Posts Tagged ‘World War 2’

Mary Elmes, Cork’s bravest woman?

October 20, 2019

Residents of the War Resisters’ International home in the French Pyrenees at Prats-de-Mollo, housing refugees from the Spanish Civil War

I’ve just finished editing and publishing the Win Happy podcast episode that I recorded with Clodagh Finn, author of “A time to risk all” and Deirdre Waldron, former president of Network Ireland, about the incredible life of the very much unknown Cork woman, Mary Elmes.

(Note: In 2016, having heard about Mary through the Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Committee work, Deirdre in her role as President chose Mary Elmes for the Trish Murphy, Network Ireland Award, the first time it was given posthumously and the first time she was acknowledged in Ireland)

As I was listening to the podcast I was very close to tears when I heard Clodagh describe that moment when one of the children, Charlotte Berger-Greneche saved by Mary Elmes, saw a picture of her mother for the first time when she was 80 years of age.

Clodagh who is incredibly knowledgeable and clearly passionate about Mary Elmes, brings her story to life in the episode and I feel in some ways listening to her, that the spirit of Mary has changed her.

Charlotte Berger-Greneche and Georges Koltei

We were privileged to meet two of these children, Charlotte Berger-Greneche and Georges Koltei (pictured above with Mary’s son Patrick Danjou (on the left of the image)) who were saved by Mary from prison camps in France during World War 2.

They were in Cork city recently for the opening of the new bridge that was named in her honour.

Mary Elmes saved 432 children during the Spanish Civil War and World War 2.

Article by Eoin English, Irish Examiner

Article by Barry Roche, Irish Times

There was a beautiful and very poignant quote by her son, Patrick during the bridge opening:

“I think it’s better to have a bridge than a wall, like some friends of ours in America want to do”

Until very recently this story was one that very few people knew, including Mary’s own family – humble people do what they need to do in a huge time of need and then quietly go about their lives after.

Note: Paddy Butler has also written a book about Mary Elmes “The Extraordinary life of Mary Elmes: The Irish Oskar Schindler”


About Mary

Mary Elmes was born on 5 May 1908 in Cork, Ireland to chemist Edward Elmes and Elizabeth Waters. Edward ran a pharmacy on Winthrop Street. The Elmes family went on to be a very prominent one in the business landscape of the city (The building where MacDonalds is located was an Elmes property).

She attended Rochelle School in Cork and in 1928 enrolled at Trinity College Dublin where she was elected a Scholar, and gained a first in Modern Literature (French and Spanish).

As a result of her academic achievements, she was awarded a scholarship in International Studies to study at London School of Economics and then a further scholarship  in Geneva, Switzerland.

In 1937, she joined the University of London Ambulance Unit and was sent to a children’s hospital in Almeria in then war-torn Spain. She worked in hospitals as an administrator and carer and also helped  in homes looking after children (see picture above). She then moved to France during World War 2.

When it became clear that Jewish children were not legally allowed to be exempt from being sent to the concentration camps, as they had been, Mary, with the help from some colleagues, started to rescue children, taking them to safe houses or helping them flee the country altogether.

Stop for a momentCan you imagine as a parent, making a decision to hand your children over to someone else, in the full knowledge that you would never see them again and this was the only chance of them having a life?

It is a chilling and heartbreaking thought.

Well aware that she was putting herself at risk, she rescued many children by hiding them in the boot of her car and drove them to safe destinations and aided many others by securing documents, which allowed for them to escape through the undercover network in Vichy France.

While she was not a Quaker herself, she worked actively with local Quaker organisations and was often  described as the “head of the Quaker delegation at Perpignan,”.

In 1943, Mary was arrested and was imprisoned in Toulouse and later was moved to the notorious Fresnes Prison run by the Gestapo near Paris, where she spent six months. She was never charged, but when she was released she continued her work with children in prison camps.

Note: In the podcast listen to Clodagh talking about an old blanket that Mary Elmes kept from that prison.

After the war she married and had two children, and lived in Pyrénées-Orientales (Northern Catalonia),

She became the first Irish person to be named Righteous Among the Nations during a ceremony at Israel’s official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Note: Despite gathering the requisite proof that he saved Jews we have been unable to achieve this honour for Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty.

She passed away in 2002, one month before her 93rd birthday.

If you have the time you might click here to listen to the podcast, maybe read Clodagh’s or Paddy’s excellent books and even better, walk across the beautiful bridge in Cork and think about the bravery of a very special woman, Mary Elmes.

Bridges are better than walls…


Greg Canty is a Partner of Fuzion Communications, a full service Marketing, PR, Graphic Design and Digital Marketing agency with offices in Dublin and Cork, Ireland


An Inspirational Woman – Henrietta Chevalier

March 8, 2011
Henrietta Chevalier - Hugh O'Flaherty

Henrietta Chevalier - Inspiration of World War 2

With all of this talk about inspirational women on International Women’s Day I wondered why it was just the women who were taking about the subject!

This is my nomination for the most inspirational woman – before that, first question.. have you heard of her?

Mrs Henrietta Chevalier was a young Maltese widow with six daughters and two sons, one of which was imprisoned as soon as Italy entered the war due to being a British subject. Her other son, Paul was a clerical officer with the Swiss Legation so his diplomatic papers protected his freedom.

Even though she lived in a small third floor apartment in Rome she played a huge role in the Rome Escape Organisation set up by Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty from Killarney throughout the war in providing shelter for escapees.

