The Story Continues….
Mary Elmes and the Quakers in Southern France. When I wrote about Mary Elmes and the work of the Quakers in Southern France in Love and War in the Pyrenees I little knew how the story would unfold. However, as a result of my book, in June 2014 she was awarded the honour of “Righteous Among the Nations.” These are non-Jews – most famously Oskar Schindler – who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination.
Now Mary’s story has been celebrated in Ireland, with a film about her and two biographies. “A Time to Risk All” by Clodagh Finn describes how the author met Charlotte Berger, who had been rescued as a five year old child from the camp at Rivesaltes. Her mother had been deported on September 11th 1942 and died in Auschwitz. The train carrying her 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 faithfully written down by Mary Elmes’s colleague, ambulance-driver Nora Cornelissen, and sent to a children’s home called Chateau du Masgelier 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, Finn had met and interviewed Charlotte Berger (now Berger-Greneche). “She said that she had nothing of her mother’s, not a picture, not a memento, just a vague memory of being dressed by her while they were detained behind barbed wire in Block K of the Rivesaltes camp.”
Finn found Charlotte’s mother’s note during the final stages of research on the biography. Thanks to the meticulous records kept by Mary’s employers, the Quaker American Friends Service Committee, Zirl Berger’s words were archived. Seventy-five years after they were first written, Finn was able to send Charlotte Berger her mother’s last words.
“It is the most moving message I’ve had,” she said. “A thousand thank-yous.” Later, she said she felt as if some little part of her mother was still alive.
But more was to come.
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, Finn happened to be meeting Charlotte in Paris again.
“I have a photo of my mother,” she said, a little overwhelmed.
“We sat in a cafe, looking at it between sips of tea, trying to fit words to the incredible thing that had just happened – Charlotte Berger-Greneche was looking at her mother’s face for the first time at the age of 80.”
For nearly ten years between 1937 and 1945, Mary Elmes worked as a relief worker for the British and American Quakers in war-torn Spain and France. She never talked afterwards about what she did, but she helped save many hundreds of people incarcerated in the concentration camps of Southern France, especially children, from death and deportation. Mary died in 2002 and her children received the award on her behalf on June 27th, in the seaside town of Canet-sur-Mer, near Perpignan, on the Mediterranean coast – where once refugees were huddled in ramshackle camps on the beaches.
One of the children she rescued, Ron Friend, now a psychology professor in the United States, was at the ceremony. He had been rescued as two year old René Freund from the camp, given up by his parents. His father ended up in Auschwitz. As a result of reading my book he discovered that Mary Elmes was his rescuer and proposed her for this award. He described to me his first visit to the remains of the camp at Rivesaltes, “There are just the remains of the railway lines,” he said, ” that carried them away, the barracks, that is all there is left.”
The search for Mary Elmes
Mary’s story first emerged during my research for Love and War in the Pyrenees. The references were few and it was tantalising to know so little of this heroic woman. Then listening to a history guide at the camp at Rivesaltes one day, an elderly lady piped up to ask about the work of the Quakers. She told me later that she was the daughter of Mary Elmes, but that her mother had never told her anything of those times – so many people wanted to forget, and some – especially women- felt no desire for recognition. They simply did what had to be done. Perhaps also when the awful truth about the extermination camps was confirmed when they were liberated in 1945, they felt that what they had done was not enough.
After Love and War in the Pyrenees was published I have heard from so many people, writing letters, sending emails via my website, even turning up at the door; the daughter of concentration camp victims offering me their last letters; the mysterious skeletons found buried in Andorra, probably killed by renegade passeurs; the elderly Catalan farmer describing how they hid the pig from the Germans; the teacher who recalled his childhood in the Ariège, the sweets offered by the soldiers- “You recaptured my childhood,” he told me; the American soldier who had been parachuted into the mountains to aid the Resistance and whom I finally met in Paris. All stories that of course I wish I had been able to incorporate into the book, but I began to understand that is in the nature of such a subject that they will emerge only afterwards.
I was particularly touched by one email I received from a 78 year old Quaker, Bernard Wilson, who had a house in the region. He says now his email to me changed his life. He had never written to a writer before, but was struck by the information about the work of the Quakers in Southwest France. He had not known any of it. But he mainly wrote because he recognised my name and had known my father, Walter Bailey, or rather known his reputation – Dad always had a reputation- because both had been students for the ministry at Rawdon Baptist College, in Yorkshire.
