WWII Heroes'I owe my life to her... and I'm just one of many'

Rescued children finally identify Irish aid worker who saved them from Auschwitz

A quest by two brothers bent on thanking their rescuer sees posthumous recognition for Mary Elmes, the subject of a new film narrated by Winona Ryder

Left: Children and staff of Maison St. Christophe (Saint Christopher's Orphanage) during World War II; Mary Elmes, who secretly brought Jewish children to be saved from Auschwitz. (Courtesy Midas Films)
Left: Children and staff of Maison St. Christophe (Saint Christopher's Orphanage) during World War II; Mary Elmes, who secretly brought Jewish children to be saved from Auschwitz. (Courtesy Midas Films)

DUBLIN — Two young boys huddled silently under a blanket in the back of a large black car as it crossed under the gaze of the French prison guards and out the wooden gates of Rivesaltes internment camp. It was September 25, 1942.

Escaping deportation to Auschwitz and certain death in the gas chambers, Rene and Mario Freund, aged two and six years old, were driven high up into the Pyrenees Mountains to a remote village.

The boys had already faced danger before, as their father had tried and failed to smuggle them across the border into Switzerland.

After arriving in the hills they were met by a priest and moved again to a small village further away from Rivesaltes. They were to be enrolled in a Catholic school and hidden by local families.

Children in Rivesaltes camp during World War II. (Courtesy Midas Films)

Decades later Rene and Mario — now named Ronald Friend and Michael Freund — fulfilled a lifelong ambition to identify their heroic liberator, the Irish aid worker Mary Elmes, and nominate her as Righteous Among the Nations.

“I wanted to know who took me out of the camp and I found a document in the American Friends Service Committee [Quaker] files that identified her,” said retired New York-based Prof. Ronald Friend in a new documentary about Elmes.

“I owe my life to Elmes and I feel very grateful. But I am just one of many who should feel the same,” said brother Michael Freund.

Winona Ryder attending the premiere of Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ in Los Angeles, Calif., July 11, 2016. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images/JTA)

Now, thanks to the quest by the two grateful brothers, the story of her personal valor has been highlighted in a new documentary, “It Tolls for Thee.”

The film is narrated by Winona Ryder, who herself had relatives murdered in the Holocaust and who was nominated for a Grammy for her audio version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

The film was screened at the Irish Film Institute’s Documentary Festival in Dublin, and was broadcast on Ireland’s channel TG4 on November 8.

A displaced people

After the fall of France the collaborationist Vichy government imprisoned thousands of Jews fleeing from the Nazis in the camp near Perpignan.

Enduring appalling conditions, families were in dire need of the assistance given by the Quaker organization with which Elmes was a volunteer. And then the Nazis ordered the transportation of all Jews to the east.

Despite efforts by French officials to convince inmates that they were going to farms and factories, the Jewish prisoners knew the fate that awaited them. Some committed suicide. Parents were separated from their children. Elmes didn’t believe the lie either. Risking being sent to Auschwitz herself, she was determined to save as many children as possible.

Between August and October 1942, nine convoys took 2,300 Jews from Rivesaltes Camp to Drancy and on to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Retired New York professor Ronald Friend (Rene) smuggled out of Rivesaltes Camp by Mary Elmes. (Courtesy Midas Films)

But Elmes saved 200 children, driving many of them through the mountains to Catholic orphanages, and managing to smuggle others across the border into neutral Spain.

Rene and Mario’s father, Hans Freund, approached Elmes in the camp and asked her to take his two boys away. She agreed. The boys never saw their father again.

History of a hero

Elmes was born in the city of Cork in 1908, and graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in literature. Her academic excellence earned her recognition from the London School of Economics, which awarded her a scholarship to pursue international studies.

During the Spanish Civil War, she volunteered to manage a hospital in northern Spain, returning to Ireland after the fall of Barcelona. However, hearing of the plight of the Republican refugees who fled to France, she traveled there to organize aid for them.

Being from neutral Ireland, she was able to stay on in Rivesaltes after World War II began, when others were forced to leave. She was there when the Jewish refugees arrived and began her selfless work soon thereafter.

George Koltein was hidden in Saint Christopher’s Orphanage in Perpignan after escape from camp. (Courtesy Midas Films)

In the documentary, one of the saved children, George Koltein, recalled escaping from Paris to French-controlled Vichy after police raided their apartment building. However, they were arrested on arrival and sent to Rivesaltes.

Kolstein’s father was put into a work gang, but Elmes smuggled the children out of the camp and into the orphanage of Saint Christopher in Perpignan.

The orphanage was run by another woman who has also been recognized by Yad Vashem — Lois Gunden, who sheltered the children among the local orphans where police would not find them.

“Elmes drove seven children to Saint Christopher’s that day,” Koltein recalled in his documentary interview.

“Mary Elmes and Lois Gunden together formed a chain of solidarity with the Jews,” he said. “If discovered, anyone attempting to rescue Jewish children would be sent to the death camps with them.”

“I was amazed when I first heard Elmes’s story, how it had remained so unknown for so long,” director Andrew Gallimore told The Times of Israel.

“Elmes did such great work for the refugees,” he said. “But she had to be vigilant not to be seen giving special assistance to the Jews who were the most in need of it.”

Gallimore said he finds the fact that these terrible events happened in France “incredible.”

“One of the inmates, Paul Niedermayer, asked during filming how could this have happened in France — the home of the Enlightenment,” he added.

Paul Niedermayer, former inmate of Rivesaltes Camp. (Courtesy Midas Films)

“When we were working in Perpignan,” said Gallimore, “I felt that the Pyrenees became a metaphor for freedom. The Spanish Republicans crossing one way and the Jews in the opposite direction — much in the same way as the Mediterranean is today.”

Meanwhile, Denis Peschanski of the French National Center for Scientific Research raised in the documentary the terrible moral dilemma that Elmes and other aid workers faced in Rivesaltes.

“They knew the truth about the trains,” he said. “But if they left, all of the prisoners would die.”

Tireless sacrifice

Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said the aid workers in Rivesaltes had a unique opportunity to help some of the prisoners who were already designated to be murdered.

“On a daily basis Elmes worked tirelessly, driving long distances scrounging milk and blankets for the children in the camp,” explained historian and founder of the Holocaust Art Restoration Project (HARP) Marc Masurovsky.

“Her superiors, however, who knew of her other activities warned her not to do too much for fear that their humanitarian work would be halted,” he said.

But Elmes persisted. In 1943, when Vichy was finally taken over by the Nazis, Elmes was arrested by the Gestapo on suspicion of aiding Jews and sent to the notorious prison in Fresnes near Paris, which housed resistance members and political prisoners.

She spent six traumatic months there, but after intervention by the Irish Consulate and the International Red Cross, she was released. By the time she was freed, there were no Jews left in Rivesaltes.

Michael Freund (Mario) who was rescued from certain death with his brother by Mary Elmes. (Courtesy Midas Films)

After the war Elmes remained in Perpignan, where she married a French man with whom she had two children.

Her story became more widely known following a 1998 Mexican documentary on the Spanish Civil War in which she agreed to be interviewed. She died in 2002.

After her death Freund discovered her identity and asked her family’s permission to nominate her as Righteous Among the Nations. They agreed, and she was recognized by Yad Vashem in 2013, becoming Ireland’s first recipient.

“My mother never wanted any attention and she did not wish to recall the war,” said her son Patrick Danjou. “She turned down the French government’s offer of the Legion D’honneur.”

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