Fr Kevin Hegarty
One of my favourite novels is ‘Schindler’s Ark’, by Thomas Keneally. In 1993 it was made into a film, directed by Steven Spielberg and entitled ‘Schindler’s List’. The novel tells the factual story of Oskar Schindler in fictional form. Schindler was a German industrialist and playboy who, during the Second World War ran an enamel factory in Krakow. Through a variety of stratagems he saved 1,200 Jews from concentration camps.
The Holocaust is amongst the darkest episodes in human history. Underlying the Nazi ideology was the pernicious intention to exterminate an entire race. The Jewish scholar Arthur A Cohen claimed he could not speak about the Holocaust for several years as he had ‘no language that tolerated the immensity of the wound’.
A Cork woman has been called an ‘Irish Schindler’. Mary Elmes was born in 1908 into a liberal Protestant middle-class family. Her father was a pharmacist and her mother campaigned for female suffrage as a member of the Munster Women’s Franchise League.
From childhood she was aware of the horror of war. In 1915 she witnessed the anguish of the survivors of the Lusitania in Cobh, after the Cunard liner had been torpedoed by a German U-boat. During the War of Independence the family pharmacy was ransacked by the Black and Tans on their rampage through Cork city.
She was a formidable student. At Trinity College she graduated with first-class honours in Modern Languages and won a gold medal for academic excellence. A career in university beckoned. A college professor praised her ‘unusual intelligence’ and predicted ‘an exceptionally brilliant career’ for her.
That seemed to be the trajectory she was on, as she won a scholarship to the London School of Economics, where she studied international relations. After volunteering for the Save the Children charity her life took a different turn. She was asked by Sir George Young of the University Ambulance Unit to carry out relief work in Spain, then in the grip of civil war.
She arrived in Spain in February 1937. The civilian population was under constant attack by General Franco and his nationalist army as they sought to consolidate their ascendancy over the Republican forces. Assigned to a feeding station in Almeria, she won a reputation as an efficient and empathetic administrator. Moving eastwards, from Murcia to Alicante, she set up a children’s hospital, schools and food centres as she went. Dedicated to her humanitarian work, she did not return to Cork for her father’s funeral in 1937, as there was no one to replace her.
Franco’s final victory in the war made the country an inhospitable place for foreign aid workers. She went to France in 1939 to work for the International Committee for Child Refugees. Soon she was to find that she had moved from one war zone to another. Early in World War II, France succumbed to a German invasion and Hitler established a puppet regime at Vichy.
She was assigned by her organisation to serve in Perpignan in the southwest of France. Once again she embarked on setting up temporary hospitals, schools and canteens for the war-torn population in various localities. Years later she reflected nonchalantly, in an interview, on her experience:
“I liked to make people do things. But I just didn’t give orders. I did things myself. I got things done. I had a fixed point of view and I got on with it. I was not emotional but rather clinical like a doctor or a soldier, I suppose. Luckily I became hardened. It allowed me to work constantly.”
Her greatest achievement was to save 427 Jewish children from being sent to concentration camps where they faced almost inevitable death. In July 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned for six months. She dismissed the experience in her laconic way: “Well we all experienced inconveniences in those days, didn’t we.”
After the war she returned to private life and remained in France to her death in 2002. She married Roger Danjau, and they had two children.
Throughout her life, she refused honours and prizes for her prophetic ministry in war-haunted Europe. “She was not looking for accolades,” her son, Patrick, said some years ago. “She refused medals, money and other honours. She said she did what she did because it had to be done. That was all.”
Since her death, however, a bridge in Cork has been named in her honour. In 2011, one of the children she saved, Ronald Friend, nominated her for Israel’s highest honour. Two years later, it was granted to her, and she was named ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. She is the only Irish person to hold the award, which is given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Second World War.