[Pages 308-333 Hebrew] [Pages 334-362 Yiddish]
by Avraham Mendel Klajn
Translated by Daniel Kochavi
Edited by Yocheved Klausner
Start of the war
On September 1 1939 the news of the Hitler's army invasion of Poland filled us with fear.
The French government declared general mobilization and issued an evacuation order of women and children to the south.
I also fled with my wife and our 2 year old child to the city of Blois about 70 km from Paris, and we lived there in a hotel.
After several days, on September 6, I enlisted in the army (as a foreign resident.) My wife, who received the status of a refugee was transferred to a village near Blois and, as the spouse of a soldier in the French army, received a pension and an apartment. The local authorities protected her and looked after her.
On September 19, I was transferred to a place near the Spanish border, close to the Pyrenees near Perpignan.
In the meantime, events developed at dizzying pace. Poland was conquered and the war expanded at an alarming pace. The Nazi army advanced in giant steps and conquered even neutral countries.
At that time I was discharged, albeit temporarily, from the army, and returned to my family. I packed my belongings and returned to Paris with my wife and child.
By the end of May 1940, after the fall of Belgium, battles continued close to French soil and the capital, Paris, was seized with panic. The enemy was at the gate. On June 10, the French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, made a dramatic declaration to his people. He spoke about the state of the war: Our soldiers are fighting the invading German enemy. The situation is dire. The hours are numbered and full of danger.
During the night of June 10, the Paris sky was covered by a black cloud and the population was seized by fear and panic. There were rumors that the enemy had used poison gas. But, in fact, those rumors were incorrect. This was an artificial fog used to prevent panic among the population during the abandonment of its capital, Paris by the government.
At the same time the government (which fled to Bordeaux) issued a statement ordering women, children and old people to leave immediately Paris. Only people able to hold and use a weapon were asked to remain and defend the capital.
It is difficult to describe the panic and fear that seized the public during the evacuation. Fearful women and children streamed to the train station. While waiting in line for tickets many fainted due to exhaustion and pushing while in line. After they bought their tickets they started a panicked rush to the train, boarding through any opening, doors or windows. Every available space was immediately taken by the fearful crowd trying to save their lives. People ran insanely between the train cars, held on to doors and steps and even filled the roof of the train. Fear increased with the spread of a rumor that the train was being bombarded by Italians.
After waiting the entire night until noon the next day, my wife and child managed to get into a train car.
They reached, with other refuges the town of Porat by the Atlantic coast about 500 km (300 miles) from Paris.
On Bad Roads
I returned with a heavy heart to my empty apartment. Somber and anxious thoughts crossed my mind: Will my wife and child arrive safely? When will I ever see them again?
Events occurred with dizzying speed and left no time for thoughts and contemplation.
On July 12, a radio decree ordered any person able to carry a weapon to leave Paris immediately to escape the enemy. After returning to my flat, I got a child carriage and tied it to my bicycle. I packed it with clothing for myself, my wife and child (they had escaped with only the clothes on their backs). I then was on my way to my wife and child's location.
All the roads except one were blocked and occupied by the army. The only road out of the city was full of refugees. Traveling by car was impossible. Most traveled on bicycles or walked. Many people discarded their heavy loads to be able to continue and reach any destination.
The main objective was to come out alive as the road was extremely dangerous. There was no guarantee to survive on this road. The roads were strafed by Italian planes.
Refugees from villages joined us. All were seized with fear for their lives. Enemy attacks spread death on the roads. Hundreds of corpses lay on the side of the roads. Retreating soldiers joined us and told us that the enemy had reached the Paris suburbs. To escape sure death we left the main roads and escaped on side detours, that were not roads.
Tired and spent, I reached Etempe 50 km from Paris. I found a place to rest for the night in a shed. During the night the location was bombarded but, luckily, the shed was not hit and I survived.
I left the town at sundown and finally reached Blois, the town that my wife had escaped to in September 1939.
People were also escaping from there. The owner of the hotel where my wife had stayed was among them (his hotel was bombed and destroyed later). Unable to find a place I kept going directly toward the town of Orleans.
Being totally exhausted after two days of wandering I fell asleep in a field. When I woke up in the morning I found myself in a mud field, totally soaked from the heavy rain during the night. I had a high fever and was so miserable that I could not even speak. I reached a farm house and using gestures I asked for something to drink. The wife gave me a glass of milk with some brandy, and that saved me. Afterward I found a drugstore and bought a bottle of syrup which I drank in one gulp. I then found shelter to rest and warm up my sick and tired bones.
Next morning a peasant found me and immediately denounced me to the police (there were quite a few German spies among the refugees). After checking my documents and my French military papers they let me go.
With my last remaining energy I continued walking, hoping to reach my desired destination, my wife and child.
The news reaching us was very depressing. We heard that the German army entered Paris on June 14 and continued to advance very rapidly. My situation was bitter. My bicycle broke down and I felt helpless. After wandering for 9 days my hands and legs were swollen from the rain and oppressive heat in July. I was totally exhausted and my life was in danger. In his condition I reached a place some 5 kilometers from where my dear ones were staying.
