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Chapter XVII

Rabbi Herzog Inspires Jewish Youth to Act

 

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Map of occupied France during World War II. The areas colored in pink were German control. The areas colored in light blue were under French control administered from the city of Vichy. The latter area was the so–called Free Zone or “Zone Libre”.

 

340,000 Jews lived in Metropolitan France in 1940. Some Jews had managed to flee to England but most remained in France. The Jewish population had a large number of recent German Jews whom Hitler expelled from Germany as well as many Jewish refugees who arrived from Eastern Europe in the twenties and thirties. As the German army made rapid advances in France, many Frenchmen including Jews took to the roads heading south. Many of the roads became a parking lot. France collapsed militarily in May, 1940, and signed an armistice with Germany on June 22, 1940. The document called for a demarcation line dividing Metropolitan France into the territory occupied and administered by the German Army or Zone occupée in the northern and western part of France and the Zone libre or Free zone in the south. The occupied zone was immediately placed under German control while the free zone was placed under French control headed by Marechal Philippe Petain, former hero of the battler of Verun during World War I.

 

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German check point along the demarcation line in France

 

The Germans immediately established check points along the demarcation line and stopped the flow of French people trying to return home following the exodus. Jews were immediately barred from entering the occupied zone. Non–Jewish Frenchmen were given a hard time but many managed to smuggle themselves back to their homes. It was only possible to cross the line legally by obtaining an identity card or Ausweis or a free–pass movement card (Passierschein) from the occupation authorities after many formalities. The Vichy Regime did not offer permanent free–movement cards.

The Vichy regime took the first anti–Jewish measures slightly after the German authorities in the autumn of 1940. On October 3, 1940, Vichy passed a set of anti–Jewish laws called the Statut des Juifs (“statute on Jews”) to solve the Jewish question in areas under its control. According to the document, the Jews were deprived of their civil rights, and were fired from many jobs. The statut also forbade Jews from working in certain professions namely teachers, journalists, lawyers, etc. while a Law of October 3, 1940 envisaged the incarceration of foreign Jews in internment camps in southern France such as the one at Gurs. These internees were joined by convoys of Jews deported from regions of France, including 6,500 Jews who had been deported from Alsace–Lorraine province.

The Commissariat Général aux Questions juives or Commissariat–General for Jewish Affairs, created by the Vichy State in March, 1941, managed the seizure of Jewish assets and organized anti–Jewish propaganda. At the same time, the Germans began compiling registers of Jews in the occupied zone. The Second Statut des Juifs of June 2, 1941 systematized these registrations across the country and in Vichy–North Africa. Because the yellow Star–of–David badge was not made compulsory in the unoccupied zone, these records would provide the basis for the future round–ups and deportations. In the occupied zone, a German order enforced the wearing of the yellow star for all Jews aged over 6 on May 29, 1942.

The arrests of Jews in France began in 1940 for individuals, and general round ups began in 1941. The first raid took place on May 14, 1941. The Jews arrested, all men and foreigners, were interned in the first transit camps at Pithiviers and Beaune–la–Rolande in the Loire (3,747 men). The second round–up, between August 1 and August 20, 1941, led to the arrest of 4,232 French and foreign Jews who were taken to Drancy internment camp. Deportations began on March 27, 1942, when the first convoy left Paris for Auschwitz. Women and children were also targeted, for instance, during the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup on July 16–17, 1942, in which 13,000 Jews were arrested by the French police. In the occupied zone, the French police was effectively controlled by the German authorities. They carried out the measures ordered by the Germans against Jews, and in 1942, delivered non–French Jews from internment camps to the Germans. They also contributed to the sending of tens of thousands from those camps to extermination camps in German–occupied Poland, via Drancy. In the unoccupied zone, from August, 1942, foreign Jews who had been deported to refugee camps in south–west France, namely Gurs and elsewhere, were again arrested and deported to the occupied zone, from where they were sent to extermination camps.

