Ten minutes that changed my life!
We had ten minutes to wait before my flight. I went into the bookshop and saw this book. We had a holiday home in the Pyrenees and this book looked interesting. I picked it up and looked inside. It opened at Chapter Four.
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A Quaker Refuge! We were Quakers, and as far as we knew, there were no Quakers in the Pyrenees during the war. I had to have this book and understand what this chapter was about. Little did I know what I was starting! Now, ten years later, I have new friends all over the world, helped some of them to write books, and have even written one myself! This blog will reveal all, but it’s going to take some time to do so! So get ready to follow the story with me!
The Quaker Refuge turned out to be a tiny farm in a hidden valley in the Pyrenees, only about 25 miles from where we had our holiday home. This is what it looks like today, but when the Quakers bought it in 1933 as a refuge for those fleeing Nazi Germany, only the building at the back on the left would have been there, and that would have been in a ruinous state.
La Coume, Mosset
This farm was bought by two Quakers, Hilda Clark (of the Clark Shoes family) and Edith Pye. Hilda was a doctor and Edith was a midwife and nurse. Both had been active in the suffragette movement. The farm soon became the home of Pitt Kruger and his wife, Yves, both were teachers from Berlin .
You can visit the present day La Coume at https://www.facebook.com/lacoume66
I decided to write to the author of “Love and War in the Pyrenees”, Rosemary Bailey. This began a friendship and cooperation which continued until her unexpected death last year from a flu virus – a year before the arrival of the present killer.
Rosemary’s book led me to this one, “Over the Highest Mountains” by Alice Resch Synnestvedt
Alice was a Norwegian nurse who was recruited by the American Friends Service Committee to help with the crisis in Toulouse in 1940. The AFSC were American Quakers who were struggling to house and feed the thousands of refugees flooding into the city at the beginning of 1940. I was astonished to read of how she filled the Halle aux Grains (a deserted warehouse) with 4,000 refugees eating hot dinners every day. We visited this building, now the home to the city’s Concert Orchestra, and found not a trace of what had happened there all those years ago. The present day Quakers of Toulouse were equally ignorant of this story. It was suggested that I write something on their blog. So on June 1st 2009 I posted my first ever blog, part of which is reproduced here.
What happened next?
Well, not a lot! It was to be well over a year before I got any response to my review of Alice’s book on the Toulouse Quaker blog. But there was plenty to do in following up the stories in this remarkable book, and of course in”Love and War in the Pyrenees” too. Alice had been based most of the time in Toulouse, and we attended the Toulouse Quaker meeting every month, so that’s where we concentrated our research. Surely the work that Alice described so vividly must have left some traces?
We tried the University Library. Here, we sat hour after hour trawling through the local newspaper for 1940. Surely the refugee situation would be filling the columns with pictures and reports. Our only response to searching the word “Quaker” was to find, in the sports pages, several reference to a racehorse of that name!
We tried a different approach. Alice had mentioned the Chateau de Larade. This shabby old disused building had been lent to the Quakers by the Catholic Archbishop to use as a refuge for Spanish children, many of them orphans from the Spanish Civil War. One Sunday after Meeting, we found the Rue de Larade which sounded hopeful, and came across this building. It was closed so we made a special trip another day. This time we got inside and spoke to the management there. It was a residential school for children with behavioural problems. Yes, they knew it had some history during the war, but they had no knowledge of what had taken place there. Later we were to discover that it had been a hiding place for Jewish children during the time when trains were leaving from Toulouse filled with Jews destined for the death camps of Poland. And later still, we were to meet Spanish and Jewish adults whose parents had been sheltered there by the Quakers.
It was to be 9th October 2010 before I had my first response to my blog posting. A silence of 16 months! But this was just the beginning!
The first response!
Surely she means Larade? It took a couple of exchanges and some photos before Margarita was convinced that the Chateau de Larade in Toulouse was the place where her mother-in-law had been a refugee. Don’t forget Margarita, we’re going to meet her in France later!
