Sunday, December 18, 2016

A stolen telegram and a hundred children: the Vénissieux rescue

It's been a very busy week, so I'm going to tell you the best story I've got. This is the one I've already researched obsessively and put into the novel I'm writing. And I sure don't have time to do any research today.

It's the story of how, during the worst round-up of Jews in Vichy France, French Catholic and Protestant aid workers rescued almost all of the Jewish children who had been arrested in the city of Lyon.

In August 1942, the collaborationist French government in Vichy planned a nationwide round-up of foreign Jews, to happen on the 26th. The Germans, who had recently shifted their policy toward Jews from expelling them to gathering them in camps and murdering them, had given Vichy a quota to fill, and Vichy was trying to fill it.

What the Germans had not asked for—but Vichy decided to give them anyway—was the children.

On August 19th, Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval sent new orders to the French police who were to carry out the job: the children were to be deported too. Previously there had been a policy in place that they could be left behind if the parents agreed to sign over custody to someone who was staying in France. That was now changed, for the simple reason that Laval didn't want them on his hands. I'm pretty sure this qualifies as the worst crime France committed during World War II.

On the morning of August 26th, thousands of Jewish families in cities and towns across the country found police at their doors, come to arrest them all—men, women, children. They weren't put on trains right away; there was some bureaucracy to do first. They were taken to sorting camps, places where they would be kept a few days while officials figured out if any of them were French citizens or otherwise didn't meet the conditions for deportation. In Lyon, where our story is, they were taken to a disused army camp in a suburb called Vénissieux.

Inside the Vénissieux camp it was chaos. People were having their fates decided and they knew it, but no-one really knew what was going on. The level of trauma it must have been, I won't even try to describe. Though I have tried in my novel, from one young character's point of view, and I hope it won't put too many readers off. It was also chaos from the point of view of the French police. (I'm not asking you to feel sorry for them, this has bearing on the story.) They were supposed to pull out people who were exempt from deportation—pregnant women, people too sick to travel, veterans of French or Allied armies, etc—and the rules had recently been changed and they were not clear on them. This is where the rescuers saw their chance.

The rescuers were the Amitié Chrétienne, a network of Catholic and Protestant aid groups (the name means “Christian friendship,” after the fact that it was ecumenical.) There was also a Jewish group, the OSE (their name translates to “Children's Aid Network”) that worked with them. But unofficially, of course. It was the Christians who had political access. (And that should be food for thought for any Christian looking at the Holocaust. Maybe I'll write my thoughts on that sometime.)

And they had a truly surprising amount of access. Believe it or not, the Amitié Chrétienne actually convinced the police to let them help with the sorting process.

And they immediately set about undermining it just as hard as they could.

They got several of their members onto the “sorting committee.” They performed bureaucratic ju-jitsu I don't begin to understand, to try to prove basically every single detainee exempt from deportation. Sometimes they succeeded; sometimes they failed. The camp doctor, a young man who had decided in the moment to throw his career on the line and do everything he could, helped over a hundred people fake serious illnesses in order to be declared “untransportable,” unsure until the last minute whether they would be deported anyway. Hundreds of adults were saved—almost half of the people in the camp (though it's hard to sort out from the numbers I've read who was actually exempt in the first place and who was saved by the efforts of the A.C.) Then the Amitié Chrétienne got the chance to do what they'd come for in the first place—save the children.

One of the spearheads of the operation was a Catholic priest, the Abbé Glasberg, who was also Jewish, the son of parents who had converted. (He wasn't under threat for his ethnicity at this point because he was a French citizen.) He had already been working for two years getting people out of the Vichy internment camps, ostensibly on a temporary basis, and then making them “disappear.” He had obtained the support of the archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Gerlier, whose name gave him the clout he needed to get government officials to listen to him. And he had a contact in Pierre Laval's office, a secret résistante, through whom he'd been able to find out that the children were going to be deported. Saving them had been his goal from the start.

He got his real chance when he was somehow able to steal the telegram ordering the Lyon police to have the children deported. (My source is maddeningly unclear on just how he managed this.) I think he must have stolen it from an office, because he apparently stole a whole folder of papers as well. Between the telegram—which they soon realized had not yet been read—and the papers, which contained the old orders about allowing the parents to sign over custody and leave their kids behind, the Amitié Chrétienne began to see their way clear.

