|Betty on the farm, seen by a child in Jerusalem
By focusing on the experiences of one young girl, Betty Berthe Lewkowitz - (now Eppel) - Hidden Roots tells the story of Jewish children who survived the Holocaust in
France by going into hiding. For years after World War Two, having submerged their real identity and true personality, they were made to feel that they were the "lucky ones" who, unlike their parents, siblings and peers, were not killed by the Germans.
Deborah Dvork, in her book, Children with a Star, gives the example of one "lucky" Jewish nurse who returned to work.
"The head nurse had done many wonderful things during the war. She had helped Jews and others who had had to hide, and she had hidden people in the hospital itself. 'But when I went just to make her acquaintance, she said, 'Well, you can come here, you can work like everybody else, but the war is over now, so no word about the war. You may come, you come to work and you come to learn to be a nurse, and we won't speak about the war and you don't speak about your Jewish background. No stories.'"
Behind the survivor's "luck" described here - so often it was articulated simply because someone took the trouble to "ask," is a remarkable tale of courage and fear that enters and probes the unexplored areas in which children were forced to deny their own individuality and non-Jews risked their lives to protect them. It takes us with Betty Lewkowitz and her brother, Jacques, to the secret underground networks and trails through which these Jewish children were ushered to safety. We arrive at the tiny mountain
Dullin, where a farming couple, Victor and Josephine Guicherd, teach her the ways of a young shepherd, growing up with an intense love of nature's colors and fragrances in the plants, flowers and animals around her. They form a deep bond of love and affection.
After the War, when the Germans had been defeated and the Jews had a state of their own, the Guicherds would be recognized as "Righteous Gentiles" - Righteous amomg the Nations - by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and research center in Jerusalem, but would, in a sense of profound humility and dignity, refuse a medal - because, as they wrote: "the love of these children is the only reward we ever wanted." For these unassuming and remarkable farmers, a tree in the "Avenue of the Just" at Yad Vashem spoke more eloquently of their struggle to save and nurture human life on the fertile soil of their simple and generous hilltop home. In a moving ceremony many years later, the tree that symbolized their personal triumph over evil was planted by the woman they had rescued, and by her own husband and children.
As the story unfolds we meet the villagers who knew the children were Jewish, but did not betray them. We discover that the Guicherds protected others running away from the Germans' extermination program, but that none of the Jews sitting around the same table at harvest time knew who and what the others were. They were all escaping, and they were all sheltered for longer or shorter periods at the little house in Dullin.
Some are still alive, and we talk to them. Using interviews with Victor Guicherd before he died, and other central figures in the events during and after the escape we show how a few courageous people openly defied the German death machine, often at great personal risk, while others turned a blind eye. We talk to psychologists who have worked with the Hidden Children as adults, to the French lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, who has documented the German program to have them killed, and to officials at Yad Vashem, where the actions of the "righteous," who saved them, are studied and recognized. Former members of the Jewish resistance tell us how they set up "safe houses," forged identity papers in clandestine workshops, outwitted both the German occupiers and their French accomplices, and rescued hundreds of children.
This chapter of Hidden Roots, which we call Victor's Key," opens with the round-up and deportation of Jews in northern
France. The girl's mother and baby brother are taken from their home, and shipped off to the
Auschwitz death camp, while her father escapes by a back door. From a summer holiday home in the country she and another brother are given a new identity and transported down a canal in a barge with a cargo of coal to meet up with underground contacts. Suffering from malnutrition, brought on by the ordeal of her journey, they arrive at dead of night in the village, where the Guicherds doubt if the girl can survive. She does, to grow up into a healthy, highly intelligent and artistically sensitive young woman, whose attachment to the old man is stronger than to her biological father.
Cows must be taken out to pasture, there are apples to be picked, and school studies to be done with nuns who know of but conceal her true identity and religion.
For this to have happened, the Germans had built an efficient, cruel mechanism of discrimination and, as described by Susan Zuccotti in " the Holocaut, the French and the Jews" it created a vicious infrastructure:
Despite the courage with which it was worn, the yellow Star of David caused profound anguish. Integrated Jews who had long thought of themselves as French above all else were suddenly not only subjected to discriminatory laws but forced to look physically different at all times. As the law obviously intended, they now had to obey every anti-Jewish measure absolutely. They had to respect the 8:00 P.M.-6:00 A.M. curfew, imposed upon Jews in February 1942. After another German ordinance on July 8, they could go to no public places - no parks, cinemas, theaters, libraries, museums, cafes, or restaurants - and they could shop only during limited hours: 11 :00 A.M. to noon for food, and 3:00 to 4:00 P.M. for other items, by which time most goods had been sold and many stores were closed
Victor's Key is also a story of collaboration and human frailty, of the neighbor's farm set on fire the day the war ended, of the women whose hair was shaved in the square and the neighbors who may have betrayed the family to the Germans. More than anything else it goes beyond simple courage and treachery into the realm of rare selfless compassion as the Jews of Europe were being destroyed.
For the children, as Deborah Dvork notes, resilience in face of the plan to kill them was the dominant factor:
"Notwithstanding the plans the young people and their parents devised, the choices they made, and the decisions they took, the dominant factors in the determination of their lives were the omnipresent, ubiquitous program for destruction and luck. In the end, the actions people took of their own volition were as likely to work to their detriment as to their benefit. They simply did not have enough information to calculate knowledgeably. The situation they faced was so alien, so different from anything they had experienced personally or had learned through education that they could not apply their knowledge to it. Caught as they were in the net of Nazism, luck and chance ultimately transpired to be the major variables in their lives. In every pattern or phase of life (in hiding, transit camps, the ghettos, and the slave labor camps), fortune and accident were the primary determinants of how the young people negotiated the machinery of death.
"Victor's Key" concludes with the new life the girl and others like her have made for themselves, the regular meetings they hold to tell their personal stories, discuss their intimate feelings and analyze the events they believe most of humanity has forgotten, and whose lessons it has never learned.