At the last bridge I had to cross I met a French engineering military unit that had mined the bridge since the Germans were 2 km away.
After much pleading the soldiers directed me to a detour that added another 5 km to my very tired legs.
After a long road, feeling totally sick and swollen and with a 10day old beard I reached the town.
My wife never lost hope that I would survive. But the news from the refugees wandering on the roads were discouraging, especially when she found out that I was traveling by bicycle. She would look for me daily among the arriving refugees. She recognized me from a distance and approached me with the child. There was much excitement and emotion and so I reached the flat.
It took days for me to painfully regain my strength and for my weary bones to rest. My wife spared no energy and did everything she could to help recover my health and strength.
Unfortunately our joy lasted only a short time. Several days after my arrival the Germans entered the town and begun to introduce order.
After several weeks a decree was issued ordering all Jews to leave the town and return to their original domicile. So I had to pack our belongings and return with my wife and child to Paris.
In the shadow of the Swastika
After arriving to Paris we realized immediately that we were under the Nazi regime. All were subject to the infamous Nuremberg laws.
At first, until 1941, the conquering authorities behaved well, probably to create the impression that the Nazi government was not as terrible as described by the antiNazi propaganda, and they did not bother the Jewish population. Jews were allowed to maintain their major commercial enterprises. Some Jews believed the Nazis. But some understood the cynical policy of the Nazi regime and treated the situation with much anxiety.
In 1941 a special commissariat for Jewish affairs was created with a Frenchman at its head, who was responsible for all Jewish issues in occupied France. He directed that Jewish businesses and stores had to display window signs indicating that it was a Jewish business. Later a decree required that all Jewish businesses had to have a nonJew as manager. Some Jewish owners completely abandoned their business and their assets were stolen. Others continued to work in their business but had no longer rights of ownership.
At the start of the occupation many Jews sold their businesses and escaped to Vichy France. But this lasted a short time because eventually there were no buyers to be found and the Jews abandoned their affairs and escaped with their life only and nothing else. Frenchmen were not in a hurry to buy Jewish businesses. They were sure that they would be able to get their hands on them gratis!!!
The real troubles started in May 1941.
Initially the hunt of the Jews was carried out with Nazi cunning surreptitiously to dull the awareness of the Jews. At first they spread a rumor that on a certain night a roundup of Jews would take place, only to discover that it had been a trick and that no roundup had taken place and all was calm again. Jews came out of hiding believing that all was safe. This was anticipated by the enemy. During such a calm period Jews were caught and sent to concentration camps. The Jewish population became confused and terrified. It was common for Jews to be dragged out of beds in the middle of the night and never heard of again.
One of my neighbors went out at noon to buy cigarettes and never returned. Later his wife received a package containing his personal effects but no notice as to where and when he had died.
On May 14, 1941 Polish Jews were ordered to report for labor, stating, cunningly, that it would be for a short time. Then other Jews would come to replace and free them. Most Polish Jews believed that declaration and reported to work. Others felt that it was a trick a Gestapo lie. These Jews did not appear but went into hiding. Others escaped after reporting to labor service.
All who reported were gathered under heavy guard at the central gendarmerie in Paris. A relative was allowed to join each respondent. I accompanied my neighbor, who was married with 3 children. (I myself did not have to report because, luckily, I lost my Polish citizenship and was stateless). I quickly left my neighbor and returned home which was lucky. An hour after I left him an order was issued to also arrest the companions. Afterwards all the prisoners were sent to a transition camp near Paris and from there to Auschwitz. My neighbor suffered the same fate as all those who reported and never returned….
In the meantime the terrifying pursuits kept increasing. The cruelty and terror of the Nazi murderers increased daily.
On September 20, 1941, the Paris 11th district was surrounded by the SS, the Gestapo and the French secret police. They searched every house and removed every Jewish resident.
They were all taken to the Drancy camp. My brother in law, Shimon Kaltchevski and his two sons were among them. The younger one managed to escape and the other escaped after reaching Drancy.
Everyone was then moved from Drancy to another camp in Pythivier and from there to Auschwitz. The relatives received postcards stating that all was well and that that they were in good health. The condemned to death were forced to write these cards to dull the minds of those remaining behind. Not one of the deportees survived.
After the roundup of the 11th district things calmed down. Such was the evil destruction plan of the barbarous Nazis. Every Aktzia was carried out with careful planning in cold blood followed by a calm period. However, even during this calm time, people were seized and sent to concentration camps. In many cases unsuspecting Jews were arrested on their way to or while returning from work.
From June 1942, the policy of the destruction of the Jews in France became worse, especially toward recent refugees. Jews were forbidden to own bicycles and radios. The police seized bicycles owned by Jews but they (Jews) were ordered to bring their radios to the police stations.
