Author Archives: Bairbre Flood

From top: Mary Elmes; Patrick Danjou, Mary Elmes son with Charlotte Berger-Greneche one of the people his mother rescued during the Holocaust.

Next Monday

‘Mary Elmes’, the true-story of the only Irish person recognised by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations will be broadcast at 5pm.

But who was Mary Elmes?

Bairbre Flood writes:

Born in Ballintemple, Cork, Mary Elmes smuggled dozens of children to safety during WW2 and although imprisoned by the Gestapo on suspicion of this work – she managed to survive and live a long life in the South of France with her husband and two children.

She’s a fascinating character for many reasons, and her work during the Spanish Civil War and then in Rivesaltes Refugee Camp in the South of France are noteworthy even in themselves.

But it’s for risking her life, rescuing Jewish refugees who were being sent to concentration camps that she’ll be most remembered.

Her story raises all kinds of questions about moral courage and humanitarianism – and contrasts sharply with the official policy of the Irish government during the Holocaust.

While untrained as a medic, she volunteered in 1937 with Save The Children in Spain and was appointed by the Quakers to run one of their hospitals in Alicante.

Franco expelled them in 1939 and after a brief rest in London and Cork she was assigned work at Perpignan – to oversee a cultural programme for some of the half a million Spanish refugees which had fled into France.

The refugee camps set up to deal with this crisis became an internment camp for Jews in Vichy France, and conditions were deplorable.

When Jews began to be transported from here to concentration camps in Eastern Europe from 1942 onwards, Mary was one of many relief workers who smuggled children to safety. It’s estimated that over 400 children were saved, of which at least 80 were directly helped by Mary Elmes.

She never sought any attention for her actions, and died in 2002 at the age of 93.

The documentary on Mary Elmes talks to Ronald Friend and Charlotte Berger-Greneche (two of the people whose lives she saved), her biographers Clodagh Finn (A Time To Risk All )and Paddy Butler (The Extraordinary Story of Mary Elmes), her family, and long-time Quaker researchers Bernard and Janet Wilson.

It also puts Mary’s work into wider context of Ireland’s refusal to take Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.

According to Mervyn O’Driscoll, (Head of History, UCC) Ireland accepted very few requests for asylum from Jewish refugees.

Says Mervyn:

‘I think there was a very solid degree of latent antisemitism in Irish society based on fairly limited religious readings of Christianity, and prejudices they had picked up,’ said O’Driscoll, ‘In general what you found was the Dept. of Justice were very austere in their attitude to immigrants, and Jews in particular.’

Heino Schonfeld of the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland agrees that the numbers were shockingly low.

Says Heino:

‘Unfortunately most of them were unsuccessful and they were not given a visa or not given a welcome to this country.’ he said. ‘To a large extent the reason was antisemitsm.’

Fergal Linehan in The Dublin Review of Books reviewed An Irish Sanctuary: German-speaking Refugees in Ireland 1933-1945 by Gisela Holfter and Horst Dickel which documents the stories of the 426 individuals (not all, but mostly Jewish) fleeing Nazi Europe who were granted asylum here.

Linehan mentions Anselm Horwitz who escaped to Ireland, but whose parents were denied a visa, deported to Minsk, and murdered in 1941.

And Linehan makes the point that Portugal – a country roughly the same size as Ireland – took in between 13-15,000 refugees at this time,

Says Fergal:

‘Thus a case is to be made for the moral culpability of the Irish state during this period. It failed to act in an appropriate manner to what was, very probably, the worst humanitarian crisis in the history of humankind.’

Of course Ireland wasn’t unusual in refusing visas; Ronald Friend, one of the children Mary Elmes saved, said that his father had been almost granted a visa for the UK, but it never came through.

Ronald’s father Hans Freund was an engineer, and his mother Eva a doctor who fled Berlin for Milan in 1933. The fascists passed the Italian Racial Laws in 1938 – similar to the Nuremberg Laws in Germany and the Aryanisation Laws in France – and Ronald and his family left for France in 1939.

After a short time in Paris, and then Marsac, they were forced to try to escape over the border into Switzerland, but were arrested by French police.

Hans and Eva were sent to the Gurs camp in the Pyrenees from where Hans was deported.

Says Ronald:

‘They were given two hours to say goodbye’. Before he was taken from Gurs to Drancy which was the main transportation centre in France.’

From here Hans was ‘sent to the extermination camp called Majdanek in Poland’,

Ronald continued:

. ‘And there was no news – nothing else we ever heard about our father after that.’

Ronald and his brother Mario were detained in the Rivesaltes camp from where Mary Elmes managed to rescue them in 1942.

Others Mary helped to get out were Georges Koltein and Charlotte Berger-Grenche who were in Ireland for the opening of the Mary Elmes Bridge in Cork last year.

Charlotte was a young child when her 31-year old mother, Zirl Berger was murdered in Auschwitz.

Says Charlotte:

‘I don’t remember a lot of things, I was very small. I just have one glance of my mother and me; she’s dressing me on the bed. And my mother was deported from Rivesaltes to Drancy, and Auschwitz then.’

Charlotte credits a member of the OSE (Jewish organisation), Vivette Samuel and others with getting her to safety, and this is something which Mary’s daughter Caroline also emphasised.

Says Caroline:

‘She was not alone. There was a lot of people doing the same thing with her – she couldn’t do all that without other people.’

She pointed out that her mother never desired recognition for her work, eschewing a saviour narrative, and acknowledging the many people who worked together to do what they could under dire circumstances.

And yet, there’s no doubt Mary Elmes was a remarkable woman – a humanitarian who ‘had a tremendous ability and persistence to do what was right,’ as her cousin, Mark Elmes put it::

‘She stuck with it through thick and thin, and all she was concerned about were the victims.’