They also realized they had absolutely no time to lose. The detainees had now been in the camp for the better part of two days and deportation was imminent. And they couldn't expect the news blackout Glasberg had created by stealing the telegram to last very long.

Thus began what people who know the story call “la nuit de Vénissieux,” the long night of the Vénissieux camp. The night when, from dusk to the wee hours of the morning, aid workers went through every barrack, in the dark because the lights had failed, and tried to explain to every family, in French or German or Yiddish or whatever they spoke, that there was a chance for their children—and that it meant saying good-bye. The only assurance they could give them for their children was their word, and the word of Cardinal Gerlier.

Again, I won't try to describe here what that must have been like. Maybe you can imagine. Maybe parents, especially, can imagine. I wrote a scene about this night in my book, from the point of view of a teenage girl. But I wouldn't have dared write it from the point of view of the parents.

All the parents but one parted from their children, in order to give them a chance to survive.

There's a story that near the end of the night, when the children were being put in the buses, a police official heard women screaming and weeping aloud in the barracks and asked the Abbé Glasberg, “What are they yelling about?” Glasberg said, “If someone took your children, wouldn't you yell?” The official was silent for a moment. “...I suppose so,” he said.

And so in the dark before dawn, with permission of the authorities, the Amitié Chrétienne drove three buses full of children out of the Vénissieux camp.

Now they had to make them disappear. Fast.

They drove them all to a huge building owned by some allies (specifically a French Jewish scouting organization, yes really), an almost empty place that used to be a Carmelite convent. The scouts brought food and tried to help the kids, some of them tiny, make sense of what had just happened to them, while every single worker of every group in the Amitié Chrétienne called on every single contact she or he had in order to find swift and secret placements for the kids. By midmorning a young woman from the prefecture (regional government office) showed up with a warning: the préfet, who knew about the new orders, had got wind of what they'd done. He wanted the kids back. He was going to carry out his orders.

They moved the kids through the huge convent to another entrance on a different street at least a block away. None of them would be seen going out the door they'd come in. They kept a watch at the front door and dispersed the children with frantic care: a group to a convent here, two or three siblings to a private home there, twenty teen boys off into the wilderness where they would camp disguised in scout uniforms till placements could be found for them. A handful of the children went to Le Chambon, the town I write about.

They were lucky; the police didn't come to the convent till the next morning. All they found there was Madeleine Dreyfus, a French Jewish psychologist and social worker, a Jew who saved Jews and whom I've got to write about sometime. Every question they asked, she answered with “Ask Cardinal Gerlier.” The préfet himself called him up and asked him. He didn't know; he was just the backer. He had not been on the ground with the others, he had never had the addresses. And although he wavered when given the personal word of Marshal Pétain that they would not be used to deport the children (he and Pétain were old friends), he soon firmed and let the authorities know that he would neither give the addresses nor ask his colleagues to do so; the parents had entrusted their children to him and that was that.

The préfet attached an extra train car to the deportation train and called again. The cardinal refused. The préfet invalidated the Amitié Chrétienne's custody of the children, but that didn't provide him with their whereabouts. Prime Minister Pierre Laval himself—the same man who'd signed the deportation order, and I refrain from profanity only because there's none strong enough—told the préfet that if the cardinal cared so much they'd better make him happy.

And the case was closed.

They got away with it. They got away with it because they were French Christians dealing with other French Christians, or nominal Christians, or cultural Christians, or people embedded in a culture, in a country, that had respected the hierarchy of the Catholic Church for well over a thousand years. They got away with it because they were people the authorities deemed respectable—as they had deemed others disposable.

They got away with it for the same reasons a Christian in America today would get away with it. The same reasons I would get away with it.

And that's the story of Vénissieux.