The next response came at Christmas and it was to be the big one! I answered immediately
Professor Ronald Friend emailed me from Portland, Oregon. He thanked me for my book review and said that he and his brother had been interned in Riservaltes, and asked if I could help him discover what organisation had helped transfer them to a safe place via the station of Toulouse.
Riservaltes? He didn’t say what kind of place this was. But “interned” suggested a concentration camp. I turned to Rosemary’s book “Love and War in the Pyrenees”. There was a whole chapter on the camp of “Rivesaltes”. This must be the camp he means. Rivesaltes is a small town just outside Perpignan. We knew it as the name of the airport for Perpignan and also the name of a wine. After reading Rosemary’s book, we now knew of the concentration camp there, although we had been unaware of it before. You can read my reply above.:
Emails passed between us almost daily until on January 11th 2011 Ron forwarded this email from OSE (a Jewish organisation caring for refugee children). It gave us the information we needed.
“It was thanks to the Quakers (Miss Elms) that you were able to leave the camp and go to the hospital Saint-Louis from Vernet-les Bains …..”
We knew from “Love and War in the Pyrenees” that Vernet-les-Bains was in the Pyrenees and was where a building, the Hotel Portugal, was used by Mary to house a “colony” of children taken temporarily from the dreadful camps such as Rivesaltes. The email went on to explain that Ron and his brother were swiftly dispatched to the hospital back in Perpignan because they were suffering from scabies.
So Ron and his brother were taken from Rivesaltes to Vernet and then to a hospital in Perpignan
We had to find Mary Elmes or her family!
It was back to “Love and War in the Pyrenees” Rosemary Bailey had met Mary’s daughter. Perhaps she could help?
So we needed to find Caroline Danjou, Mary’s daughter. A friend introduced us to a group of young people who called themselves “Les Trajectoires” Their mission was to make sure that the dreadful things which had happened in the area of France were not forgotten. They soon found Caroline and arranged for us to meet her. She ran a gite in the village Ste Marie Mer, not far from Perpignan
We soon discovered that although Mary’s children knew about her work in Spain, they knew very little about what she did in camp of Rivesaltes.
The AFSC Archives!
It seemed that we needed to find out from the American Friends Service Committee exactly what Mary Elmes had been doing all those years ago. The nearest copy of their archives was in Paris, at the Memorial de le Shoah – The Holocaust Museum. So that’s where we went:
And eventually this is what we found!
This was the proof we needed to get Mary Elmes recognised as “Righteous among the Nations”
Starting Serious Research!
It soon became obvious that we couldn’t keep going to Paris to learn more about Mary’s work. We needed a copy of the archives on our computer! With the help of a Quaker Professor of History at a local University, this package arrived through out letter-box. Six DVD’s containing thousands of pages of archive material.
How did it all begin? Mary’s daughter Caroline told us that she went to Spain during the Civil War to help a rich Englishman. We discovered that the “rich Englishman” was Sir George Young, and that he had financed the sending of doctors, nurses and ambulances to Spain. Here he is in characteristic flamboyant dress!
Meanwhile, Ron Friend was sending the evidence to Yad Vashem to have Mary Elmes honoured as “Righteous among the Nations” for risking her life to save Jewish children from the Holocaust.
What about Spain?
Caroline and Patrick, Mary’s children, had told us that their mother had worked with the British Quakers in Spain and I wanted to see if I could find more about this. So I went to the Quaker headquarters in London, “Friends House”
In this library I discovered that Mary Elmes had turned up unexpectedly, and the Quaker nurses decided to ask her to help them. Before long she was in charge of children’s hospitals
So in May, 2012, we took Caroline to Spain to see one of the houses that Mary had used as a hospital. This is where she had worked in the mountain village of Polop
A new contact and a lovely story!
