‘A Time to Risk All’ unearths a quiet Irish war heroine

Posted on: 11th December, 2017

Category: Features

Contributor: West Cork People

Above: Mary Elmes (second from the right) at a feeding station in Spain.

In 2016, after seeing a performance of ‘The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII’ presented by Smashing Times Theatre and Film Company, journalist Clodagh Finn was inspired to begin an amazing journey that would culminate in the telling of the incredible untold story of Mary Elmes, the Cork woman who saved children from Nazi concentration camps.

Clodagh’s research took her all over the world, as she pieced together the story of this remarkable woman, meeting many of those children Mary Elmes saved. The result is ‘A Time to Risk All’, a compelling portrait of an unsung Irish heroine.

Sometimes known as the ‘Irish Schindler’, in 2013, Mary Elmes became the first Irish person to be named ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Born in Cork in 1908, Mary was educated at Trinity College Dublin. She won a scholarship to study at the London School of Economics and travelled to Europe in the 1930s. There she volunteered to help refugees during the Spanish Civil War.

“They were looking for nurses and doctors of which she was neither,” says Clodagh. “But she arrived in Spain on a five-day permit, obviously intending to stay for much longer. Her skills come to light very early and before long she was made a hospital administrator.”

When Barcelona fell to Franco’s forces, Mary followed the Spanish refugees to Southern France, where she continued to help them in their internment camps. Soon she found herself in the middle of another conflict, World War II.

In 1942, when it became evident that Jews were being deported to their death, she risked her life smuggling children to safety in the boot of her car and succeeded in getting a number of adults off convoys bound for Nazi death camps.

“Over three months, she and her fellow workers saved 427 children,” says Clodagh. “She was highly connected, a wonderful administrator and she took enormous risks in her work.”

Mary was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo on suspicion of espionage and hostility against Germany. “When Mary was in her 90s, one of her children went to throw out an old blanket. She asked to keep it, as she said it kept her alive in prison,” says Clodagh. “Although she never spoke about her wartime experiences, it showed that she did think about the past.”

During her research for the book, Clodagh met Charlotte Berger, one of the women Mary had saved.

Although they had not been able to save her mother, Zirl Berger, Mary and her colleagues risked their lives to save her five-year-old daughter Charlotte. Charlotte was hidden in one of the children’s respite homes that Mary had established in her role as head of the Quaker delegation in Perpignan.

When convoys left the camp on their way to Auschwitz, via Drancy in Paris, Quaker volunteers gathered at the stations en route to give food to those on board. The train carrying Zirl Berger stopped at Montauban, north of Toulouse, and she asked that this message be sent to her little girl: ‘Send her my most affectionate thoughts and a thousand kisses’.

It was written down by Mary Elmes’s colleague and sent to a children’s home in central France. Charlotte Berger would spend time there, but not for several years. She never received that letter.

By an extraordinary coincidence, months earlier, in February 2017, Clodagh met and interviewed Charlotte Berger (now Berger-Greneche).

“She told me that she had nothing of her mother’s, not a picture, not a memento, just a vague memory of her,” says Clodagh.

Clodagh found Charlotte’s mother’s note in May during the final stages of her research. Thanks to the meticulous records kept by Mary’s employers, a Quaker aid organisation called the American Friends Service Committee, Zirl Berger’s words were archived.

“Seventy-five years after they were first written, I was able to send Charlotte Berger her mother’s last words.”

A few months after that, Charlotte brought the document to the Shoah Memorial in Paris, where Mary Elmes is also honoured, to make sure that a copy would be kept in its archive.

The Memorial already has the immense digitised Quaker archive, but an employee asked Charlotte to wait; there was a chance there might be a photograph of her mother on file.

One hour after that, Clodagh happened to be meeting Charlotte in Paris.

“’I have a photo of my mother,’ she told me, a little overwhelmed.”

“’It’s astonishing,’ Charlotte said.”

“A word that also describes many of the details, which have come to light while writing a book about the life and times of Mary Elmes,” says Clodagh.

When the war was over, Mary married a Frenchman and settled down in Perpignan, never speaking about what she had done in either conflict.

“This woman, born in Cork on May 5, 1908, touched the lives of so many in ways that we will, perhaps, never fully know,” says Clodagh.

Clodagh Finn has been writing and editing for over 25 years. She spent 10 years at the Irish Examiner before studying at the European School of Journalism in Paris and working there as a freelance writer and editor. She later worked for the Sunday Independent and the Irish Independent for 13 years, most recently as production editor of Weekend magazine. She currently works as a freelance writer, editor and trainer and writes a weekly column for the Irish Examiner.

‘A Time to Risk All’ by Clodagh Finn is published by Gill Books, €16.99.

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