History Stepping into the Present

History Stepping into the Present

Mary Moynihan

Smashing Times engage in important remembrance work using historical memory and the stories of courageous women in history as inspiration for the creation of new artworks in theatre and film. One such project was Women War and Peace. This project used theatre, film and new digital technologies to explore stories of women in war who, each in their own way, stood up to oppression under totalitarian regimes. The work resulted in the creation of a theatre performance The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII; a short film Tell Them Our Names and the creation of a Women War and Peace book with a foreword by Marian Harkin, MEP, all of which are available on our website. A series of public events were conducted across Europe and the project reached a total of 1,619,147 people.

Mary Elmes

One of the women whose story we tell as part of Women War and Peace is that of Mary Elmes who risked her life working with refugees during the Spanish Civil war; that story had an immediate impact with young people on the need to support refugees and asylum seekers today.

Mary Elmes (1908-2002), from Cork, was the first Irish person honoured as “Righteous Among Nations” for her work saving Jewish children from the Nazi gas chambers during World War II. The award was bestowed on Mary Elmes in 2015 by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

In February 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Mary travelled to Spain to provide refugee relief work. She joined the University of London Ambulance Unit in Spain and then worked in a children’s hospital in Almería assisting refugees. She was in Almeria as over 80,000 people tried to escape by fleeing from Malaga to Almeira only to be attacked by Fascists from the air and sea with thousands dying along the way. Mary provided support for those fleeing and stayed on in Spain to continue working for the rights of others. 

When Spain fell to Franco, over half a million Spanish refugees fled into France.  In May of 1939 Mary and other relief workers, with the support of the Quaker organization the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee), left Spain and were driven over the border into France bringing with them all the records of their work in Spain.’ Mary joined thousands of Spanish men, women and children fleeing from the tyranny of Franco’s fascist regime, over the Pyrenees into France. In July 1939 Mary went for an interview in Paris with the International Committee for Child Refugees and was appointed to do cultural work in the camps in France where the Spanish refugees were housed.

Mary continued her refugee relief work with the Quakers in France, although not a Quaker herself, providing relief efforts for refugees from the Spanish Civil War now interned in France. In 1940 France fell to German occupation and thousands of Jewish people were arrested and held with Spanish refugees in a former army camp called Rivesaltes, near Perpignon. When weekly deportations of Jewish people began taking adults and children from Rivesalte to concentration camps in Germany and Poland including Auschwitz where death from the gas chambers or from starvation awaited them, Mary Elmes and the Quakers started a campaign to save as many children as possible, despite the risk to their own lives. Elmes even hid children in her car and drove them high into the Pyrenees. It will probably never be known how many children and adults she saved.

According to writer and journalist Clodagh Finn ‘In a two-month period in the autumn of that year some 2,289 Jewish adults and 174 children, some as young as two, were herded onto cattle wagons at Rivesaltes and taken to Drancy transit camp outside Paris and then on to Auschwitz. An estimated 427 children were saved from the convoys, thanks to the work of Mary Elmes and other women working at the camp’.

In January 1943 Elmes was arrested on suspicion of helping Jewish people escape. She was never charged, but she was first held in Toulouse and then held for six months in Fresnes Prison near Paris. After her release, she continued her activities as before.  According to Bernard Wilson ‘’she later dismissed her imprisonment with the words “Well we all experienced inconveniences in those days, didn’t we?” Mary refused to accept the salary which had accrued while she was in prison, and likewise the Legion d’Honneur which the French government wanted to bestow on her. She was not a Quaker, though she led the Quaker work in Perpignan throughout the war.’  Mary Elmes died in 2002, aged ninety-three, in Perpignan, where she had lived the rest of her life after the war and raised a family. 

History Stepping into the Present

Bernard Wilson and Clodagh Finn have both been key rechears on the life story of Mary Elmes and we thank them both for the extraordinary work they have done in shining a light on their incredible woman. When Smashing Times first presented Mary Elmes’ story in a play called The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII at the Samuel Becektt Theatre in Dublin in 2016, the company invited a number of journalists to attend. Clodagh Finn was one of the journalists to see the performance and we are delighted to say that, inspired by the performance, Clodagh went on to fully research the life of Mary Elmes. Clodagh spent over a year travelling throughout Europe and Ireland to piece together the story of this brave, unknown Irish woman, meeting with many of those Mary Elmes saved as children.  The result was the launch of a new book A Time to Risk All packed with courage, heroism, adventure and tragedy, as her story finally came to light and she is remembered as she deserves.  A Time to Risk Allwas published by Gill Books on 18 October 2017, in Dublin with members of the Elmes family as well as people who were saved by Mary Elmes as children flying to Ireland for the event.  

Mary Elmes. Photo Courtesy of AFSC Archives.

One of the children saved by Mary Elmes was Ronald Friend, now living in Portland, Oregon and a professor emeritus of psychology at Stony Brook University, New York. At the time he was a two-year-old child whose father would not survive but whose five-year-old brother Michael was also rescued by Ms Elmes. Mary’s work went unheralded for decades, but, thanks to Ronald Friend’s nomination (supported by Bernard Wilson), Mary was awarded Israel’s highest honour for risking her life to save Jewish people during the Holocaust. Ronald Friend described the award as ‘a long overdue recognition of Mary Elmes’ courageous and selfless actions in rescuing me and many other children when convoys were regularly departing to the death camps.’ 

When Clodagh Finn’s book was launched in 2017, Ronald Freund flew to Dublin to attend. Smashing Times were presenting a performance of The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII at the Mermaid Theatre in Bray, County Wicklow, and Clodagh and Ronald attended the performance.  All Smashing Times performances are followed by post-show panel discussions to explore the themes raised with our audiences and that night it was an honour to invite Ronald onto the stage to tell the audiences directly about his memories of Mary Elmes and his family’s experiences of the war.  After viewing the performance Ronald was invited on stage and when it was explained to the audience who he was, there was a collective gasp. It was a very powerful moment, as if history had stepped into the present.

The performances created by Smashing Times are an imagined recreation of moments from the lives of women during WWII.  In addition to Mary Elmes, women’s stories that have inspired the performance are Ettie Steinberg (1914-42)a  female Jewish Irish citizen known to have been murdered in Auschwitz; Marta Hillers from Germany who wrote her autobiography Eine Frau in Berlin (A Woman in Berlin) under the name ‘Anonyma’ (Anonymous), detailing her experiences of the last days of WWII as she and over one million other women were raped and abused by Allied soldiers of the Red Army; Neus Català Pallejà from Spain, a member of the United Socialist Party of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, an active collaborator with the French Resistance during WWII and the only living Spanish survivor of Ravensbrück,  one of the largest concentration camps set up by the Nazis especially for women; and Dolores Ibarurri or La Pasionaria (1895-1989), from Spain, a revolutionary leader, political activist, Communist and crusader against Fascism during the Spanish Civil War who created the famous cry ‘They Shall Not Pass’.  

While the stories can be at times dark and harrowing because of thematic content, the company were surprised and delighted to note that after each performance the audience leave full of hope and energy.  It is as if the courage, resilience and powerful spirit of the women themselves shines through the performance and creates an infectious mood of joy and comradeship. People are inspired by the stories in a positive way and want to know more. Even though the women were living in oppressive times, they all refused to accept this oppression and each in their own way found the courage and strength to stand up for the rights of others and this generates an openness with the audience as we all come together to talk about the importance of solidarity across Europe in times of adversity and the type of society we want to live in.