On November 11, 1942 in reaction to the Allied landings in North Africa, the Germans crossed the demarcation line and invaded the Free Zone in ‘Operation Anton’. This led, in turn, to the Scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon and the dissolution of the Vichy Army on November 27, 1942. The demarcation line was removed on March 1, 1943 but fourteen main check points remained.

More than 75,000 Jews in France were deported to death camps, where about 72,500 were killed. The French Vichy government and the French police participated in the roundup of Jews. Although most deported Jews died, a high proportion of those killed were foreign Jews. Still, the survival rate of the Jewish population in France was up to 75%, which is one of the highest survival rates in Europe under German rule. The survival rate of Jews in the free zone was much higher than in the occupied zone under German control. The fact that Jews did not have to wear the Jewish badge in the free zone helped many to disappear or hide, especially Jewish children. They were scattered throughout the country side amongst French farmers and religious institutions. Some of them returned the Jewish children after the war to their families or Jewish institutions while others refused to surrender the Jewish children, for a variety of reasons.

 

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Evelyn Freedman–Chenkin

 

Evelyn Chenkin's job was to search, find and return these Jewish children to their Jewish roots. She did in France what Yeshayahu Drucker did in Poland, namely redeem Jewish children from non–Jewish homes. They and others implemented what Rabbi Herzog proposed, namely redeeming Jewish children. Rabbi Herzog devoted a great deal of energy, time and money to this objective.

Evelyn Freedman– Chenkin was born in London in 1924 to Abe and Bessie Freedman. Her family was devout and Orthodox. During the war, she was sent out of London, as were many other children, to safe places in the country side[1]. Following the war, she studied Slavonic studies at the University of London. She was forced to work during the day and study in the evening. She also began to work part time for the Jewish religious court in London. The office received many letters pleading for help to retrieve their relatives from non–Jewish homes. Many Jewish parents in France, as elsewhere in occupied Europe, sent their children to non–Jewish homes or monasteries for safe–keeping during the German occupation. Most of the parents were killed in the Shoah. Relatives wanted to retrieve the children but they frequently met refusals. Appeals were also made to the Red Cross that tried to help. The results were slow and tedious. During her work at the Beth Din, she heard that the Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, Rabbi Herzog was coming to England from Eretz Yisrael to make appeals for funds for organizations that needed money to help Jewish children attain freedom. She decided to attend the meeting where Rabbi Herzog described the situation of the Jewish children who survived the war in non–Jewish homes. His speeches were inspiring and highly motivational. Money donations kept arriving at the office. Dayan or Judge Grunfeld asked her to send receipts to the people that made donations[2]. She even enlisted some of her friends to help her with the task. On another occasion, Rabbi Kleerekoper asked Evelyn to visit a camp of French children who were brought to England to spend some time. On a Sunday she went to the camp and organized a group meeting of Jewish children where she told them some biblical stories and Jewish customs, namely the lighting of Shabbat candles on Friday night. Some of the children recalled that candles were lit in their homes. She organized a Purim party for the children and brought many gifts and goodies that were donated by her parents and friends of the family. She asked the Jewish children to invite their non–Jewish friends to the party. The event was very successful and the office received the names of the Jewish children.

These activities brought her in closer contact with Dayan Grunfeld who asked her whether she spoke French. She replied that her French was high school French, namely very limited. He then asked her whether she would like to go to France. Evelyn had never been abroad. She talked to her parents and decided to accept the offer. Dayan Grunfeld was organizing a French desk at the Beit Din office in London to redeem Jewish children in non–Jewish homes in France. Such a program already existed for Holland under the supervision of Rabbi Kleerekoper. Evelyn replied in the affirmative to Dayan Grunfeld's request. All papers were prepared and instructions given. She would meet Rabbi Swift in Paris and he would give instructions. She left London and took the ferry to France. The crossing of the English Channel was a terrible experience for the weather acted up. She finally reached Paris where she met Rabbi Swift.

