Les Secours Quakers – relief work in the south of France 1939-1945
“The Quakers not only bring us food but give it in a spirit of friendship which, especially at this time of hatred, we appreciate more than anything else.”
When war again broke out in 1939, the American Friends Service Committee was already active in the south of France, providing relief in camps built for refugees from the civil war in Spain.
In 1940, as the German army occupied the northern part of France, the numbers in the camps swelled massively with those fleeing the German advance. The population of Toulouse alone increased from 200k to almost a million. Food was in desperately short supply.
With Britain now at war with Germany, British Friends were forced to leave France, leaving the work to a small number of American, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian and Irish nationals. Fifty people – few of them actually Quakers – worked out of the office in Marseilles, fifty others in towns in unoccupied France, supported by around 250 French auxiliaries acting as drivers, cooks, nurses etc.
In his 1941 report, AFSC worker, Gilbert White, records that ‘Les Quakres Americains’ were feeding 7,200 adult refugees and 800 children daily in camps and hospitals. Five hundred children were looked after full-time in the children’s colonies. Two thousand children were given supplemental food (milk and vitamins); 230 were fed in their own homes and 3,100 French children were provided with a meal at school. Over the course of the year, 1,500 people had been interviewed and given assistance with emigration. One hundred refugee workers had been supported in small ateliers, and more than a million francs, sent by the British Friends Service Council, had been distributed to 550 refugees.
By 1942, diseases such as TB becoming prevalent, and there was high mortality among the elderly and infirm. The standard French ration card now provided for only one thousand calories a day. The report from that summer records many people losing weight. Children often fainted at school and stomachs distended from malnutrition were becoming a common sight. Clothing too was scarce. Children were coming to school barefoot. One of the Quaker-run ateliers provided espadrilles, which “provided little warmth but at least kept feet off the ground.”
In the camps at Gurs and Riversaltes, the food provided was no longer enough to sustain life. The vast majority of those in the camps were now Jewish and mass deportations to the death camps had begun. The Quakers were desperate to save at least the children.
Irish nurse Mary Elmes and her Norwegian colleague, Alice Resch, managed to obtain exit visas to transfer many of the children from the camps to the children’s colonies run by Helga Holbek. On at least on occasion, Elmes smuggled children out of the camp in the back of her car. Most never saw their parents again.
That year, four parties of (largely Jewish) children were given visas to travel to the US. Late that summer, the Quakers began to hope that as many as a thousand might be allowed to leave this way. They began the painful process of selection, only to have the number reduced, first to 500 and then to 250. Finally it seemed that all the paperwork had been completed, and the first party of children was escorted overland to Lisbon, from where the boat would leave.
Then in November 1942 came the American attack on North Africa. The border between France and Spain was closed and the children were sent back to Marseilles. All Americans were ordered to leave France. Nine American AFSC workers who initially defied the order were interned in Baden Baden and eventually exchanged for German prisoners of war.
Holbek, Resch and Elmes (among others) remained. Adopting the name, Les Secours Quakers, they continued to look after children in the ‘colonies’ and provide relief in the camps. They also continued, at great risk to themselves, to smuggle children and adults out of France to safety elsewhere. In 1943, Elmes was arrested and imprisoned for six months, but never charged. When she was released, she carried on her work, afterwards saying only, “We all experienced inconveniences in those days, didn’t we?”
All three women were subsequently honoured as ‘Righteous Among Nations’ by the State of Israel, in recognition of the lives of children they had saved.