At the same time, street posters in Paris stated that every Jew, irrespective of gender, including children six year and older had to wear a yellow patch (starofDavid) starting June 6 1942. Anyone who did not obey this order was severely punished. All were to report to the police station to receive the yellow star, in exchange of 2 food tickets from the allotted food card. (Such cynicismwe were forced to pay for the yellow star with food tickets….).
Although the order to display the yellow star was a heavy blow for the Jewish community in France, many Jews treated it with pride and as a slap in the face of the Nazis. The Nazis hoped that many would commit suicide out of despair. (Some of the assimilated Jews did indeed kill themselves). Some, including myself, brought a pin and attached the cloth immediately, while still at the police, two days before the decree was enforced. The police captain asked why I did this and did I not feel shame wearing the patch. I replied that the French should be ashamed for helping with this and that I was proud to be a Jew.
The Nazis were not pleased with the early displays of the yellow star and arrested and deported many to the camps.
It should be pointed out that a large number of Frenchmen, except for those who had no conscience and collaborated in the Aktzias, expressed sympathy for the Jewish community. They were embarrassed to look at us, feeling shame that such a thing could happen in France. When encountering a Jew wearing the star they removed their hat to show respect.
Many Christian students wore the yellow star in solidarity with Jews. Quite a few were severely punished by the Nazis.
During that period we wrote secretly to our companions in Zelow to inform each other of the situation. My wife wrote to her sister Hendel here it is already June but the days of Hanukkah are still continuing and we are eating donuts. Her sister answered: Here we have a long Hanukah, and let's hope that they will all remain healthy after so many latkes, which are giving them stomach aches. They are really destroyed by the latkes and we became also ill by this.
Our misfortunes did not end with the wearing of the yellow patch. New edicts were issued daily and each was worse than the previous one. Jews were not allowed to be on the streets after 8 pm, were forbidden to go to public parks, could ride only in the last car of the subways (metro) and so on.
Decrees were posted in the few cafes still open, forbidding Jews, blacks and dogs to frequent them. One felt that a harsh plan was underway and that terrifying days are getting closer and closer. The quiet days between June 6 and July 16 were the calm before the storm, before difficult and fateful events.
On July 14, 1942 Jack, my brotherinlaw, told me that while waiting in the barbershop, he heard a conversation (they did not realize that a Jew was listening) between the barber and a police captain. The captain said that he received a sealed envelope from the central police command that contained instructions dealing with Jews. In his opinion it had to do with a general roundup of Jews to occur on the 16th. I took it seriously and with dread. I immediately informed my Jewish neighbors (there were 17 Jews in the building). But not all took this news seriously because after June 6 no further searches occurred. For me the news was an announcement of approaching danger and I started planning my escape.
The next day I went to the building manager (concierge) to pay the rent. She refused to accept the money and told me to keep it since I might need it in this time of trouble because tonight they will come to take you. The postman had informed her and asked her to pass the information to her Jewish neighbors. (The concierge and the postman both cooperated with the French underground). I told my wife about the round up and decided to take a risk and stay at home that night and the following day and if all goes well I would be on my way.
My plan was to hide with my friends who held Palestinian passports and were considered British subjects, and as such they enjoyed the protection of the Red Cross. They were exempt from wearing the yellow star and from all other antiJewish decrees. The husband was a prisoner in a camp for prisoners of war. He was the manager at the ORT school and also lived there. So I planned to hide there until the fury had passed.
The following day, 16 July, I had my last lunch at home. After pinning my yellow star on I was on my dangerous and terrifying way. Before leaving the concierge and I worked up codes to tell her about my situation.
After reaching the place safely I phoned my wife. She waited with our child at home till 7:30 pm and then came to the hiding place, planning to stay there the night and return the next day to the apartment.
By dawn, after returning from the streets our friend told us of heart wrenching incidents in the streets. The Gestapo, accompanied by French police, seized Jewish men, women, elderlies and children from their houses and pushed them into crowded buses. The screams reached the skies. Our friend Ida Kochavi did not allow us to leave the house under these conditions (translator's note: Ida was his mother.)
The next day, the 17th, I received a phone call with more bad news. The concierge told us that during the night they came looking for us and she told them that we have not lived there for quite some time. After two days we sent our friend to check on our apartment (thanks to her freedom to move) and to bring us several necessities. I asked her to bring our passports and the picture album, since these were things dear and valuable that could not be obtained at any price. She returned the keys to the concierge after she left the flat.
The arrests resulted in tragedy.
Thirty thousand Jews were held in a sport stadium (Velodrome d'hiver) for several days without food, water, without basic hygienic facilities and were eventually taken to Auschwitz. None returned alive from there.
Our stay with our friend became more and more dangerous from one day to the next. The ORT school could very well be seized.
Street decrees appeared stating that anyone hiding Jews would be severely punished. We did not want to cause misfortunes to our friend who had saved us. We therefore decided to report to the police leaving our son, Marcel, with our friend who also had a son, Daniel (the translator), who was the same age as our son. We left money and prepared to leave.