The rabbi discussed with Evelyn their first assignment, namely to redeem Lily Samuels from her French non–Jewish family[3]. The rabbi had all the necessary legal papers prepared by the girl's aunt Ruth. The latter tried to redeem the child by herself but failed. As a matter of fact, Evelyn remembered Ruth and her pleas for help at the Beit Din's office in London. The rabbi informed Evelyn that they would be joined by a French social worker. The rabbi hired a taxi and all three headed to the place where Lily was staying. Lily's family perished in the Shoah. Her mother left her with a neighbor prior to her deportation. No one knew exactly where she spent the war years. All three entered the house where there was a farmer and his wife. There were furious arguments between the couple and the social worker. The rabbi took out a bundle

of French francs and placed some bills on the table. He continued to add bills to the table. The farmer's shouting reduced as the bills continued to accumulate on the table. Still the farmer kept complaining. We have to remember that the French couple was receiving a monthly payment from the French government for keeping the child. The farmer was probably making all kinds of financial calculations. The rabbi eventually stopped dropping the notes on the table and his hand was moving to retrieve all the money. At this moment the farmer's wife grabbed the money. These were difficult times in France and the population lived in poverty. Seeing all this money, the farmer's wife decided to take it. Meanwhile Evelyn talked to the little girl and held her hand. Lily responded warmly to Evelyn. On seeing the farmer's wife pocket the money, she charged out of the farm still holding Lily's hand. They headed to the awaiting taxi, the rabbi and the social worker followed her. The taxi took off for Paris and Lily was redeemed.

The social worker was dropped off in Paris and the taxi continued to the hotel where Evelyn stayed. Rabbi Swift then informed Evelyn that Lily will stay with her for a day while he makes final arrangements for their departure to England. The child was docile and very obedient, looking desperately for needed attention. At night, Evelyn noticed that Lily was constantly scratching her head. She awakened the child and examined her hair, it was full of lice. She washed the head and next morning obtained medications to remove the lice. Evelyn also took her shopping to replace the lice infected rags she wore. Then Lily and Rabbi Swift left for London where Ruth awaited them.

This was the first rescued child of Evelyn. She wondered where she found the courage to take the child and run for the taxi. This was a very courageous act and her subsequent behavior showed maturity that she never believed that she had. After all, she had no French permit to deal with children or helping them escape. This was highly illegal but she did it and managed to continue her activities.

Jeanette was another case of a Jewish girl who survived the Shoah with non–Jewish families. Jeannette's father was a professor at the university and her mother a gifted musician. The entire family perished in the Shoah except for Jeanette who was hidden with non–Jews[4]. The girl was handed from place to place and wound up far away from Paris, in a secluded section of the French country side. All efforts to locate her failed. Furthermore there was no claim submitted by a relative searching for her. Her file disappeared between the various social agencies dealing with orphans of the war. Evelyn carefully examined the available documents to establish the identity. She obtained a copy of the birth certificate of Jeanette and checked it against the list of departed French Jews during the war. Her entire family was listed but not Jeanette. She began to check the various agencies dealing with war orphans and also checked the file of the French social services. Most offices cooperated but asked for some authorization that gave Evelyn permission to investigate the case. Evelyn began an intensive search for a member of the family who had survived and could give such authorization, but none was found. She then approached a rabbi and explained the situation. The rabbi's sister's family perished in the Shoah. The rabbi wrote a letter to the effect that he just discovered that a niece of his survived the Shoah and he wanted to be her guardian. With this letter, a guardian case for Jeanette was established. Evelyn managed to obtain all the legal papers needed to obtain the necessary permission to remove the child from any place in France and restore her to her family. The French social services co–operated and traced Jeanette's present place of residence. The place was in a region far away from Paris.