It was February 2013, we were waiting impatiently for news from Yad Vashem. Would they recognise Mary Elmes as “Righteous Among the Nations”? when this lady, Carme, contacted me from Barcelona, Spain. Could I help her find out what happened to her grandfather, Alexandre Gali, a well-known educationist who had fled to France at the end of the Spanish Civil War?
Yes, I could!
The Quaker workers had opened a school for orphaned Spanish children in the scruffy old Chateau de Larade. I told you about this building earlier! Now they had asked Alexandre Gali to be the teacher of this school! The children loved him. They had lost their own parents and he had become a father to each of them. In a magazine which they wrote, they told how he cared for them, and how they would miss him if he went back to Spain.
This is the book that Carme was able to write with some help from me, and this is her grandfather helping the children grow some much needed vegetables. Unfortunately, I can’t read the book as it is in Catalan, but I’m proud that I was able to help Carme tell the Spanish world about her famous grandfather!
A New Contact – From The Other Side of the World!
Yes I did know Dorothy Morris! She had worked with Sir George Young’s ambulances on the Spanish battlefields. She often took a rest at Mary’s hospital at Polop. When Franco took power at the end of the Civil War, Dorothy had to be rescued by a British warship! If captured, she would have been tortured and shot!
Dorothy and Mary worked together in France
They worked with the Spanish refugees on the beaches, bringing them much needed equipment to make their lives easier in those dreadful conditions. But when France fell, Dorothy as a British colonial was in danger again. Mary drove her through the night to Bordeaux where she caught the SS Madura, one of the last ships to leave for England.
Everyone knows about operation Dynamo, the “little ships” from Dunkirk. But very few know about operation Aerial, the hundreds of bigger ships leaving from the west coast of France. The SS Madura was part of this. You can see more by clicking on
– it’s worth it! You will be amazed! But for quickness, here are the references to the Madura.
So Mark Derby was able to write his book about the New Zealand nurse Dorothy Morris with a bit of help from me!
Mary Elmes is recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem.
On 22nd June 2014, Dr Ronald Friend met the son and daughter of Mary Elmes for the first time. We all met in Canet Plage on the site of this lovely old building which had sheltered Jewish children taken from the nearby detention camp of Rivesaltes. Mary had brought them here, and Lois Gunden of the Mennonites had hidden them among the many Spanish children. A memorial stele was unveiled in memory of the occasion. It was vandalised the same evening!!
We then moved to a hall in the village of Canet Plage where the Israeli Consul performed the ceremony of recognising Mary Elmes as “Righteous”. He presented Mary’s great grandchildren with the gold medal. Here they are with Caroline and Dr Patrick Danjou.
It’s Spain again!
Do you remember Carme Gali? I helped her find the archives about her grandfather Alexandre Gali. How he ran the children’s home of Le Chateau de Larade in Toulouse. Then she introduced me to her friend Gemma Cabeller. Could I help her?
Yes – I could – for the archives I had been entrusted with had quite a lot relevant to her work.
The Rivesaltes Camp Memorial
The people who were held captive in the Rivesaltes Camp had done nothing wrong! They were not criminals. They were not even what people nowadays call “migrants” Migrants like to travel – that’s what the word means. They don’t have a home they want to return to. But these people had escaped from persecution, terror, and the threat of death. They would love to go home, but they had no home to go to. They thought that they had found a new home in France. But France didn’t want them either. There is a word for such people. The word is REFUGEES! There are people today who have been driven from their homes. They’re not “migrants” either. They too are REFUGEES! And they are looking to the UK for shelter because, in the past, Britain was a welcoming country, we used to care about those who were persecuted.
What happened when we met our friends Patrick and Caroline Danjou?
