When the Germans decided the time had come to kill the Jews of France they knew all about their victims. The personal particulars that set the Jews apart, the fragments of information recorded meticulously in the files that would condemn them all to death.
Not only that they were Jewish and lived quiet, inoffensive lives, but their full names, where they were born, their professions and whether or not they owned the houses in which they were living.
The word "croyant" on the official papers means to be "observant", but for the Germans, whose plan was to wipe out the entire Jewish people, it made no difference whatsoever. All were sentenced to death, whether they believed or not, the old and the young, women and children, the healthy and the infirm.
Perla Lewkowitz was one of them. So was her baby boy Michel. They died in
Their escape took them away from the deportation gangs busily shipping the Jews to their deaths and looting their homes in the northern French industrial town of Valenciennes, to a barge with a cargo of coal on an inland canal, to a tiny village high up in the mountains of Savoie where they found Victor and Josephine Guicherd.
To meet and talk with these unpretentious farmers, long after it was all over, was to learn what Jews mean by the "righteous" - those exceptional, rare human beings whose unselfish compassion enriches everyone and everything they touch.
No sophisticated political or religious ideology dictated their actions. They felt no need to rationalize, justify or explain. So why did they do it? "Why do you ask?" they answered, with a sincerity, grace and dignity that left little more to be said.
For the Guicherds these were children in deep distress who needed neither physical comfort nor material possessions, but a simple roof over their heads, a scrap of bread, a glass of water, a chance to live. In the course of time, the children would grow up to breath the pure mountain air, drink warm milk from the cow's udder, and taste the flavor of unselfish love; the essence of self-sacrifice and devotion, which they would instil into their own lives, impart to their children, and extend as a message of exemplary hope and courage when humanity failed, again and again, to learn the lessons of the Holocaust.
Victor and Josephine Guicherd saved the lives of Betty and Jacques as the Germans combed
The baby, Michel, had already died, with his mother, Perla, who believed they would not touch a young woman and her child. "We are safe," she told her husband, "they will leave us alone." They did - after she and the child had been killed.
These last words to her family were spoken on the day the Jews of northern
When the early clouds of the German occupation had covered France, Samuel and Perla Lewkowitz moved to Domfront in
The ring personifies survival. As does the birth of her own children in
These, then, were the early days of German persecution, when to wear the yellow Star of David was the first intimation of a pending death sentence. To pin it on your lapel was to be embarrassed, to sense the confused stigma of discrimination, and for Betty to have it removed, behind closed doors when she went to her kindergarten class, was to feel relief, comfort and fleeting freedom.
In his book "Le Memorial Des Enfants Juifs Deportes de France" Serge Klarsfeld, who has devoted his life to bringing the criminals to justice and telling the true story of the Holocaust (it was he who gave Betty details of the convoy to Auschwitz), offers us a gallery of French children who were killed by the Germans. Each child, who wore the yellow Star of David before he or she died, looks at us shyly and trustingly, posing for the camera in their best clothes, at a time when it was a crime to be a Jew, but not yet a capital sentence. They are dead, but thanks to Klarsfeld's devoted and devout work, they are not anonymous.
On page 1454 of this monumental volume, Michel stands on the window sill of their home, his mother gently holding his hand. Look closely at these faces. Look into their eyes. For they are no longer with us. Perla with her striped jacket, so coincidentally reminiscent of garments worn in the concentration camps, smiles charmingly and happily at us, but her eyes betray the despondency of a mother who must try to bring up her children under the German occupation. The child is calm, but he will surely cry soon. On his left arm we see the gold bracelet engraved with his initials, which French children receive when they are born. A single link from Betty's bangle was incorporated into her wedding ring when she married in
When her little brother, Michel, was taken away to be killed in Auschwitz, the Germans would have tossed this tiny identification band on to the pile of other Jewish valuables, the baubles and plunder of their death machine. It would have been melted down, perhaps to become a piece of costume jewelry to decorate some fashionable German frau in the streets and coffee shops of
Piles of rings and bracelets were found removed and discarded in the concentration camps.
It was easy to steal and distort the truth when they killed their victims, as part of a national duty, for which none would have to pay the price. Because, as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen writes in his book Hitler's Willing Executioners (see our review), they would have been excused the job of killing the Jews, had they so wanted. without retribution. Tragically for the Jewish people, they wanted. And they did it, with brutal, methodical pleasure.
Samuel Lewkowitz was a strong, prudent man for whom escape had always meant survival and a way of life. As a youth he had left
Survivors plan ahead, they know that without elementary precautions, foresight and money they cannot escape the danger stalking them in every corner. So Samuel Lewkowitz did three remarkable things: he agreed, at the behest of a close friend, not to circumcise his son, Michel; he planted a small bag of money under a decorative brick border in his garden, and he gave the trunk, packed with furs, to a friend, an architect and a non-Jew.