My wife wrote a letter to her sister Hendel to inform her of our decision and asked her to look for our child if she survived. He would be with Ida Kochavi and her son Daniel.
After completing the preparations, we packed all necessary things. As we prepared to leave, a friend of Ida came in and when she heard of our plan, she strongly opposed it. This is a desperate step. Do not present yourselves to the lion's jaw she stated. Her fiancée had been in Drancy and was then taken to Auschwitz.
There was only one possibility, albeit a very dangerous one, and that was to flee to the other side, to the free zone under the Vichy government.
Ida Kochavi, who could move freely, found a smuggler and on the 15th of August we were on our way. We did not know this man at all but were told to follow him, based on agreed upon signals.
With this conspiracy we reached the train station under great stress. One could feel the tension in the air, every minute we were in danger of being caught. When we reached the station we mingled with a group of children being led by the Red Cross personnel. When the train arrived we entered the train car indicated by the signal given to us by the smuggler. The train would then take us to the town of Vierzan where we would meet another man, who would give us further directions.
In Vierzan we were led to a birthing clinic where the smuggler looked after us and of course we paid him the rest of the money which amounted in total to 7000 francs per person including our child.
We received detailed directions to the last station and the dangerous roads ahead.
We walked in a group of 50 people in a forest with some space between each other. Any deviation could have endangered all of us.
Upon hearing the smallest noise we fell to the ground very quickly and kept completely quiet. We reached a river about 50 m wide that was the borderline between occupied and free France. With heavily pounding hearts we reached the other side, the free French zone.
According to our guide, we were lucky because yesterday gunshots were exchanged and people were killed.
There was much rejoicing, we hugged with kisses and sang the Marseillaise. The friendly border police greeted us warmly. We reached the village tired and crushed. The peasants greeted us well and refused to take money for the food they gave us. That night we slept in an attic on straw (I could not fall asleep, I was too busy chasing rats away). The next day we were back on the road leading to Toulouse and from there to a farm where Jews, who escaped from the occupied side, hid.
The road from the border to the farm was full of danger. Due to the decrees of the Vichy Government there was a strong possibility that the police would remove us from the train and return us to Paris.
After much hardship we reached Toulouse and from there by taxi, we arrived to the farm.
The farm was in a secret location, removed from population centers and surrounded by fields. As far as the Vichy government was concerned the farm was an agricultural school for Jewish youth. In fact it was a secret location of the underground, a hiding place for Jews fleeing from occupied France. The farm was part of the Zionist labor union which supported it financially.
The farm fell under the jurisdiction of the local French gendarmerie (police). The police was officially in charge of maintaining public order. The management of the farm, however, paid them a substantial amount to minimize visits and inquiries as to the goingson there. The police also warned the managers of any expected danger.
After we reached the farm, registrations and other arrangements were made to insure we had legal status. The first priority was to remove the Jewish marking from our identification cards. Using a chemical liquid I was able to remove this marking. But registering was not easy. I discussed it with Mr. Scheiner, the director of the camp, with not much success because the farm was under strict police control. But after the intervention of Mr. Yarloom, Mr. Scheiner took care of this. He contacted the mayor of the city of Grenade (the farm fell under his jurisdiction). The mayor was liberal and cooperated with the underground. He told Scheiner that this registration could not be arranged in Grenade. He wrote a letter to the head of a neighboring village which helped me.
Mr. Scheiner brought me the letter (shown on p. 319) which read as follows:
Grenade 20.8 (not7) 1942
Dear colleague and friend,
I am sending you Mr. and Mrs. Klajn (sic: this is the spelling in the original document on p. 319), Polish refugees. I ask you to accept them in Launac. They presently live in Fretserpe.
(sic: the letter is handwritten in French my mother tongue but it is almost illegible. The Hebrew translation is not 100% accurate but essentially correct.)
The fact that the letter mentioned that we had come from Fretserpe saved us because, according to the latest decrees, anyone arriving from Paris fell under police control. The head of the village, who was (politically) on the left, told me, after reading the letter, that he had great respect for the mayor and understood the importance of registering me. However, we had to find a place to live in order receive a legal registration. After much looking around the village I found a room for rent, but the owner, who was an official in the Vichy government, would not agree, stating that Jews were not wanted in his house. After much searching I finally found a room to rent from a Parisian Jew who lived there as a nonJew.
The head of the village, who was very busy fixing his roof (he was a blacksmith), gave me a note for the village secretary who then registered me as recommended in the letter from the mayor of Grenade. By the way, he forgot to specify the date on the registration document and this gave me wide freedom of travel later.
After receiving the registration paper officially stamped, I returned to my wife and child at the farm.
During this time 40 to 50 youths lived in the farm and worked in the field and the kitchen.
Tired from our wanderings and the running around to obtain a residence registration, with little hope for the next day, we fell into a deep sleep.