Evelyn and Rabbi Swift estimated the amount of money that they would pay to the farmer for releasing the girl. Evelyn took the money and hid it. She then applied to the official social service to provide an official that would help her to be a legal witness to the entire transaction. Both women left Paris and headed to the farm. The trip was exhausting and very cold. French trains were not heated in those days for lack of coal. The trains frequently made long stops. Finally, after 14 hours of traveling they arrived at a small country railway station at night. With the help of local police they found a place to eat and spent the night. Evelyn was amazed at the availability of food in the country as opposed to the city where everything was in short supply and food tickets were needed for daily necessities. The author remembers these food coupons that were distributed in Paris for residents of the city. There were also a variety of categories of coupons. Children received special coupons for extra rations of milk or eggs and two bananas per week. Sick people received extra food coupons for a child per week. Of course, there was a huge black market where almost everything could be purchased but the prices were very high. There were also coupons for clothing. In effect, there was a shortage of everything, yet in the country, food was available.

Evelyn and the social worker slept and got up in the morning to a hefty breakfast of eggs, bread, butter and imitation coffee or ersatz coffee. The owners of the bistro wanted to know where they were going but they avoided the question, paid and left. Along the road, they asked people and were directed to the farm. The farmer and his wife were at home. The social worker introduced Evelyn to the couple and explained the purpose of the visit. The farmer immediately produced papers showing that the girl was legally adopted. He also informed them that the girl will soon be confirmed in a church ceremony. As a matter of fact, the farmer said that the preparations were expensive but they already paid a deposit. Evelyn produced all recent legal documents that showed that there was a relative of the family that survived the Shoah and had filed for her return to the family. Besides, Evelyn said that the family was ready to pay the expenses that the family incurred during the war plus any other expenses. The farmer kept listing more and more expenses. The negotiations were heading nowhere. Evelyn looked about and saw no girl. She then asked the social worker in English to look around the farm for the girl. Sure enough, the social worker heard someone crying. She approached the shed and saw that the door was locked but the girl was inside. She opened the shed and saw a poor shabby girl with tears running on the face. She took her by the hand to the entrance of the house. Her entrance silenced the arguments. Evelyn tossed a bundle of francs prepared in advance on the table. She grabbed the girl and charged out of the place followed by the social worker. They headed full speed to the railway station hoping that a passing train would stop at the station. Of course, all along the road they kept looking back to see if they were followed. They made it to the station and caught the first train that stopped in town. They later changed trains and headed to Paris.

 

The Chanukah Miracle

Paul and Juliette

Evelyn was frequently dispatched to Jewish orphanages to talk to the Jewish children about their history and customs to reinforce their limited knowledge of Judaism. Her French was still poor but getting better with time. Around Chanukah in 1946, she had some free time and Rabbi Swift decided to send her to a Jewish orphanage on the outskirts of Paris. The place was huge and contained about 50 Jewish orphans. The place was cold since there was no coal. The children were skinny and serious. Most of the children were about 11–12 years old. Evelyn organized a committee of older children to help her plan the Chanukah party. They had candles, and potato latkes prepared by the parents of the orphanage, Aunt Hannah and Uncle Maurice, a pair of French Jewish Shoah survivors who decided to give their time and energy to the home. The children considered them their parents. Some of the children had nobody else while others had some distant relatives. The orphanage tried to find homes for the children.

The children committee and Evelyn prepared a Chanukah celebration that would consist of lighting the candles, reciting the prayers, some Chanukah songs and the distribution of latkes. As the evening progressed, some of the children including Paul asked Evelyn to tell them the story of Chanukah, which she did, and added some present day relevant points in her poor French. The children loved the story and asked questions that Evelyn answered. Following the party Evelyn talked to some of the children who told her their experiences during the war. Many of the children were used by the French resistance as couriers. She then spoke to Paul who seemed very mature in spite of the fact that he was about 11–12 years old. He was a member of the resistance and delivered messages between the various resistance groups.