If the Germans took the children, they would say Michel was not circumcised. When he needed the money, he would dig it up. And if the world fell in - as it did - the friend, with whom he had deposited the chest of furs, would send it on to help them all survive.
We do not know if he also arranged the escape route in advance - this is one of our missing links and is part of the search. But we do know that when the Germans and their French accomplices knocked on the door, Betty and Jacques were out of town, at a small summer camp in the country. We know that when the Germans inquired of a neighbor upstairs in the next house if they were at home, she said "no." But, asked if there were there the previous night, she agreed they were. This neighbor, callous or frightened, naive or willful, may have given them away.
Inside the house, Perla clutched the child, pleading with her husband to run quickly to find Betty and Jacques. She believed the Germans would not touch a mother and her young child. He refused to leave, insisting that she come too. "Save them," she pleaded desperately, "I'll be alright." It did not occur to this lovely lady with the deep compassionate brown eyes that anyone would harm them, and that their neighbors would turn away when they were carted off.
We do not know at which point she discovered the truth. We only know that she and Michel are registered on "No. 84 du convoi parti de Belgique le 15.9.42." Their names are there, in alphabetical order, in black on white, on the list drawn up by the methodical German death bureaucracy. From Maria Aichenbaum and her children, Fanny and Isaac, to the Eisenbergs, the Herlichs, the Kahns, the Landaus and the Lewkowiczs, to David Piotrowski and Rosa Pliskin - they, and all the others, were placed on Convoy No. 84 and taken via the Malines transit camp in Belgium to the Auschwitz death camp. They stopped for a week in Malines, just across the border in
A total of 1,054 human beings, of whom 264 were children. The list is neatly arranged and cleanly typed, and there are only one or two spelling mistakes. The inventory of victims seems innocuous enough. A simple census, perhaps, or families who had put their names down for a holiday outing. The Germans and their French assistants had arrived at rue du Rempart with another document, the "Fiche de Juif," that proved their "guilt" beyond any doubt. It said specifically that they were believers. And, with the hyper-efficiency of a great methodical nation, they were registered on the other lists, of the people they shipped to the concentration camps, where they died - if they survived the horrendous journey. Look down the list and you'll find the names of Perla and Michel Lewkowitz.
And if you wish to see the official record now, go to the
On the ridge, as you stand beside the monument, you can see how the Philistines deployed for battle against the Israelites, each side facing the other on gentle, sloping ground. In the middle of the fertile plain, they settled their war with the single stone David threw from his sling.
There are many small stones in the fields today, of the kind Jews leave behind when they visit the graves of their loved ones. Perla and Michel have no resting place or any other memorial. When those who survived the darkest days of the European nightmare visit the spot they can see not only the little stones, but a great satellite ground station that is part of the modern Jewish state's defense system against any future oppressor. The lists are protected by Biblical history and modern technology, and by the love of those who, like Betty, go back to remember.
We can only imagine Samuel's agony when he faced the choice of leaving his wife, as she pleaded, or staying with her. To leave meant relinquishing his responsibility as a husband and a father. But it also meant that his two other children, Betty and Jacques, would not be left alone. Samuel Lewkowitz made his choice. The feeling of doubt or guilt would be with him for the rest of his life. But he never spoke of it. "The past is the past, let it be," he would say. The sadness of his voice and the anguish of his eyes betrayed the perpetual predicament of a man who had to sacrifice to save. By agreeing, but not truly believing, that the Germans might not harm his wife and baby boy he gave himself a better chance of rescuing the other two children.
Until he died, he rarely spoke of what actually took place in that room when he and the woman he loved faced the unthinkable alternative. He told us what his wife said, but he did not talk about his own moral dilemma. We can only guess. And feel deep pity.
While the Germans and their French collaborators rounded up his wife and child, he ran through the quiet, early morning streets of
Late summer in northern
For a seven year-old girl and five year-old boy, profoundly Jewish in the sense that they had been made to feel the enforced stigma of a yellow Star of David and the ubiquitous and pernicious anti-Semitism of the French around them, the autumnal countryside beckoned, and the fields and the crops waited to be harvested.
Lower down in the valley, where the children played, there was no real sense of the impending danger, as the German occupation of France tightened its grip, and executive decisions were made to implement the "Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor." Samuel Lewkowitz's hurried arrival, and the alarm with which he gathered up his children, was typical of a situation being enacted, those self same days, in occupied countries all over
Most Jewish parents who did not, or could not, leave
Jews trying to cross were shot as infiltrators, turned back or handed over to the Germans as traitors. At that time the mere desire to live was an act of subversion.
