Cork woman Mary Elmes is the first Irish person honored as “Righteous Among Nations” for her work saving Jewish children from the Nazi gas chambers during World War II.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, bestowed the award earlier this week. Elmes passed away in 2002.
Among the children Elmes saved was Ronald Friend, who is now a professor emeritus of psychology at Stony Brook, New York. Only two years old at the time, his father did not survive, but he and his five-year-old brother were rescued by Elmes.
The Irish Times reports that Friend said the award was “a long overdue recognition of Mary Elmes courageous and selfless actions in rescuing me and many other children when conveys were regularly departing to the death camps.”
Her cousin, Mark Elmes, who also lives in Cork, added, “I am delighted that she has been given such a high award and not forgotten for her bravery, tenacity and dedication to saving so many Jewish children during the Holocaust.”
Elmes was born in 1908 and attended Trinity College Dublin where she won a gold medal for French and Spanish. After studying at the London School of Economics, she joined the London Ambulance Unit in February of 1937. During the Spanish Civil War, she worked in a children’s hospital in Almeria. The Friend’s Service Council soon took over this work. Elmes continued her work until the war’s end in 1939.
In May of that year, Emes joined thousands in fleeing over the Pyrenees into France. There she continued her work with the Quakers. Emles focused on organizing food supplies and providing educational books for children.
In 1940 France fell to German occupation and thousands of Jews and others fled to the south of the country where they were arrested by the French police and held with Spanish refugees. At Riversaltes, the refugee camp was overrun with lice and rats and those there had little protection from the harsh winters and scorching summers. Convoys departed weekly in railway wagons taking people to concentration camps.
Elmes and the Quakers started a campaign to save as many children as possible. If their parents agreed, children under the age of 16 could be transferred from the camp to children’s colonies. Under this ruse, Elmes transported many children across the border. She hid them in her car and drove them high into the Pyrenees. It will probably never be known how many children she saved.
In January of 1943 Elmes was arrested on suspicion of helping Jews escape. She was never charged, but she was held for six months in Fresnes Prison near Paris. After her release, she continued her activities as before.
After the war ended, she married Roger Danjou and they settled in France and had two children. Elmes made frequent trips to Cork before her death in 2002 and she never sought special recognition for all the help she gave or all the lives she saved.