In the middle of the night my wife, having heard noises and steps in the house, woke me up. Before I could fully understand her words I was facing 2 policemen asking about the residents of the farm. I told them that we were just visiting and no idea where the residents were. After much discussion, searches and checking of documents they could not find our names among them. They did not bother us and left.
This caused us much anxiety and we could no longer sleep. Early next morning Haim Pechter, the agronomist told me, that everybody, after hearing about the arrival of the police, fled through the windows into the woods. These were Jews who had arrived in 1936 when Leon Blum was head of the government. These Jews were to be sent to the extermination camps. To avoid this danger we also fled to the woods.
Having no other choice I decided to return to the village where we were registered to find an apartment for my family. I stayed for several days with the Parisian as a temporary apartment. Since I could not find any apartment I decided to return to my wife and child at the farm.
On the same day I received a message from my wife, via a friend, that the police had returned and had regretted not being able to arrest me.
Once again I was in a quandary with no way out. I could not return to the farm and could not stay in the village. I had no official residence. What to do?
I went to a nearby village, SaintCezere, about 3 km from Launac. It was a small village with a population of 165. The people there tended vineyards rather than being farmers. With much effort I went from house to house and finally found an apartment. Although it had no electricity it was livable and would give us a place to put our head down.
I walked back to the farm and my family with this good news, rested there. At down we were on our way.
In order to register, I showed the secretary, besides the registration certificates from the village, the letter from the mayor of Grenade. The secretary also belonged to the underground and registered me right away with no problem.
The landlord agreed to rent his apartment as long as I agreed to work in his vineyard. I agreed gladly, it was a salvation. I had found an apartment and work.
Anxiety that caused me much heartache diminished the joy I felt. I could not feel relieved. Every refugee had to report to the regional town police station and as a result I had to go there for an inquiry. The policemen informed me that they had looked for me in Launac, but could not find me. I shuddered when they discovered that I had erased the Jewish stamp from my ID document.
The inquiry continued and its scope became very worrisome. I realized that I was trapped so I gathered my courage and declared that I was Jewish and therefore had to avail myself of every possible means to escape the Germans. I showed my French military papers and this softened their attitude. They let me go but asked that I return the next day.
I got in touch with Mr. Scheiner who met with the police captain. Thanks to a substantial payment all was resolved satisfactorily.
Two Jewish families lived in the village and, in the area, quite a few Jews with Christian documents. This was in fact well known to the Christian population. They claimed that more Jews than Christians attended Sunday services at the church. They asked why, since they are Christians and French do they need our poor houses? They are entitled to live anywhere in Paris?…
As time went by we blended in the life of the village, became friends with the residents and worked with them in the vineyards. We hoped to survive this way till the end of the war, but fate had different plans.
On November 11 1942, after French Africa (Dakar and Chad) was surrendered to the Allies
by Admiral Darlan, the Nazis, including the Gestapo, invaded the free French region, and as expected all the antiJewish laws took effect in these regions. However the execution of the laws was different than in Paris. Not quite as strict and less cruel. The Vichy government was in administrative control as the free region was considered a military occupation. The situation was more comfortable since one did not have to wear the yellow patch in those areas (the Jewish stamp was still required). We were therefore able to move anywhere and to hide with French people during searches and arrests.
The French police proved very helpful by informing us in advance about the danger of searches and arrests that they were forced to carry out as part of their duty. Thanks to that, many were able to flee and were saved. However, quite a few could not escape and were caught and ended up in Auschwitz.
Once, upon my return from work in the vineyard belonging to the Germain family (he was the grandson of De Lesseps, who built the Suez Canal; this family helped many escaping Jews who were in hiding), my wife told me that during my absence two detectives came looking for me. My share of bad luck never left me. Whenever the Nazis arrived they remembered me! Time was running short, every day the situation seemed to get worse and more catastrophic. I had to find a hiding place. But where? With whom? Who would risk hiding an escaping Jew? Friends we made were willing to hide us in their home, but told us clearly that if the authorities came looking for us they would not be able to resist the inquiries and would reveal our hiding place. They could not go against the law and the authorities.
The situation was bad, what next? Where would help come from?
I remembered the village barber, Mr. Carpentier, maybe he could help? Maybe?
In previous chapters, I have mentioned several times the solidarity that many French people showed with their Jewish citizens. They supported and helped them in time of trouble and hardship.
It is important to remember that thanks to these noble and kind Frenchmen who put themselves in danger, many Jews were saved from certain death. This was in contrast to the despicable and treacherous behavior of our Polish neighbors during the Nazi invasion. In the first days of the conquest they stood with the Nazi hangmen and participated in the murders.
|An official declaration from the mayor of St. Cezert certifying that the Klajns were hidden and helped by Mr. Carpentier and the Billiere family. The declaration is dated June 20 1958.|
During this period, in Poland and in other Eastern European countries the local population cooperated actively and enthusiastically in the destruction of the Jews by the Nazi murderers. In contrast, French people stood by their Jewish neighbors, citizens of France.
Monsieur Carpentier was one of the great sons of the French people.
