Sarah Cullen rings the bell for It Tolls For Thee, Andrew Gallimore’s film about Irishwoman Mary Elmes, an unsung heroine who saved hundreds of children from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and from the concentration camps of World War II.
While introducing It Tolls For Thee at the IFI’s 2017 Documentary Film Festival, Paddy Butler (the journalist who broke the news of Elmes’ story in The Irish Times in 2012) described Mary Elmes as “on a par with Oskar Schindler.” Yet while Schindler is a household name, Elmes has been obscured from history for decades. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2013 that she was posthumously honoured as Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel for her work during World War II. Elmes’ story is unquestionably one that deserves to be told, and director Andrew Gallimore, along with journalists, historians, concentration camp survivors, Nazi hunters, and Elmes’ own children, admirably illustrate Elmes’ hidden story of bravery.
Narrated by Winona Ryder, It Tolls for Thee takes the long-abandoned Spanish concentration camp of Rivesaltes as its central focus. It was here – a refugee-turned-concentration camp – in which Elmes worked tirelessly throughout the Second World War to rescue Jewish children from the trains set to transport them to Auschwitz. Ronald and Mario Friend, two brothers still alive today thanks to Elmes’ bravery, also relate their experiences in the camp. This space takes on further resonances when we learn about the efforts of local authorities to destroy documents outlining Rivesaltes’ true function during the war: had such an attempt been successful, Elmes’ story – and the stories of those she rescued – might have been entirely erased.
Elmes, born in 1908, was a Cork native whose studies took her to Trinity College Dublin and on to the London School of Economics. While she excelled in her fields of French and Spanish, winning medals and scholarships, she chose to move away from academic pursuits at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, travelling to Almería to join the relief effort. During the Second World War Elmes devoted herself to the children interred in Rivesaltes, working tirelessly to feed and clothe them and risked her life multiple times by removing children from the camp, hiding them in remote villages in the Pyreneés. In 1943 she was jailed by the Gestapo, but simply returned to her aid work upon her release.
Despite the film purporting to be about Mary Elmes, it is in many ways the story of conflict and hardship in French and Spanish Catalonia in the early twentieth century: there is at least the same amount (if not more) time spent illustrating the violence and migration across the Pyrenées during the Spanish Civil War and World War II as there is regarding Elmes. It Tolls for Thee can hardly be faulted for this, however. Considering the cover-up conducted to hide the horrors of Rivesaltes, one can only marvel at the tremendous job Gallimore and his team have done in piecing together the all-but-forgotten history of one of Ireland’s bravest citizens. What we do learn about Elmes paints the picture of a personable and self-less individual, something which is reflected in the cinematography: we glimpse Elmes mainly in black and white photos documenting her time in Spanish orphanages and hospitals. However, in contrast to her surroundings colour has been added to Elmes’ image, giving the viewer a clear focus on her, and providing a humanising touch.
Indeed, It Tolls for Thee demonstrates just how much has been obscured in the chaos and espionage – not to mention the revisionism – of the wars that swept across Europe and left so much devastation in their wake. While it took Ronald and Mario Friend almost seventy years to discover that it was “Mrs. Elmes” who rescued them from Rivesaltes, there are undoubtedly many survivors who will never know who saved them. Ultimately, we learn, it is not even certain how many children Elmes saved, although the number is believed to be in the hundreds. What shines through in It Tolls for Thee is her unwavering commitment to the children in her care in the face of incredible adversity.
It Tolls for Thee screened as part of the IFI Documentary Festival 2017 (September 27th to October 1st)