Yet some would escape as part of a complete or truncated family unit. A few would make it alone. Children would grow up with a new name and a different identity, often with another religion, usually Catholic.
Many, many years later, when they too were adults, the war was slipping into distant memory, and the Holocaust was being denied by the revisionists who claimed it never happened that way. The entire story of the Germans killing six million Jews was a willful fabrication, a vicious figment of the world's distorted imagination, or part of the great Zionist conspiracy to dominate the world.
Betty has no compelling need to confute the liars other than the wish to tell what happened to them personally. They are the last eye witnesses, apart from their own parents' generation, which emerged from the killing and is now passing away in the old age the Germans sought to deny them. As children who were hidden during the Second World War, and grew up under a false identity, only now are they mature and dispassionate enough, after almost 50 years of self-imposed silence, to tell the true story.
On the bridge near the barge that would take them to safety men who had been paid were willing to help, but others waited to kill. A consignment of coal, from the pits in northern
The pitch-black darkness offered the young girl only fear when she was pushed in. Fear of the dark; fear of the Germans, who were standing with guns on the bridge.
Their father, determined to save their lives, and aware of what was happening to the Jews the Germans found, made them climb into the hold, but not before he pointed to the two uniformed men standing on the bridge. "They will kill us, if you don't do what I say," he pleaded, "you must go in."
And it was there, on that old wooden vessel that he reminded them of their second identity. "You name is Leroy"," he had said earlier, "remember your name. It's Leroy, not Lewkowitz. If anyone asks for your name, it's Leroy."
So it was that a family, with a name whose Jewishness no one could ever doubt, became Catholic. .From the "son of Levy" to a "king."And it was as King that they lived through the war and the German occupation.
.A photograph, torn in two, was to be the proof of delivery at a railway station en route to
The children and their father hid under the coal as the barge sailed down the canal. It was a slow, tortuous escape, in which the barge-owner and his passengers knew that the price of discovery was instant death. Had they been found, or betrayed, all would have been shot. The roots of shrubs were their diet.
In the town of
Arriving in the town, they were just two months ahead of Klaus Barbie, the man they called the "Butcher of Lyons," who boasted how he had humiliated the French resistance. When the Germans moved into
With their French collaborators, the Germans combed the countryside for Jews. Jews like Samuel Lewkowitz, hiding in the mountains, working as a woodcutter, sharing bread and fighting with the Resistance.
.It had been a long, tiring walk up the hill from the railway station at Lepin Le Lac to the
The home of Victor and Josephine Guicherd sits on the ridge where the path turns left to overlook the entire, gently sloping meadow, over which the homesteads are scattered. Five miles away is the square, with its ancient church and steeple, a schoolhouse, the village office, some farms and a grocer's shop.
On that night, thin to the point of emaciation, and her body covered with sores from a lack of proper nutrition, Betty watched in trepidation as the Guicherds wondered if she would live.
Jacques, chubby and tough, had a constitution strong enough to give the appearance of health and vitality. For Betty, agonizing treatment with needles to cauterize the festering carbuncles would be needed until the Guicherds were convinced she had a chance of recovering.
And recover she did, to live the life of a peasant girl on a simple French farm, with the cattle and the trees, the dogs and the chickens. The nightmare and the fear became a dream and a hope.
These were the days of tranquility for Betty and her brother, when a different identity and a new religion provided the cover with which they were able to evade the German search parties, combing the towns and villages for Jews who had escaped.
The arrival of Germans looking for Jews meant that Victor Guicherd had to hide the children until the danger had passed.
When he received word, saw them approaching up the hill or heard their footsteps outside the house he would open the big hollow table used by French country families to store bread and flour.
Climbing inside, the children would have no room to move, almost no air to breath, and no sense of time. But they were safe.
In the cellar, where he stored dry food and wine, Victor Guicherd had a radio, on which he would listen to the Free French broadcasts from
And often, when he went down to the basement, he would swear the children to secrecy. "Never, never tell anyone what I am doing down there," he told them.
In the fields he would cut the hay with his sharp scythe, singing the old songs of the French countryside in a strong tenor voice that echoed across the mountains. Betty would bring him his lunch of bread, wine and cheese in a basket covered with a clean linen cloth. And they would sit there together, tearing off pieces of home-made bread, spreading the fresh goat's milk cheese with a peasant's sturdy knife, chatting happily and animatedly about life and Nature all around them. Gently imparting his love for the flowers and the animals, he would create in the young girl a passion for rustic beauty and a sense of natural aesthetics that permeates her own adult life in the new home she has built for herself and her family in