Do you remember the very first entry on this blog? How a certain Spanish lady called Margarita Sanz Lobo contacted me about her mother-in-law? And I was able to help her? Well, when Patrick and Caroline were in a queue in a narrow passage at the Grand Opening, they heard some Spanish people in front of them talking about “Bernard Wilson”! They though that they must be talking about me! So they asked the Spanish people if they knew “Bernard Wilson”. And it was Margarita Sanz Lobo and her family! Later we all met and had a wonderful time together. Margarita’s family are well-known Spanish musicians. When we got home, we were pleased to receive this book:
This is a lovely book about the experiences of this Spanish family in the internment camps.
Thank you , Margarita, and all your family. And may you all be happy!
Ireland hears the news!
Yes! Ireland had heard the news. I had been invited to Ireland to speak at this award ceremony in Cork. It was here that I met a reporter who was so intrigued by my story that she decided to write a book about Mary Elmes. It is called “A Time to Risk All”.
I decided to write a novel based on my researches. Nobody wanted to publish it – I didn’t even get an answer! So I paid to have 200 copies printed, and then I sold some and gave most to family and friends. So “See you soon Caroline!” was born.
This is what I wrote!
Two books about Mary Elmes!
It’s September 2019 and the Mary Elmes Bridge at Cork is about to be opened.
This was the culmination of ten years of discovery! The people that I had met! Many only by the internet, but many also in person! Look at this picture. Here is Clodagh Finn, who a year earlier had met me in Cork and offered to write a book with me. And she is talking to Charlotte Berger, the little girl who was rescued by Mary Elmes, and who received her mother’s kisses and photo 75 years later! (Read “Miss Mary” to know more!) What an adventure it has been!
But it’s not over yet!
This time last year (October 2019), I received another query. This was from an American Professor in Oregon – yes another one! Her name was Marianne Golding. She said that her father, Edouard Seidler, had been in the Chateau de Larade, and could I tell her any more about those who were there at that time? Here it is:
From: Marianne Golding
Sent: Tuesday, October 29, 2019 4:40 PM
To: Bernard Wilson
Subject: Re: Chateau de Larade
Thank you for your prompt response. I am conducting research on my family, in particular my father’s journey from Brno (Czechoslovakia) to France and Switzerland (from Larade through Annemasse, with Alice’s help). My father and aunt (Edouard and Lisette Seidler) are mentioned at length in “The Highest Mountains.” I am interested in anything that you might know about Larade. I am told that the building no longer exists, but I don’t know if that is true or not.
I have been in touch with Menachem Mayer who was at Larade at the same time as my father, but only for one month and he doesn’t remember him. I wonder if you might have contact with people who would have been at Larade before March 1942.
Thanks for any information or comments you might be able to provide.
Well, of course I knew all about Edouard Seidler and the story of how he came to be in the Chateau de Larade! Here’s how the story begins in Alice Resch’s book, “Over the Highest Mountains”.
Alice goes on to tell the incredible story of how she took Edouard, his sister Lisette, and two other children from Toulouse, right across France to the Swiss border, and how she smuggled them into Switzerland – thus saving their lives. How remarkable that I should now be exchanging emails with this little boy’s daughter!
We have been exchanging emails for almost a year now. It was planned that we would meet in France this summer. I would take her to the Chateau de Larade so that she could see where her father had been hidden amongst all the Spanish children. ~And then I planned to take Marianne to show her all the other significant places that I had discovered and visited. But Covid 9 had appeared and our plans were ruined!
However, in the meantime I had rewritten an earlier book, “See you soon Caroline”, placing the action in Ireland and ending with the opening of the Mary Elmes bridge. To my surprise, Marianne thought that my book would make a perfect text to use in teaching her students French grammar, so she promptly sat down and translated the whole book into French. She’s just sent me the completed translation!
Here she is – with some of her work:
And here’s a glimpse of what that little boy grew up to achieve:
It began with a book!
It ends with a book too!
So that’s my story! Totally unexpected, but a wonderful ten years and I hope that you have found it wonderful as well Thank you for following me all this way, and please tell others about “Miss Mary” too.
Goodbye dear Bloggers,