Source: Août 1942, Lyon Contre Vichy: le sauvetage de tous les enfants juifs du camp de Vénissieux (August 1942, Lyon Versus Vichy: the rescue of all the Jewish children from the camp at Vénissieux), by Valérie Perthuis-Portheret

Sunday, December 11, 2016

"Those people on welfare": the Brès

Last week I told the story of someone you might not have heard of. This week I've picked someone so obscure I would lay money that you've never heard of them. Because, might as well be honest here, I'm trying to back up what I said when I started this, that it's not about heroes but about people who were willing to lend a hand.

I also know some more traditional “hero” stories. I'll tell them at some point. But for today, the Brès family.

I don't know the names of the parents. I read their story in a unique sort of Holocaust memoir* called Not The Germans Alone, by Isaac Levendel, who was a young Jewish child in Vichy France during the war. Seven-year-old “Jacky,” as he was called then, knew them as Monsieur and Madame Brès. They took him in when his mother disappeared.

It was June 1944. The boy's mother (for reasons Levendel tries to parse in his memoir but can't be certain of to this day) had waited till very, very late to leave her home and shop and seek hiding. One of the methods for doing this was to move to the country, as far off the beaten path as you could manage, suddenly and without leaving an address. She did this, but—leaving her son overnight at a cherry farm belonging to some acquaintances, and planning to move on further in the morning—she went back to her shop one last time to collect some things. A pair of French gangsters who worked, essentially, as bounty hunters for the Gestapo saw her and picked her up. She was deported. She was murdered by the Nazis on her arrival at Auschwitz, four weeks later.

When Madame Levendel did not come back from her short trip, the daughter of the Steltzers, the resourceful Jewish friends who were helping the Levendels into hiding immediately went to check on her and found out what had happened.

And just like that, seven-year-old Jacky was alone in the world.

The cherry farmers were sympathetic, but afraid to keep him for more than a few days. The Steltzers themselves were now forced on the run again, afraid that Madame Levendel's arrest might have exposed them. But they knew a lot of people, most of them farm families. They chose one they felt they could trust, and brought Jacky to them.

There were no phones—not on farms—and if there had been, it wouldn't have been safe to use them for a request like this. There was nothing to do but show up. Monsieur Steltzer brought Jacky with him on his bicycle, down a gravel trail two or three kilometers outside a little village, to a house that (like many farmhouses in the area I write about as well) had the barn incorporated right into the house. There he introduced the boy to Monsieur and Madame, turned to them, and said simply, “His mother has just been arrested by the Germans. Can you keep him?” Monsieur Brès accepted without hesitation.

The Brès were a poor family. They struggled to put enough food on the table. They received government assistance—welfare, basically—but it often wasn't enough. One of their daughters was an unwed mother; she and her toddler lived with them. They had two other children of their own and had also adopted a young Polish boy, but they didn't hesitate to add young Jacky to the household. At the table, to make sure he didn't feel he was a burden on them, they encouraged him to take seconds.

They were an uneducated family—or rather, educated in country ways rather than books. Their adopted son taught Jacky how to fish for crayfish using a ball of twisted vines with some rotten food in the center as bait, to help put protein on the table. Their older son was a sourcier, a dowser, with the reputed ability to find a spring of water hidden under the ground and use a pendulum to find hidden or lost objects. (He “discovered” to everyone's excitement that Jacky had this second gift too—but Jacky himself was pretty sure he was only reading subtle cues in his instructor's body language.) They hid a little field of wheat from the government's rationing system and made illegal bread with their own roughly ground flour. A scrawny chicken represented a feast.

They were not the sort of family their neighbors considered respectable. Jacky heard derogatory references to their being on welfare. He and Michel, the adopted Polish boy, were viewed as evidence of the Brès' lack of common sense: they can't even keep food on the table and yet they take in stray kids. When the grown Isaac Levendel came back to France looking for them after 45 years, his first lead was a neighbor—who remembered mostly that young Jacky had sometimes eaten with his family because the Brès didn't always have enough, and who repeated, after all that time, the sneer about welfare and taking in kids.

The Brès were not stupid. They understood the danger Jacky faced, and the danger they took on in taking him in. Two months before he came to them, the Germans had burned a neighboring farm and tortured and shot two local men there for their Resistance activities. Yet, Levendel writes, the Brès “seemed unimpressed by the danger” caused by his presence. There were hints that Monsieur Brès might have some Resistance contacts as well.