Listen to ‘Mary Elmes’ Monday January  27 at 5pm on UCC98.3FM, podcast later here.

Pics via Bairbre Flood

From top: members of Mahapach-Taghir; volunteer Nasreen Yassin (left) with Bairbre Flood

‘Learning To Change in Israeli and Palestinian Communities

A radio documentary premiering this weekend by Bairbre Flood on a grassroots, feminist, Jewish-Arab organisation that works for social change through education and community empowerment.

Bairbre writes:

‘It’s in the community, it deals with women, students and children; and it deals with Jewish and Arab, so I cannot find a more holistic way to make a change here in my society.’

– Fida Nara, the Palestinian co-director of Mahapach-Taghir

Influenced by a huge student strike twenty years ago in Jerusalem, Mahapach-Taghir (change in Hebrew-Arabic) was founded after students reached out to community members in a marginalised neighbourhood in the city, and with the residents set up an after-school program for children.

The learning centre they started for the children soon became a hub for community activism as parents gradually became involved – a key part of Mahapach-Taghir’s approach to community organisation.

As one of the women in the Yafa, Nazareth group told me:

‘I feel like they really hear me, really talk with me and they respect me. It’s a partnership; it’s dialogue. It’s not like ‘we have our program and this is what will happen,’ – that’s how it’s different here.’

Currently Mahapach-Taghir works with over 600 children and families, and 140 university students throughout Israel. Their emphasis is on strengthening bonds within each area, and creating links between the different communities.

I visited groups in Nazareth, Tamra, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (they also have a group in Maghar, a mostly Druze town in Northern Israel) and every group – whether Palestinian or Jewish – spoke of how they valued getting to know the other community.

‘Meeting Jewish women changed us,’ as another of the women in the Yafa, Nazareth group put it. Yafa (or Yafa an-Nasriyye) is part of the Nazareth municipality, and they’ve campaigned on a number of issues over the years, and set up initiatives such a women’s savings scheme – a way for the women to become more financially independent.

The coordinator of the group, Mona Arok, started attending a university course through her work with Mahapach-Taghir; in spite of huge opposition from her husband and family to stay in the home.

‘I realised that I’m raising five daughters. I realised they are the future in the community,’ she told me. ‘And if I go back now, [leave the university course] it will destroy them. So from them I took the energy to continue.’

She smiles broadly. ‘And now my husband came with me to the women’s protest in Tel Aviv. It’s amazing that I succeeded to do this change with him and with my family.’

When Mona began her work in the community there were seven women in the group; now there are more than forty.

‘I don’t decide alone,’ she said. ‘It’s important to talk to them as equals. Not from above, because women will think: you are living in your high palace and we are the poor people and you don’t really feel our pain, and what we need.’

‘I see a lot of leadership inside the women’, Mona continued. ‘I want them to decide the future of Mahapach. I want them to lead the work that I do here today.’

This excitement about learning is also evident while visiting Tamra, a mostly Arab town about an hours drive from Nazareth. I meet Suwad, who was given a scholarship – ‘like something gold’ – through Mahapach-Taghir.

‘This opportunity for learning changed my life,’ she said. ‘Now I am fifty-two years old, I think when I’m coming to the studying I feel like something was lost from me – and I found it.’

Another of the volunteer tutors, Nasreen Yassin, a young student at Haifa University, told me how working here helps her feel connected to her community.

‘I believe if I want to change something in the community I should begin with the children who surround me,’ she said.

Houria Abu Nimir, has prepared food for everyone. She’s a science teacher in the local school, and she tells me they can discuss political issues with the children in Mahapach-Taghir which they can’t do in the school.

‘We ask them what have you heard in the news, and give them the opportunity to say what they feel and think about it,’ Houria said. ‘It’s very important to understand your identity as a Palestinian who lives in Israel…and that you have enough time to talk to someone about it.’

Around 20% of Israeli’s are Palestinian, and while they have full voting rights and equal citizenship like any other Israeli, there are issues around racism and identity.

Lima Hajiah, is a young Palestinian student who volunteers in Yad Eliyahu – a mostly Jewish neighbourhood in Tel Aviv. She tells me how it’s important for her, as a Palestinian, to be here with the kids.

‘Most of the children might never have communicated with a Palestinian,’ she said. ‘This could be the first time for them to get to know each other as Jewish and Palestinian, and what this means to co-operate here together.’

Rachel, one of the mothers, is part of a new women’s group which is just setting up. They haven’t decided exactly what they’re going to focus on, and are in the early stages of brainstorming with each other.

‘I want my son to learn with me how to give back to the community,’ she tells me. ‘We want to see a change. We want to see improvement.’

Another mother, Tickva, said that meeting other women – whether Palestinian or Jewish, gives her new ideas.

‘If they share similar kind of problem,’ she said. ‘How they deal with that, what kind of solutions that they find…it’s interesting.’

The next day, in the Florentine neighbourhood of Tel Aviv I meet with Zehava Aknin and Dvora Levian, women in their sixties who’ve been volunteering for years in their community.

‘I work with religion people, not religion people. With women, kids, old people…with everyone,’ Zehava laughs.

Dana Zarif, the coordinator for this area translates for us, and she explains that the previous evening they’d a similar learning community in Florentine as in Yad Eliyahu where they help children with school work. ‘They also visit old people,’ she adds. ‘If I can help, I help,’ Dvora said. ‘It’s good for the heart.’

Devora also feels it’s important that the group is mixed.

‘They Arab want to live,’ she said. ‘We Jewish want to live, in not war, just peace. We want together speaking with each other – and meeting each other.’

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