“Well, we all experienced inconveniences in those days, didn’t we?”
Mary Elmes, née Marie Elisabeth Jean Elmes (center), 5 May 1908–9 March 2002. Photo courtesy American Friends Service Committee.
In 2013, Mary Elmes became the first person from Ireland to be honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. She attended Trinity College in Dublin, where she won a gold medal in Spanish and French, and then studied at the London School of Economics on a scholarship. At the LSE, she won a further scholarship in International Studies. In February 1937, she joined the London Ambulance Unit, and during the Spanish Civil War, she worked at a children’s hospital in Almeria.
In May 1939, Mary was one of thousands fleeing Spain for France, over the Pyrenees Mountains. Once safely in France, she worked on providing educational books and organizing food for children. However, France wasn’t safe for long, and Vichy France, the southern region, became flooded with refugees who were promptly arrested and held in the Rivesaltes camp. Mary, who’d been working with the Quakers since the Spanish Civil War, continued this alliance with a campaign to save as many children as possible from the weekly deportations and the deplorable conditions at Rivesaltes.
Pic du Midi d’Ossau in the French Pyrenees, Copyright Ian Grant
With parental permission, children under 16 were taken from Rivesaltes to children’s colonies. In this way, Mary smuggled many children over the border. When the children’s colonies became unsafe, she moved the children high into the Pyrenees. She was arrested in February 1943, on suspicions of helping Jews, and was held for six months in Fresnes Prison near Paris. Luckily, she was never charged, and she resumed saving children.
After the liberation, Mary married Roger Danjou, and they settled in France and had two children. For the rest of her life, she frequently visited her native Cork, Ireland, and never sought recognition or special treatment for how she’d saved so many children. She even turned down the venerable Legion d’Honneur from the French government.