Mr. Carpentier was himself a refugee from northern France near the Belgian border. His town was bombed and completely destroyed by the Nazi invaders. Like many French refugees, he was not in danger of elimination by being sent to the death camps. This fate was reserved for Jews.
He reached this village and bought farm land and supported himself by working this land. In addition he became the village barber as they was no barber before he arrived.
One day when I was getting a haircut I noticed stuck on his mirror a page from a newspaper published by the British air force. It included a call by General De Gaulle to rise up against the Nazi occupiers. When I pointed out that this is dangerous since some government person might notice this declaration, he answered that being older he was not afraid but felt sorry for the youths.
I felt that I could trust him and decided to seek his advice about my situation.
After listening to me he looked into several hiding places and finally told me: No, none of these places are secure. One of them belongs to a drunkard, the other place will take your money and still denounce you to the Gestapo. There is only one possibility. You will stay with me. Bring your wife to check out the room.
I was dumbfounded and did not know what to say. I asked How can you give us a room, your apartment is so small? But he insisted that we move in with him.
I brought my wife to see the room (since my wife also had to hide, this hiding place had to accommodate both of us). This room was of course very satisfactory to us. Mr. Carpentier gave us the larger and best room he had. The room had a wooden floor (the rest of the house had stone floors). This was his daughter's room. She was studying in a neighboring city and would come home on Sundays only.
We'll make do said you must hide from the boche (a denigrating name for Germans used by Frenchmen for generations).
When I asked him how much this would cost he answered that I am insulting him and that he would not accept any payment. You are in trouble and I would never accept payment for saving people from the Nazi murderers he stated.
Every day the situation became worse and really dangerous. The Vichy rulers cooperated with the Gestapo. News from Toulouse and Grenade told of deportations of Jews to camps. There was no time to lose since it could be, God forbid, too late. We had to move to the Carpentier house. But we were faced with a serious problem. What about our dear son Marcel who was five and a half years old? Where could we find a secure hiding place for him?
I met with my landlord, Mr. Billiere, and told him that I must hide in a location that is 25 km from the village (I was forbidden to tell him that in fact my hiding place was just 50 meter from his house). We told him that we trusted him since we knew him to be a decent and honest Christian. We asked him if he would agree to keep Marcel till we returned. Mr. Billiere agreed (the family loved our Marcel). We quickly agreed to pay him 500 francs a month. Before we left Madame Billiere showed us the room and the bed where Marcel would sleep. She asked us which god should she hang on the wall by the head of the bed so that I could sleep peacefully. I answered that for us Jews there is only one God in Heaven and he watches over all of us…..
We left brokenhearted. The separation from our child was difficult especially at this time when we had no idea what the days would bring, what our fate would be and when all this would end.
We locked the house after taking only the most necessary items to the hiding place. Mr. Carpentier greeted us with joy and sadness. Joyful because he was able to help us. Sadness because we had to
hide to escape the claws of the murdering Nazis. Our hiding place was in fact 50 meters from our house. So occasionally we would go there at night to take other needed things. From time to time we would go in to visit our son. As far as the village population was concerned we were hiding far from the village. I therefore would take Mr. Carpentier's bicycle and would dirty my shoes and clothing with mud to appear as if I traveled a long distance….
(taken after the liberation)
Taking my wife to visit our son brought much heartache. The separation was very tragic. There are no words to describe the courage of the mother with a broken heart. She would play with him awhile and as she was leaving he would hug her and plead to take him with her. When my wife tried to console him telling him that here everyone loved him, fed him etc. he burst in tears saying that he did not want to eat he wanted mommy. We parted with a broken heart. We tore ourselves from him and returned broken up to our hiding place. Afterwards I would not let my wife visit our son. We sat in our hideout and watched our child through a narrow gap as he played with other children.
We could not hug him, caress his head… Our child was but a short distance from us and yet so far! So far! Our son did not realize that his parents followed him and watched all his movements. The eyes of his father and mother were on him and only on him… Oy how awful the broken heart! The Jewish fate was very tragic!
Once something happened that gripped our broken heart. While playing close to our hideout our son reached for the window shutter, banged and swung it trying to open it. He must have felt instinctively that his family was inside. We, his parents, had to hide away from the window so that no one would discover us.
Oy, our poor Marcel, all of 6 years old, had to go through such terror.
The Billiere family loved Marcel very much and looked after him as their own child. Once when Mr. Billiere was sick I went to visit him. He was quite ill, in his last moments.
He told me and his wife: My wife, if Marcel's parents, God forbid, did not return, you must raise him properly in his faith till the age of 21. Afterwards he can choose his own God Those were his last words, his testament.
Being in hiding made getting food very difficult. To buy most of our supplies we had to travel to Grenade. Again the generous and kind Mr. Carpentier came to our help. He traveled many time to get us needed supplies.
Buying bread was a bigger problem because breadration tickets were issued by city hall. I got in touch with the secretary (a democrat opposed to the Vichy regime) and he would bring the tickets to his house. At night I would go to get them.
