He was only a toddler when his Jewish family made a daring attempt to escape the Nazis by crossing the Swiss border in 1942. They almost made it, but in the end were apprehended and detained at Rivesaltes, a notorious camp near Perpignan in the south of France. He and his brother were taken from their parents, and once he grew up, he spent years piecing together the story of how they survived.
He knew that Father Louis Bezard, a French priest, had remarkably hidden the two of them in a suitcase and carried them through the train station in Toulouse! He knew that in the town of Marssac they had become two little French Catholic boys, fostered by different families. He could remember the ultimate reunion with his mom and finding out that his father had died in a concentration camp. But how had he and his brother gotten out of the camp in the first place? Who had rescued them?
The answer would come from a diligent archivist 66 years after liberation. It seems that one Mary Elmes, head of the Quaker delegation at Perpignan, had hidden them in the trunk of her car while making a first aid visit and driven them right out from under the nose of the Nazis! Even more remarkably, it turned out they weren’t the only ones. It seems this same Mary Elmes had rescued hundreds of children in similar circumstances! For her trouble, she was arrested by the Nazis and brutally imprisoned for six months, but ultimately survived. After the war she declined all recognition and faded back into everyday life.
Sometimes people just do the right thing and don’t care about the credit. Many such folks remain largely unknown, unless of course, somewhere in their past there is an incredibly lucky little boy who grew into a determined man. It took almost 70 years to find his rescuer, and she was already gone by the time he learned her name, but he found a way to thank her nonetheless. Our little boy, now turned professor, nominated Mary Elmes posthumously as Righteous Among the Nations, and in 2013, she became the first and only Irish person to receive the honor.