school that Ronald had just rediscovered seven decades later.
Over the years he has gathered a number of documents that have helped him piece together what happened after his parents were forced to flee an increasingly anti-Jewish Berlin in 1933. His father, Dr Hans Freund, was German and worked as a consulting engineer at Dresdner Bank (which was, ironically, Hitler’s bank). His mother, Eva, a physician, worked at a Jewish hospital before they were forced to move to Milan. The couple’s first son was born there in 1936. They called him Mario, in the hope that he might get Italian papers.
But with the rise of fascism the family was forced to move again, this time to Paris, where Ronald was born on October 28, 1939. He was given a French name, René, and again his father tried, unsuccessfully, to get him French papers. There was a step-daughter too, Suzanna (Sanne). Her mother, Hans’s first wife, had died. Sanne had been sent to relatives in England before the war but was very unhappy to be separated from the rest of the family, and sent postcards saying so, although in a letter written in June 1942, five months before her father was deported, she sounded rather cheerful, describing life at an English school, hiking with the Girl Guides, and a ballet performance in Oxford by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. “I think ballet is like acting, only everything is arranged symmetrically,” she wrote, before adding that she hoped the family would all be able to go to America soon.
They would never make that journey, although Dr Freund did receive a job appointment from the Stevens Institute in New Jersey. However, his attempt to get an exit visa for the United States failed. He tried Mexico too, and a number of countries in South America, all without success; yet he continued to explore every possible avenue while interned at Rivesaltes.
Ronald Friend had always known of his father’s efforts, but for decades he wondered why his mother was eventually freed but not him. He also wondered who had taken him and his brother from the camp to safety in September 1942. The answer to that question would eventually come in an email many years later when, in January 2011, Katy Hazan, historian and archivist at the Jewish aid organisation OEuvre de Secours aux Enfants provided a name. The woman who rescued the Freund boys was a Miss Elms.
In fact this was Mary Elmes, who, Ronald Friend would discover, had saved many lives but had quietly turned down any recognition for it when the war was over. He went on to uncover several references to this forgotten aid worker. In 1942 she risked her life several times by hiding Jewish children in her car and driving them to safe houses in the Pyrénées-Orientales region. In a two-month period in the autumn of that year, some 2,289 Jewish adults and 174 children, some as young as two, were herded onto cattle wagons at Rivesaltes and taken to Drancy transit camp outside Paris and then on to Auschwitz. An estimated 427 children were saved from the convoys, thanks to the work of Mary Elmes and other women working at the camp.
It is impossible to calculate precisely the number of lives Mary Elmes saved, but she “spirited away nine children” from the first convoy on August 11, 1942, according to one surviving document.
After that she made several trips to and from the camp, loading her car with the Jewish children most at risk of deportation. Many years later she would tell her son, Patrick Danjou, that on one occasion she managed to hide six children in her car.
After the war she also mentioned in passing that she had hidden a family in her flat in Perpignan. However, she never made much of the work she had done as head of the Quaker delegation in Perpignan, when she helped hundreds of people to secure exit visas from France. She also made sure that hundreds more, mostly children, got out of the camps to take refuge in one of a number of Quaker convalescent homes she helped to establish all over the south-west of France. Some of the children she placed there were saved from deportation and death.
By the time Ronald Friend found out who had saved his life it was too late to thank her in person. Mary Elmes died in 2002, aged 93, in Perpignan, where she had lived the rest of her life after the war.
To honour her memory, Ronald nominated her for inclusion in the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ at Yad Vashem, an award conferred by Israel on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler and his wife, Emilie, are among its more famous recipients, recognised in 1993 for saving the lives of an estimated 1,100 Jews.
Ronald Friend was determined that Mary Elmes would also be honoured for what she had done. “Mary Elmes was clearly a figure who had not been given the recognition that she deserved. She was head of the Quaker delegation in Perpignan with up to thirty people working directly under her. She had been given a prominent role and she showed the way. She was obviously a woman of great intelligence, strength and character.”
If Ronald Friend had been in any doubt about that, the remarkable character of the woman who saved his life began to emerge when he started the long, taxing process of nominating her for the award at Yad Vashem. He enlisted the help of two British Quakers, Bernard and Janet Wilson, who had an interest in the work done by the Quaker delegation in the south of France during the war. Together they uncovered details of the life of an extraordinary woman who left a brilliant academic career behind to volunteer to work with children during the Spanish Civil War.
When more than half a million refugees fleeing Franco’s forces poured over the border into France in 1939, Mary Elmes followed them. From her base in Perpignan she helped set up schools, canteens, workshops, travelling libraries and convalescent homes for children. When the Second World War broke out she helped refugees from that war too – displaced Belgians, Germans and, increasingly, Jews who had been rounded up and interned.
In 1943 her work in the camps brought her to the attention of the Nazi authorities. She was arrested and jailed, first in Toulouse, then in the infamous Gestapo-run Fresnes prison outside Paris. The Quakers, and her mother in Cork, mounted a hard-fought campaign to get her out. Her neutral Irish nationality worked in her favour, and when she was finally released she made little of the experience. When a Quaker official, Howard Wriggins, asked her about it after the war, she remarked: “Well, we all experienced inconveniences in those days, didn’t we?”
Even though Mary Elmes spoke little of her work, the Quakers had archived hundreds of thousands of documents that allowed Ronald Friend and the Wilsons to collect enough hard evidence to prove that she had saved the lives of the Freund brothers. On June 27, 2014, she was posthumously honoured at an award ceremony in Canet-en-Roussillon in the south of France. Ronald Friend was proud to be there to see her become the first, and only, Irish person to be named Righteous Among the Nations.
Clodagh Finn is author of A Time To Risk All – the incredible untold story of Mary Elmes, the Irishwoman who saved children from Nazi concentration camps.