We met for lunch in my village of Mosset and I took Bernard and his wife, Janet, to visit La Coume, the wartime Quaker refuge high in the mountains, of which I had already written. We got on so well, and as a result I was invited to give a talk at a Literary Lunch in their village of Quillan. It was the beginning of a programme of lunches for local writers and a new stage in my relationship with Bernard and his wife. Before I left Bernard observed that it was my father that had really started it all.
Bernard then began researching the Quaker history in Southern France, keeping me supplied with new information and photos. I encouraged him and delighted in all the new material. Then Bernard wrote about his researches and my book in the Quaker newsletter. As a result he was contacted by an American professor who had read his article, and hoped he might help in tracking down his rescuer, Mary Elmes, mentioned so briefly in my book.
This is what Professor Friend wrote to me:-
Dear Rosemary Bailey, Bernard Wilson just sent me your email address, so I hope this is not too much of an intrusion. First of all I want to thank you so much for writing such a truly remarkable book, “Love and War…” . The way you weave the voices and narratives, the personal together with the historical and geographic, is really quite amazing: it all falls together seamlessly, is so authentic and documented, and captures the atmosphere of the period and place so well. There are so many good things to say about your book! (By the way I just love the bit about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s request to send a “a warship round to pick them up”!) As Bernard will have mentioned, with his help I have been reconstructing my “exit” as a 2 year old (and my 6 yr old brother) from Rivesaltes to Marsac sur Tarn in September, 1942. Last week I learned from an 1945 OSE file that Mary Elmes was responsible for rescuing us from Rivesaltes on Sept, 26, 1942. She took us to St Louis Hospital and then to Hotel de Portugal in Vernet les Bains. So I thought I should let Caroline Danjou know how grateful I am for what her mother did in saving our lives in that dreadful August/September period when convoys were leaving for Drancy. If you think she would appreciate my contacting her and you have an address, please let me know? (By the way I have not been able to get any response from the Perpignan Municipal Archives.) Thanks also for suggesting Henri Parens’ book. Thanks again for writing a wonderful book! regards, Ron
Bernard’s research- his logical approach is salutary- has been prodigious. He has uncovered a vast cache of material, in particular the records of Quaker activities (a mountain of reports, letters and photos) now held by the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia). The AFSC were active in Spain in the Spanish Civil War, controversially giving aid to both sides in the conflict, which caused much heart searching among the Quaker workers in Spain. After 1940 when the British had to leave France, they took over the work in France. It became clear there was a vast amount of information that has barely been tapped. Bernard and the Professor tracked down the daughter, Caroline Danjou, to a small seaside town, St Marie-de la Mer, in the Pyrenees Orientales. Bernard began to piece together the full story of Mary’s life. We visited the family together, and found a further unexplored trove of material, from journals kept since she was 17, to letters, photographs, her typewriter, photos and drawings from camp internees. Bernard Wilson has now written a book for children inspired by his research. Check it out on http://campsofshame.webplus.net
Mary Elmes in Spain and France
Mary Elmes, a young Irishwoman born in 1908, had left Ireland, after studying languages at Trinity College, Dublin and headed for London with a scholarship to LSE. She then went to study in Geneva, where she became involved with the Quakers. She went with them on a five day mercy mission to Spain, via Gibraltar, in 1937. But Mary was determined to stay on and help and hooked up with Sir George Young and the London University Ambulance Unit. (see above photo) It was the beginning of the rest of her life.
She continued working with the Quakers. Their commitment to pacifism and tolerance – their fundamental belief that there is something of God in everyone, and their emphasis on practising their beliefs – has led them to be deeply involved in war relief operations since the 1870s. (As a result of their work after the First World War in Germany where they fed a million children daily there are streets still called Quakerstrasse.) Mary ran a children’s hospital in Alicante, but when the bombing became too heavy she took the children to safety in a small mountain village. Even when her father died in Ireland in 1938 and her mother begged her to return home, she insisted on remaining with the children, unable to find anyone to replace her.