Mrs Chevalier showed tremendous courage as she constantly took these risks, which if found out would have resulted in execution for her family.

At one point in time she had four British soldiers staying with her and when asked by the Major about the risks here comment was:

They are absolutely grand, these boys. They are just like my own children. It is all so marvellous

O’Flaherty warned everyone lodging with her that in the event of any danger, her safety and that of her family had to come first.

Her flat was used as a depot for food and supplies, which was risky as the movement of black bags could easily arouse suspicion.

Eventually the Gestapo suspected the Chevalier household and had it watched around the clock as well as conducting a number of raids but each time the lodgers managed to escape on time due to a system of tip offs. The daughter Gemma, had a very narrow escape on one occasion while buying supplies, which she kept from her mother. (Gemma subsequently married one of the British Serviceman Sands that was sheltered by the family and the wedding was conducted by the Monsignor in Rome.)

Despite the close escapes and the warnings, she always wanted the lodgers back.

Mrs Chevalier, who also had some nursing experience used to venture out and provide medical assistance to various escapees around the city with Milko Scofic, a Yugoslavian.

Mrs Chevalier made everyone feel welcome:

at Christmas she served brandy instead of tea, Christmas gifts were exchanged among the family and the three British lodgers

Eventually it was felt that Mrs Chevalier and her family due to the close scrutiny should be evacuated and one by one they left and were brought to a farm on the outskirts of the city.

John Furman recalls of Mrs Chevalier:

What can be said of this incredible woman, who I guessed to be in her early forties? I would not call her brave for it seemed to be she had no conception of fear. Her kindness and generosity were unparalleled, her maternal spirit and compassion boundless

Mrs Henrietta Chevalier was awarded a British Empire Medal for her work and bravery.

The stress and strain of the war took its toll on Mrs Chevalier and she suffered from sickness later on in life as a result.

Isn’t she inspirational?

Greg Canty is a partner of Fuzion Communications

Have you heard of Hugh?

October 19, 2009
Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty

Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty

Just as Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize you might think about Irish people down through the years who may have been worthy of the same award. How many people spring to mind and in the same breath I will ask you ‘Have you heard of Hugh?’

Two years ago I was coming back from Berlin after a fabulous weekend with some friends. We had a great time with the usual mix of late nights, shopping and visiting the various tourist attractions. We had a very sobering visit to the Holocaust museum, which was quite depressing and a very real reminder about how crazy our world is capable of being.

On the plane home I spotted an article in the Irish Examiner reviewing a new book The Vatican Pimpernel, about an Irish priest working in Rome, who had helped save over 6,500 people during World War II. First I thought that it must be a fictional story about the war and I read on quite intrigued. To my utter amazement I discovered that this actually happened and the Irish priest in question had been born in Cork and grew up in Killarney!

How could this be possible? How was it that for all 40 plus years of my life that I had not heard about this Irish hero who was from literally just down the road? Asking practically everyone I met I was getting the same response – no one had heard of this terrific Irish man.

The man in question was Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty.

During World War II, the Monsignor held a senior position within the Vatican. However despite the fact that the Vatican had a neutral capacity during the war the Monsignor could not just ignore pleas for help from people in need. When approached at the gates of the Vatican by people who were in danger and were looking for shelter the Monsignor decided he had no choice but to help. During the course of the war he provided shelter and ultimately saved the lives of over 6,500 people of all nationalities and religions.

Besides being incredibly courageous what I find most fascinating was the strategy, sophisticated planning, organisational and business brilliance of the Monsignor. Despite his life being in constant danger he managed to manage and finance a project that secured a network of safe houses to protect and shelter prisoners of war in Rome through a combination of friends and rented accommodation. With his own life at risk, he managed to raise funds on an ongoing basis that paid for these premises and also provided food and clothing over an extended period for all the people in hiding and kept all of this going until the Allies arrived in Rome in 1945.

A key element to keeping the operation going despite the constant presence of the Nazis was his intelligence network, which succeeded in keeping everyone safe despite many close shaves.

After the war his work did not stop there, the Monsignor spent much of his time visiting German prisoners ensuring that they were being treated properly by the authorities.

The Monsignor received many decorations, including, Commander of the British Empire and the US Medal of Freedom. The Monsignor retired to Cahirciveen for the last three years of his life and on 30th October, 1963 he sadly passed away. His death was mourned throughout the world, including a front page tribute in the New York Times.

Up until this past year, the Monsignor has never been officially recognised in Ireland by either government or church.

While we can’t exactly compare, we all are now in tough times and we need courage, flexibility, adaptability and ingenuity to steer our way through this tough economical crisis. At the same time we do need to do our best to work with our colleagues, suppliers and customers in a compassionate and respectful manner as they could very well be under severe financial pressure.

To learn more the Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty check out the book by Brian Fleming, The Vatican Pimpernel, visit the memorial website or hire the DVD The Scarlet and the Black featuring Gregory Peck as The Monsignor.

On the weekend of the 6th November in Killarney, the second annual memorial weekend takes place, in honour of The Monsignor. The weekend includes a presentation of his life in pictures at The Killarney Outlet Centre, the presentation of the Hugh O’Flaherty International Humanitarian Award and a fundraising concert so that funds can be raised for a permanent memorial to be erected in Killarney in honour of the Monsignor.

Have you heard of Hugh? We must never forget..