The Brès sent Jacky to school, reckoning that it would be riskier to attract the neighbors' curiosity by keeping him away from it. Somehow—though they took other precautions—it failed to occur to them that the principal would want to know who he was. Put on the spot, he spun a good lie—he was a cousin from Toulon, a coastal city a long way off, and his parents had just been killed in the heavy bombing there, which had also destroyed all his identity documents—and the principal accepted it. The Brès' daughter Magali, who had stood there dumbfounded by the question, brought the story home and the whole family praised Jacky to the heavens for saving their lives.

After the war, after the dislocation that so many other hidden Jewish children experienced too—uncertain custody that rarely lined up with what the child wanted, profound feelings of abandonment and grief worked through in silence and with little help—the growing Levendel felt a deep need (like many others like him) to put his past behind him. He ended up in Israel, then the U.S. He never contacted the Brès again, or tried to find out where they were, until 45 years later when he undertook to face his past in a serious way and returned to France to fill in the gaps in what he knew of his story and write his book. When he tracked down the Brès he was nervous about seeing them. They had saved his life and he'd offered, in return, 45 years of silence. They were poorer than before—the parents were dead by then, and the surviving unmarried brother and sister lived in a little shanty—and he could only imagine how they might feel about what he owed them and how long he had stayed away.

Instead, their faces lit with joy when they saw him. They immediately called their other sister to come visit. They were delighted with who he had become, with everything he could tell them about his wife and children; they gave him gifts and did not seem to feel they owed him anything. Magali told him how much she had missed him when he had to leave their home at the end of the war, and repeated again with great praise the story of how he had “saved their lives” with his quick thinking. As for what her family had done to save his life, she finally acknowledged it on his insistence. In a letter she wrote “We were taking risks, but if we acted without thinking, it was because your life was in the greater danger. We would have done anything so that nothing happened to you... you were our little brother.”

The Brès were not respected members of their community. They were outsiders, on welfare, dismissed by their neighbors. Maybe it's not so surprising, that they knew how to feel for a child who was in danger and alone. Maybe it should be surprising that their other neighbors didn't.

ETA: When I first wrote this I left out one of the details of how the Brès were outsiders and different from their neighbors: unlike their neighbors, they didn't attend church. I didn't actually leave this out on purpose, but once I realized, I wanted to make sure to include it. Faith is important to me, but I hope that I and all people of faith can resist the temptation to identify goodness with religion. The people of Le Chambon were actually helped by their church to be good neighbors; the Brès' neighbors, apparently, were not. The Brès found it in themselves to care about a little boy alone in the world without the aid of religion. If any quote from Jesus is apropos, it's "a tree is known by its fruit."


* I'll review the book sometime; it's excellent. In the first half he tells all his memories, completely from a child's eye view (and only another writer of historical fiction would understand just how grateful I instantly was as he plunged into his memories of daily life, in the obsessively textured detail that only children have time for), and the second half gives us his conclusive, hard-won archive research proving who, at every bureaucratic level, was responsible for his mother's deportation and death. Like I said, a unique memoir.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

She opened her door: Magda Trocmé

“The struggle in Le Chambon began and ended in the privacy of people's homes. Decisions that were turning points in that struggle took place in kitchens, and not with male leaders as the only decision-makers, but often with women centrally involved.”

- Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed

It was a cold evening in the terrible winter of 1940-1941—the worst winter France had known in a long time—and Magda Trocmé was feeding the fire. In her town up on the Vivarais plateau, where the winters were harsh at the best of times, this one was a time for worries. She was carefully adding bits of dried genêt brush, trying to build up the fire without wasting the precious firewood that would get them through till spring.

She heard a knock on the door.

She opened it to find a woman shawled in snow, fear and hunger in her face, hesitating. She was a German Jew, she said, a refugee. She had heard that here in Le Chambon, someone could help her. Could she come in?

“Of course,” said Magda. “Come in, come in.”

