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Alice Resch Synnestvedt & Mary Elmes

Photo: Archives / AFSC

Rescuing countless children during World War II

By Madeline Schaefer

Both born in 1908, Alice Resch Synnestvedt and Mary Elmes grew up in different worlds but later established a close correspondence of service and resistance.

In a time of increasing European tension, both women felt the call to protect the lives of children threatened by oppressive regimes. Alice, who spent most of her childhood in the Norwegian countryside, became a nurse after visiting the American Hospital of Paris. Mary, who grew up on the Cork coast of Ireland, joined the University of London Ambulance Unit in war-torn Spain.

AFSC had established itself as a nongovernmental organization in Germany and France while doing relief work after World War I, and was able to provide support to prisoners at the start of World War II. Alice joined those AFSC efforts in France, working with the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children (USCOM), which was founded by AFSC Executive Secretary Clarence Pickett in 1940.

Alice Resch Synnestvedt Photo: "Over the Highest Mountain: A Memoir of Unexpected Heroism in France during World War II"With USCOM, Alice worked to improve living conditions in the Gurs internment camp in southern France. While providing medical support to the prisoners, Alice would send covert buses filled with Jewish children to another nurse—Mary Elmes— in a neighboring town, where Mary would gather the papers and coordinate the evacuation of those children to safety in the United States.

Over the course of their working relationship in the early 1940s, Alice and Mary exchanged numerous letters, primarily about the fate of the children under their care. “Dear Mary,” Alice wrote in 1942, “One seems to swim in USCOM children just for the moment.”

Despite concerns for their own safety—including Mary’s brief stint in Fresnes prison near Paris where she was suspected of assisting escapees but was never charged—Mary and Alice worked tirelessly to ensure the survival of dozens of children.

Decades later, several of those survivors searched for and found Alice and Mary, eager to thank them for aiding them in escaping an uncertain fate. “What you did was indeed such a heroic act that words alone are not enough,” wrote one survivor, Al Sperber, to Alice in 1998. “The Talmud says that those who save one life save the world. And you and your organization did just that.”

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