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Evacuating children from war

Alice Resch Synnestvedt, 1908-2007 and Mary Elmes, 1908-2002

Photo: AFSC Archives / AFSC

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

Alice, born in Chicago, spent most of her childhood in the Norwegian countryside; Mary Elmes spent her childhood on the distant Cork coast of Ireland. Ready to begin a life of independence, Alice fell into nursing after a visit to the American Hospital of Paris. Mary attended Trinity College, Dublin, and later joined the University of London Ambulance Unit in war-torn Spain. In a time of increasing European tension, both women felt the call to protect the lives of children threatened by oppressive regimes.

As an adult, Alice worked in France with the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children (USCOM), which had been founded by AFSC Executive Secretary Clarence E. Pickett in 1940. AFSC had established itself as a non-governmental 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.

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, Alice and Mary exchanged numerous letters, primarily concerning 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 countless children.

Read about more women change-makers from AFSC's history.

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