The head of the village Mr. Laroche asked the secretary as to why the tickets disappeared. The secretary told him the Mr. Klajn sents a Frenchman to collect them
(as I asked him to say). He said that I had nothing to fear and that I should come to see him once a month and exchange the tickets.
After a month I went to the head of the village at night to exchange the tickets. He was happy to see me and asked many questions about my situation. I mentioned that I did not have much time since people were waiting and I had a long distance to travel (In fact our hideout was practically close almost wall to wall…).
He exchanged my tickets and promised to help whenever needed.
In the meantime the situation became worse and worse without respite. Obtaining food supplies became difficult. We could not keep imposing on Mr. Carpentier although he always responded to any request willingly.
We had little hope that things would change soon. For Jews the situation became graver every day. One could not continue under such circumstances. In Paris the Gestapo did not bother pregnant women and children up to two years old. We therefore decided that my wife would become pregnant. This decision was a great responsibility under the abnormal conditions of our existence.
After the doctor told us that my wife was 3 months pregnant she found the courage to leave the hideout and take our son home with us. We relaxed and the child had a home again.
I of course stayed in hiding and my wife would bring me meals every night (of course Marcel did not know the location of my hide out). During days of relative calm I would leave my hideout and do some tailoring. I mended clothes for the peasants. They would pay me in supplies; for several days of work I received supplies that would last us for a month.
I would also go to Grenade to get supplies not available in the village. Those trips were dangerous because Nazi agents swarmed the town. But the French policemen helped us more than once to escape the claws of the Gestapo.
Once when I arrived in town a policeman on a bicycle approached me and told me in German to escape right away because Gestapo agents were in the area. They asked me to warn other Jews as well.
And so, many were saved this way.
In the meantime dark days continued. My wife reached the last months of her pregnancy and we started to think of a name for our new baby about to be born.
Labor pains started on October 30 1943. The village chief got us a petrol coupon. With the help of a Jewish woman who lived in the village my wife was driven to the hospital in Toulouse, about 30 km from the village. I could not accompany her since the chance of being caught was too great. The situation in the towns was terrifyingly dangerous.
Earlier we had decided on a name for the newborn. A son would be named Yitzchak after my late father. A girl would be named Rivkah after my late mother. I took the risk and stayed with Marcel in the house.
The next day, October 31, I received a phone call telling me that my wife gave birth to a girl that she named Rivkah.
The doctors and nurses were amazed that, in a time like this, she had the courage to give her daughter a Jewish name. My wife answered with complete certainty: Yes this is what I and my husband want.
I had little chance to enjoy the baby, given my unusual situation. From time to time I would go to the house to see the baby. At times I had to be satisfied with a mere glance through the gap. My wife would lift the baby so I could see her.
We made every effort to raise Marcel as Jewish. He went to the local school where he was the only Jewish child.
The priest would take the children daily to church. I asked him that Marcel not participate in the services since my son and I are Jewish. The priest agreed and Marcel would wait outside by the door till the end of the service.
Marcel would ask: Father, they have a church. What do we Jews have? I told him that after we return to Paris I would take him to our synagogue. After the liberation we went every Friday to the synagogue on Pave Street. He became so used to this that he went willingly each Shabath eve to taste a drop of the kiddush wine….
But more troubles happened fast, from every direction.
I got in trouble while bringing wood from the forest to light a fire in the house. While traveling in a cart hitched to 2 cows and getting very close to the house, a detective in civilian clothes suddenly appeared and asked where a Jew named Klajn lived. At first I was confused but regained my wits quickly since every second counted. Yes, I know, I answered…loudly as we got closer to the house so that my wife would hear and understand He lives here in this house… The detective went in while I stayed outside. I immediately turned around and hid in a nearby ditch. I heard my wife telling him he is not in. The police ranted and raved but gave up and left the house. I then quickly unloaded the wood and returned to my hiding place.
One danger followed the other.
One evening while my wife and son were sitting on a bench, Dr. Devorin, the physician, arrived on his bicycle and told my wife to warn me not to sleep in the house that night. A policeman visited him and asked to give my wife this information. That night was a sleepless one for me. I could not close my eyes, as all sorts of thoughts and plots went through my mind.
Early next morning I went to the stable and through the crack I saw two policemen leaving the house. That night I went to the house and my wife told me that one of the policemen was from Toulouse. The other was the one who had passed on the warning. The local policeman carried out a thorough search since he knew that I was not home.
So I escaped danger again.
On February 5, 1944, I was ordered to report to the chief officer of the central police station at the general intelligence section. It was well known that anyone who went there did not return. The way back was blocked and from there only one way was opened, the way to Auschwitz.
I of course never reported there and went into hiding.
After several days a detective came looking for me. My wife claimed that I had traveled to Touluse to report to the police. He ranted and raved that this was a lie, he himself had issued the order to report.
