Today, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by Soviet troops. The unspeakable horror of these places has been described in memoirs and contemporary film footage. But few survivors remain and it is beyond our imagination today to conceive of how it must have been.
The deportation of Jews – and other “undesirables” – from France is a deplorable page in the country’s history. However, amidst the bleakness, there were glimmers of virtue and it’s those I want to focus on.
After the occupation of France by Germany, the Armistice and the dissolution of the 3rd Republic, the Vichy regime passed increasingly restrictive legislation affecting Jewish people. The reaction of the non-Jewish population ranged from overt anti-Semitism to active sympathy, with the gamut of responses in between.
On 26th August 1942, the police and gendarmerie carried out raids to arrest foreign Jews in the unoccupied (so called “Free”) zone. In Tarn-et-Garonne, 173 people were arrested.
The response of the Catholic Church had been somewhat passive up till then. But the Archbishop of Toulouse and the Bishop of Montauban, Mgr Pierre-Marie Théas, denounced the raids.
Mgr Théas wrote a letter of protest, which he distributed to 40 parishes to be read on 30th August. The bishop himself was arrested in 1944 following an excoriating sermon and spent 10 weeks in a camp before being released.
All this had little effect on national policy, however. At least 450 people were arrested on racial grounds in the département during the war, and most of them were deported to Auschwitz.
In our area, a raid took place in early June 1943 in the town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, during which 13 Jews were rounded up. But the maire, Paul Benet, warned 60 others, who escaped into the countryside. This earned him a rap over the knuckles from the préfet, who demanded a list of the 60 escapees. I presume Benet avoided complying.
In the same town, two couples earned a place among the Righteous Among the Nations, those non-Jews who actively protected and sheltered Jewish people at great personal risk.
Armand and Alice Fraysse took in a Polish boy of six, Jacques Bronstein, and passed him off as their nephew. He learned to call them Tonton and Tantine (uncle and auntie). They managed to protect him even when a unit of the Das Reich armoured division was stationed in the town in early summer 1944 and hunted down Jews, Résistants and communists.
In another example, the Fertig family arrived in SW France in 1940, having escaped from Berlin. The family was separated and the husband, Baruch, was deported in September 1942. His wife Jetty and their daughter Anna rented a flat in Saint-Antonin and got to know Paul and Cécilia Pellet, cordonniers (shoemakers).
Jetty and Anna were arrested during the raids of 26th August 1942 and sent to the transit camp at Septfonds. They should have gone to Auschwitz via Drancy, like so many others, but were smuggled out of the camp by sympathisers and made their way back to Saint-Antonin, where the Pellets hid them.
Sixty-five people in Tarn-et-Garonne have been honoured as Righteous Among the Nations out of 3,760 altogether in France. No doubt there are others who will always remain anonymous.
In the town of Moissac, in the west of the département, 500 Jewish children were sheltered in a “maison des enfants.” At the Liberation, none had been arrested or deported. But that’s a story for another day.
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