Mary Elmes was an Irish aid worker who saved over 200 Jewish children during the Holocaust by smuggling them across the Pyrenees mountain range.
Born in Cork, Ireland in 1908, Mary was a talented student who studied French and Spanish Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. She received a scholarship to further her studies at the London School of Economics. In 1937, Mary gave up her promising career in academia to become a volunteer aid worker and help refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War. She traveled over the Pyrenee Mountains from Spain into France, and helped procure food and educational materials for homeless Spanish children. After the war, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker humanitarian group, sent Mary to Almeria, Spain to work in a children’s hospital there. After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Mary was evacuated and sent to help out at the AFSC headquarters in Perpignan, France.
When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Jews were targeted by the Gestapo and French police. Many of them fled to Southern France and Mary went with them and worked with the American Friends Service Committee caring for refugee children. In 1942, the Nazis started rounding up Jews en masse for deportation to Auschwitz. Mary immediately took action. She smuggled children in the trunk of her car to safety in the Pyrenees. From there, she connected them to an underground network that evacuated them to safety.
Making so many trips to and from the mountains, Mary came under suspicion, and in 1943 she was arrested by the Nazis and charged with espionage. Because Mary was an Irish citizen working for an American organization, the Irish consul in Washington intervened and was able to get her released. Her family begged her to leave France, but she refused to abandon the refugees who needed her help, and continued her aid work in France until the war ended.
Mary married a French man and had two children. She never told them of her wartime heroism. When asked about her imprisonment, she said, “Oh, we all had to suffer some inconveniences in those days!” The French government offered her its highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur, but Mary humbly declined.
She died in 2002, at age 94, never having been publicly recognized for her bravery.
Mary’s incredible story only came to light in 2012, when Professor Ronald Friend, one of the hundreds of Jewish children Mary saved, nominated her as a Righteous Among the Nations. Her family was reluctant, as Mary never wanted any attention for her wartime activities, but they finally agreed. Mary is the only Irish person to be recognized as a Righteous Gentile by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem.
For saving the lives of hundreds of Jewish children at great risk to herself, we honor Mary Elmes as this week’s Thursday Hero.
With thanks to Michele Mickie Treste
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