After two years on the front-line in Spain she escaped with the last of the Republican refugees to France, where another tragedy was about to unfold. Half a million Spanish men, women and children had struggled across the Pyrenees into France, bombed and machine-gunned by planes, while enduring the hardships of the terrain and freezing winter weather. The French response was to section off areas of the Mediterranean beaches with barbed wire, and to enclose the refugees between the wire and the sea. They had to scoop depressions in the sand for shelter. There were no toilets, they had to use the sea. Drinking water was pumped up from underground but rapidly became polluted, bread was tossed over the wire leaving the refugees to fight for food. The French authorities hoped that their unwelcome guests would return to Spain – some did, but most refused knowing what fate might await them there.
Mary realised that if these camps were to remain for any length of time, there was a need for schooling, for reading matter for children and adults, for the means to occupy their time and provide some kind of purpose to their existence. In July 1939 she was appointed by the International Commission of the American Friends Service Council – the American Quakers – for cultural work in the camps. She saw the need for books in Spanish, and went to Paris to buy books for the libraries she was soon to open. She became a familiar figure in the camps, thousands knew her as “Miss Mary” and turned to her for solutions to their problems. The work with the refugees was supported by the great cellist, Pablo Casals, who had also taken refuge in the region (the Spanish Fascists said they would break his arms if they ever caught him.)
But things were to become worse still. With the outbreak of war in September of 1939, German refugees who had sought shelter in France were immediately rounded up as enemy aliens, many of them ending up in the already overcrowded camps on the Spanish border. The following year, with the German invasion of the Low Countries and finally France itself, another tide of refugees poured into the region. Now everyone was short of food. Mary and her colleagues in Perpignan opened canteens, provided meals in schools throughout the region, while still continuing the work in the camps. When France was occupied by the Germans in 1940, the British Quakers had to leave. Mary as an Irish neutral, was able to stay on. She ran the Quaker relief operation from Perpignan for the next five years, working in the concentration camps, supplying much needed food and clothing, and struggling for the release of desperate internees. She paid regular visits to the camps, both those on the beaches and the notorious camp at Rivesaltes, (the Drancy of the South, according to Serge Karlsfeld) near Perpignan, stretched out over a bleak open plain, over-run with rats and lice. Internees suffered from malnutrition and the bitter wind of winter and the scorching heat of summer made living there intolerable. Mary was particularly concerned with the children in the camps, malnourished babies and pathetic orphans left behind when their parents were deported. (The parents were given the choice of leaving them behind, causing heart-rending scenes which Mary describes in her letters.) Many were rescued, sometimes smuggled out and taken to children’s colonies in remote chateaux in the Pyrenees. When the deportations of Jews began from the South in 1942 the Quakers were often the only relief organisation permitted to provide food and water for the convoys of wagons. (They have been sometimes accused of collusion as a result…) Even the children’s colonies were not safe, children had to be spirited away and hidden in more isolated places. Mary concealed some children in the boot of her car and drove them high into the Pyrenees. When the Germans invaded the Southern zone in 1942, Mary was arrested on suspicion of spying and aiding escapees- though it seems it was her aid to the Jews that really caused the trouble. (She seems to have been disobeying orders from the US…) She hid papers which would have incriminated her in her bathroom, but eventually she was arrested and taken to Toulouse and then imprisoned in the notorious Paris prison of Fresnes. Her mother and her colleagues agitated for her release, appealing to the Irish ambassador in Vichy, sending food parcels- cooked potatoes and well wrapped hard boiled eggs recommended- but Mary remained incarcerated for nearly six months before being released. Then she returned to work, as brisk and spruce as ever. “We all suffered inconveniences in those days, didn’t we?” she said. Mary refused to accept the salary which had accrued while she was in prison, and likewise the Legion d’Honneur later offered by the French government. After the war she married a Frenchman, a local forestry engineer, and stayed in Southern France for the rest of her life. She never talked about her experiences and it is only since her death in 2002 that the extent of her work and sacrifice has begun to be appreciated. She died on the 9th March 2002, aged 94. She received this tribute in 1947, “Tirelessly, with courage and simplicity, she brought to the most deprived the food and clothing which prolonged their lives and the hope of survival. Her confident, affectionate and smiling presence kept the memory of happiness and liberty alive”. The more we researched Mary’s story, the more we discovered of the almost unknown story of the Quaker work in war torn Europe. The Quakers are notoriously humble about their own achievements, but they were a key part of a huge relief operation, staffed by a mixture of nationalities – neutrals from Switzerland, Norway, Denmark and Ireland. The relief work was funded largely by the Americans, involved in Europe long before they officially joined the war.