Paul's family lived in Paris. When the Germans occupied France, the family decided to take Paul and his sister Juliette to the Vichy–controlled French areas. The parents entrusted the children to a French acquaintance. The parents returned to Paris and promised to visit their children. This was impossible with the German occupation in Paris. Then the Germans invaded the Vichy zones and the Gestapo ruled all of France. The hunt of Jews began throughout the former Vichy areas. The farmer that kept the children began to fear for his life. He decided to send Paul and Juliette to two different farms in the area. Following the war, the French resistance sent Paul to this Jewish orphanage. Paul tried to ascertain what happened to his sister but failed. Some organizations tried to locate the girl but no results. He was very pessimistic about ever finding his sister. Of course, his parents were killed in the Shoah. Evelyn listened to the story and held back her tears but in her mind decided to act. At this moment, she did not know what she could do.

The next day, she asked Paul's friends, indirectly, whether they want to help find Juliette. The response was affirmative. The group met and began to plan a path of action. Of course, Paul was kept in the dark. The group with Evelyn took food and drinks and headed to the village where brother and sister started their journey. The group found the place but the family no longer lived there. The new occupants did not know the old family. The group split and some went to the school, to the church, to the mayor's office but no results. One group went to the police station and inquired about the old family. The police had a forwarding address of the family, for the French law required people who moved to report the forwarding address. The group now headed to the new address that was far from the old place. They found the farmer and he told them that Juliette was placed with a farmer in the area by the resistance, but he personally did not know the name or place of the farm. The wife of the farmer interjected that the girl must be in the vicinity of the original farm. She said that the girl must be within a radius of about 20 kilometers of the original first farm. The group split up and began to visit villages in the area. They finally gave up without finding a clue. Evelyn told them to pack since they were going back home. Suddenly out of the blue, a waitress told Evelyn that while visiting her friend in a village in the area, she was told that there was a girl named Colette who came to the village during the period of time in question. She talked to the teacher of the school and he confirmed the story. The group thanked her and set off in the direction of the village. They found the home and introduced themselves. She told the woman the story of the lost girl. The latter appeared and listened to the discussion. Evelyn asked the woman to give Colette permission to travel to Paris where her brother and distant relative live. The woman was hesitant, she even stated that she did not know that Colette was Jewish. The resistance brought her and told her to guard the child. Following the war, nobody came to retrieve her and she stayed with the family. Evelyn and the children from the orphanage begged her to relent and permit Colette to travel for a few days to Paris for identification purposes since nobody knew how Juliette looked. Colette was agreeable and the woman consented to let her go to Paris. The group left the village and headed to Paris and then to the orphanage where preparations were made to celebrate the last day of Chanukah. The party began and then Evelyn presented Colette to Paul. He immediately recognized his sister and tears began to roll. She was speechless and did not react at first and then began to cry. Brother and sister were reunited. Further checks were made that proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the girl was Juliette. With all the papers, Evelyn visited the woman in the village and reimbursed her for all the expenses and thanked her for her act of heroism.

Evelyn continued her work in France. She had some rescue failures but in most cases she managed to redeem the children and returned them to their families or roots. Some of the operations seemed like scripts of “Mission Impossible”. Where Evelyn acquired the skills she used is difficult to explain, but the fact remains that she retrieved about 60 French Jewish orphans from non–Jewish homes. Some of the children she placed in French Jewish orphanages while others she escorted to England. She crossed the English Channel about 26 times in a period of two years. In February of 1948, she asked Dayan Grunfeld and Rabbi Swift to replace her at the French office in France. The French OSE organization threw a big farewell party prior to her departure[5]. Evelyn returned to England and went to the hospital. She was exhausted, feeble and had medical problems caused by the poor diet she followed that consisted of eggs, eggs and bread. She recovered, married Eric Chenkin and gave birth to two daughters a son. The girls emigrated to Israel in the 1970s as did Evelyn and Eric Chenkin soon afterwards.


Footnotes

  1. Chenkin, Evelyn. Gathering of the Remnants, Docostory. Israel,1999 p.9 Return
  2. Chenkin, Gathering, p.16 Return
  3. Chenkin, Gathering, p.24 Return
  4. Chenkin, Gathering, p.42 Return
  5. Chenkin, Gathering, p.132 Return

 

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