Today in church I was reflecting on this story--the true story I'm about to tell you, the story of how a little ecumenical group of priests and aid workers stole a Vichy telegram and used it, and their best fraud skills, to snatch a hundred children out of the jaws of the Nazis.
I think it may have literally changed my life.
And then I wrote my next novel so hard I ruined my hands doing it. Couldn't use them for almost three months, and not all that much for the two months after that. And it was so hard and I never regretted the novel. Never. Because I was doing my life's work and I knew I was--useful or not--and you can't regret that. But when did I stop seeing writing about such things as something I did because you do what you're good at and start seeing it as--useful or not--the small yet all-demanding service God had asked of me? I don't know when. One thing led to another, like a plant finding its way up to the sun.
But the seed was planted when I read this story.
So here'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