A new exhibit in Dublin, the Holocaust in Europe, tells the story of Cork native Mary Elmes and how she helped save a number of Jewish people from being sent to the Auschwitz death camp.
The Irish Times reports on the otherwise untold story of Mary Elmes and her determination to save innocent children from the fate of Nazi death camps during World War II.
Elmes, a native of Cork, graduated from Trinity College in Dublin in 1932 with a gold medal after studying modern Spanish and French literature. Following her stay at Trinity, Elmes moved on to the London School of Economics where she was certified in international studies in 1935, and attained a scholarship to continue her studies in Geneva.
From there, Elmes floated from Spain as a part of the Society of Friends and aided in their relief efforts during the Spanish Civil War. She found herself later in France, to where she and thousands of other Spanish refugees fled following Franco’s victory in 1939.
It was in France that Elmes would begin her efforts in saving Jewish children from death camps. Two of the children she helped save - René and Mario Freund - credit Elmes at that pivotal moment in their lives.
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The Irish Times reports how many Jewish refugees were “transferred to a former army camp in Rivesaltes [France]; after the 1942 round-up that netted the Freund family all Jews taken in the unoccupied zone were interned there.”
Rivesaltes was known as a “barbaric” place for those who were held there. Lice and rats overran the camp, and prisoners were forced to wear only rags during the brutally cold winters and hot summers.
“Children even younger than me were being transported from Rivesaltes,” said Rene Freund, one of the then children that Elmes helped save. “At the very time we arrived convoys were departing weekly in railway wagons. Thus, Mary Elmes was instrumental in saving our lives at this critical period.”
If their parents agreed to it, refugee children in the camps under the age of 16 could be taken away from the camp. Seizing this opportunity, Elmes helped transport the young refugees to “children’s colonies and hotels ... ruse to get them to safety since many simply slipped over the border.”
Since Elmes’ work thrived on being clandestine, the exact number of people she saved will probably never be known. She reportedly also arranged paperwork to help adults who were on the run “legally” get out of then occupied France.
Elmes was arrested in January 1943 on suspicion of helping to sneak Jews out of France. She was imprisoned in the infamous Fresnes Prison outside Paris, only to resume her work again upon her release.
The Freund brothers were freed in 1943, and they later emigrated to Canada where they changed their names to Ronald Friend and Michael Freund.
Now living in Portland, Ronald is a professor emeritus at the department of psychology in Stony Brook, New York. His brother, Michael, remained in Canada and became an industrial engineer.
Elmes went on to marry a Frenchman and have two children with him. The family settled in France, though Elmes did make trips back to visit her native Cork. She died in 2002 and never looked for any special recognition for the immense work she helped with during the Holocaust and even refused a Légion d’honneur.