Thus began a cat and mouse game between me and the Nazi forces. The question was who will win this contest. Will my luck hold up in coming out whole and alive from the chase by these devils?….
In the forest
Spring 1944 and its hardships. The German army was defeated on many fronts and their soldiers lost all sense of restraint. Their savagery increased daily and became more dangerous. Their presence resulted in destruction and disaster.
On May 19, 1944, my savior and protector, Mr. Carpentier, visited and I could see on his face that something happened in the village. He told me that they were looking for a person named Klajn.
He went to find out who they were looking for. They were indeed looking for Klajn who had a beard and was about 40.
They were not in fact looking for me but it was still dangerous since there were a large number of soldiers in the village and there was a real possibility of house to house searches.
Mr. Carpentier was quite concerned and suggested that I must consider without delay finding a new place to hide and save myself.
You succeeded so far in saving yourself he said it would be a pity to fall in their hands the last minute.
In his opinion the only possibility was to escape to the forest near his field.
I immediately wrote my wife that until the storm passes, the only possibility was to hide in the forest. I did not believe that I would ever see my dear ones again. Late that night Mr. Carpentier and I parted from my wife and brokenhearted went on our way. We walked 30 m from each other (so that if one of us was caught at least the other would not be) and we reached the forest.
After reaching the desired location Mr. Carpentier took ropes and a shovel and we went to work. We then made 5 large bundles of dry wood and combined them. We left a trap door in one of the bundles and I crawled inside. For security he tied all the bundles with ropes and gave me the end. In case of danger I could pull on the rope to bring the bundles down. I also kept a Christian prayer book in case I got caught so that they would not know right away that I was Jewish.
I spent the first night in very heavy rain and I got soaked to the bones. The next morning Carpentier brought a mattress and a coat. My wife would prepare meals and would bring it every night to Carpentier. He would then deliver it every morning secretly on his way to work.
When people were close to my hideout in the morning he could not bring the meal that day but had to wait till the next day.
It seems that in time of troubles a person becomes as strong as iron. I did not fall ill from the cold or rain. Even spoiled food did not affect me. I would get bread once a week.
Drinking water was more difficult. On dark nights I would steal to my house and bring back a container of water.
Besides the threat from the Germans, there were other sources of dangers.
The villagers came once to hunt (there were plenty of rabbits). One rabbit decided to escape inside a branch that was part of my cover. I managed to chase it away while the hunters fired their guns in a different direction.
One clear day many German soldiers came to the village for maneuvers and reached the woods.
While lying down in my hideout I heard sounds. Holding my breath I heard commands given to the soldiers. I raised my head carefully and saw the Germans setting up automatic guns on both end of the forest.
Suddenly Carpentier, my savior, appeared and told me: Klajn save yourself quickly. Right now I cannot help you. The village is full of soldiers.
The bullets flew from every direction. The exercise was in full swing and the danger was great.
I pulled on the wood bundles to stay under cover. With great effort I manage to escape by crawling on my stomach.
And now how to proceed further? Was my last escape place gone? Who will help me now?
Having no other choice I decided to go back home. Walking through thick woods full of bushes and thorns suddenly a new danger: a snake appeared, his head erect ready to strike. At the last moment I managed to grab a stick and chase him away. I was saved.
I left the woods and walked directly on a road full of soldiers. I swirled the stick in my hand mischievously as if I did not care. I said bonjour to each one. Suddenly I heard one soldier telling his friend: Look at this stupid Frenchman he could get shot.
And so I arrived home (all the villagers locked themselves in because of the military exercise). I locked myself in and did not go out.
Marcel, 7 years old by now, understood what was happening. He watched over me and made sure that no one knew that I was in the house. I hid in a second room that was separated by a sheet and he would stand on the other side (I remained in this hideout till the day of liberation.)
Marcel told me that once his friends at school asked where his father was. He told them that I was in the forest eating grass. He did not realize how close he was to the truth.
Since I did not have a radio, Carpentier's son would tell me the latest news. I learned from him that important events were about to happen. The allies were getting ready for decisive battles.
The end of four years…
On June 6 I received a note saying: Klajn you are saved. The Allies landed on the shore of Normandy In the village, panic spread among the German officials and the Vichy people. The German army left the village. I still did not dare go out and I got the news several times a day from Carpentier.
On the night of August 18 my wife woke me up because she thought she heard a knock at the door. In fact it was shelling, a sign that liberation was at hand.
We could not fall asleep and waited expectantly for morning. My wife went out early that morning (I still did not dare come out). She came back full of joy and told me that the entire village is on its feet. The allies were bombarding Toulouse.
After breakfast Marcel came running in and announced with great joy that the French flag was flying over City Hall.
When I heard these wonderful news I quickly left everything and came out in the street.
When the villagers saw me they ran to my wife and told them that her husband had returned….
I went directly to my savior Carpentier, the only one who knew the secret of my hiding places, I hugged him with great warmth and we kissed.
This was on August 19, 1994.
And now after 4 years of suffering and fear of death we were free to start a new life.
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