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'I am truly grateful to Mary Elmes for the life I might not have had, had it not been for her brave actions to save us and many others. She was truly a heroine.' Michael Freund
Mary Elmes was an extraordinary woman. Sometimes known as the 'Irish Schindler', she was born in Cork in 1908 and educated at Trinity College Dublin. She won a scholarship to study at the London School of Economics and travelled to Europe in the 1930s. There, she volunteered to help refugees during the Spanish Civil War. Nothing could have prepared her for the horrific suffering she would witness, but she was determined to aid as many people as she could. When Barcelona fell to Franco's forces, she followed the Spanish refugees to southern France and continued to help them in the camps where they were interned. Soon, she found herself in the middle of another conflict, the Second World War, and was helping refugees of all nationalities. By 1942, it became evident that Jews, who were also held in the camps by the collaborationist Vichy authorities, were in danger of being deported to their death. Mary Elmes risked her life to help children and adults escape. She smuggled children out in the boot of her car and succeeded in getting a number of adults off the convoys going to the Nazi death camps. She was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo on suspicion of espionage and carrying out a series of hostile acts against Germany. When the war was over, she married a Frenchman and settled down in Perpignan, never speaking about what she had done in either conflict.
When the French government offered her its highest honour, the Legion d'Honneur, she turned it down, preferring instead to try put the war behind her. In 2013, she became the first Irish person to be named 'Righteous Among the Nations' at Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Now, finally, her story has come to light and a forgotten heroine will be remembered as she deserves.