Magda was the wife of André Trocmé, the pastor of the Reformed Church in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. If you have heard of anyone in this story, you will have heard of him. He was a brilliant scholar and preacher, sent by his denomination to this small rural parish because he refused to stop preaching nonviolence. He was a big fish in a small pond, both a charismatic leader overflowing with ideas and one who warmly loved his people and visited them constantly. Since France's defeat in the spring of 1940, he had preached to his people that they must resist pressure to act against their consciences and against God, and he had himself resisted in politically symbolic ways. When it was decreed that all schoolchildren would now salute the French flag with the same salute used in Nazi Germany, he refused to enforce the order in his church-run school, and the principal of the public school followed suit.

That was the time of symbols. There in the unoccupied zone, the new collaborationist Vichy regime was trying to capture the hearts and minds of the people with their program of National Revolution, its goal quite literally to make France great again. On the Vivarais plateau, people had long memories, and those memories were of government persecution and the brave resistance of their Huguenot ancestors. Their country's greatness wasn't their main concern. André Trocmé helped to focus and embolden the new sense of resistance welling up in their hearts.

But Magda opened the door.

Magda was not always sure just what she believed about God—or if she was, she never said so very definitely. She supported her husband in everything he did, but she was a practical woman, not much taken with words or symbols. She wanted to know what she should do—and do it. “I am not a good Christian at all,” she explained once, “but I have a few things I believe in... I never close my door, never refuse to help somebody who comes to me or asks for something. This I think is my kind of religion.”

The time had come for her kind of religion.

This was the first time a refugee in need had come to the village openly asking for help. When Magda gave it, she ushered in the second time in Le Chambon: the time of helping. Simply helping people who needed help. Within a year and a half, in the summer of 1942 when the round-ups began, the time of hiding would come; by then the village would be full to bursting, the vast majority of households sheltering at least one refugee, with many more in children's homes and dorms of the church-run boarding school. There would be false identity cards, planned hiding places, code-phrases to alert Jews to the presence of police.

But first there was an open door, a place by the fire, a bed for the night.

It was only for the night, that time, because there's another part to this story. Magda made a mistake.

Leaving the woman to warm herself by the fire, she went straight to the town hall, to ask the mayor to help her get a ration card and hopefully a false ID for the woman. There were no round-ups yet, but as a refugee and an illegal alien she could still be deported back to Germany by the French. Magda assumed the mayor would help. It was what she would have done; it was what her neighbors would have done. She was not experienced yet.

The man was shocked. How dare she endanger the French town under his care for the sake of one foreigner? He told Magda to get her out of town the next morning—at the very latest. She looked at him, turned on her heel, and walked back out to comply. She had no choice. She had told the authorities who and where the woman was. She had put her in danger and she would have to get her out if it.

Thankfully, Le Chambon—though it's the one you may have heard of—was not the only town on that plateau where people believed in welcoming the stranger. In the next town over, Magda knew a Catholic family who were willing to take the woman in. But she was ashamed, ashamed for her town and for herself, to be sending this refugee who had come to her back out into the snow. She did not remember that day as a triumph. She learned from it the precautions to take, the next time she opened her door. Not precautions against the person who stood on the other side, but for them.

Her mistake is really interesting to me. It seems so obvious to us in hindsight, and yet she was not a stupid or naïve person. She was a mother, an organizer, the equal partner of a brilliant man. She didn't suppose everyone approached needy refugees in the same way as her; just that everyone in her community did. And the crazy thing is that she was almost right. There were thousands of Jews in Le Chambon during the war, and no informers. Also—though I haven't been able to discover whether this was due to a change of heart or a change of mayor—it's a matter of record that for most of the war years the town's mayor fully supported the rescue efforts. Magda Trocme assumed a moral community that was almost there. And her assumption came true.

Who made it true? Who can say? Every person who opened their door, one by one, made it true. Every person who offered a little help, whatever someone needed. A pair of shoes, a meal, an invitation to hide in their hayloft anytime there was need. And yes, André Trocmé with his preaching helped make it true too. But his words and his symbols would have been nothing without the people willing to make them real. Without farmer after farmer saying (they were surprised after the war that anyone was impressed) “Well, they're in trouble, of course they can stay here.” Without woman after woman, standing in her kitchen, deciding she could stretch the rationed groceries in her pantry enough to feed another mouth.

Without his wife, opening that door.