Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024

A Jewish Girl and the Archbishop of Toulouse, Part 2

In May 2013, an elderly Holocaust survivor living alone on a quiet street in Jerusalem was honored at an event in Vienna for her acts of courage and humanity in the dark years of the Vichy regime.

At this event, attended by dignitaries from France and Austria as well as her own proud family members, Mrs. Elly Schlesinger Braun received honorary citizenship in the Austrian Society for Exile Research, a government-funded agency that helps Holocaust survivors.

In an emotional address, fellow survivor Simcha Arom recounted for the audience how Mrs. Elly Braun, as a young girl, had saved his life at the risk of her own, when French Vichy police came to arrest and deport his family in 1941. Mrs. Braun was then 17. In waves of arrests, Jews in France were being carted off to detention camps and from there, deported to death camps in Poland and Germany.

Simcha’s family had escaped from a detention camp and was hiding out in a village not far from where the Schlesingers had found shelter. The families had been thrown together on a refugee-packed train fleeing Belgium after the Nazi invasion, and during the harrowing 6-day flight to France, had become friends.

Having been tipped off about the Aroms’ impending arrest, young Elly, heeding her father’s instructions, had raced to the family on her bike to forewarn them. It was Friday, close to sunset. After alerting the family, she lifted 11-year old Simcha (Freddy) onto the front bar of her bike and heart-pounding, pedaled with him to the train station where they boarded the train to Moissac Children’s Home 25 miles away.

Moissac was a town in Southwestern France where, following the Nazi occupation of northern France in 1940 and the ever mounting persecutions that followed, hundreds of Jewish children found refuge. With the help of two Jewish social service organizations, IEF (Jewish Scouts of France) and OSE (Children’s Aid Society), and the compassion of local villagers, a great many of the children survived the war.

At any point, Elly and Simcha could have been arrested by French gendarmes, many of whom were as ruthless as the Nazis and showed no mercy even to children. But the two arrived safely in Moissac where Elly once again mounted her bike with Simcha in front and pedaled up and down unfamiliar streets in search of the Children’s Home.

Finally arriving at the orphanage, she placed the young boy in the director’s care, begging her to treat him with gentleness as he had just been torn from his family. Exhausted, she asked if she could stay over until Sunday morning, to avoid traveling on Shabbos.

 

Arrest and Interrogation

On Sunday morning, the young girl made the perilous return trip. Disembarking from the train, she began biking the rest of the way to Castel Meyron where she lived with her parents when disaster struck. French gendarmes arrested her. The Arom family had slipped out of their clutches and authorities suspected that Elly Schlesinger knew something about it.

The girl was brought to police headquarters and over the next 24 hours, subjected to continuous interrogation.

Seventy years later, in an exclusive interview with Yated in her home in Jerusalem, Mrs. Schlesinger Braun recounted some of the chilling details of a saga that had remained for so long unknown, even to members of her family.

“They kept up the interrogation for hours and hours, trying to find out where the Aroms were hiding. I told them I don’t know anything. They threatened to arrest and deport my parents if I didn’t talk. I said I couldn’t tell them something I didn’t know. And on and on it went.”

The Arom odyssey was representative of the plight of countless thousands of Jewish refugees in France. Originally from Dusseldorf, Germany, they had arrived in France with the Schlesingers months earlier on the refugee train from Belgium. Whereas the Schlesingers had Hungarian passports which offered some protection, the Aroms were “stateless” foreigners, and were interned by the French in the Riversaltes detention camp.

Using a ruse to get out of the camp on a one-day permit, the family had fled, arriving at the Schlesingers’ doorstep in Castel Meyron half-starved.

With her elegant command of French, Elly often served as interpreter and advocate for Jewish “foreigners” and thus became a familiar figure among the gendarmes who treated her cordially. She accompanied the Aroms to the local police station with a fabricated story that the family had relocated from Lyon, France, and wanted to register themselves but spoke no French.

Thanks to her efforts, the Aroms were legally registered and eligible for “food ration cards” which saved their lives. But one of the friendlier gendarmes had stopped Elly on the street one Friday afternoon. “You lied to us about the Arom family,” he chided her. “They’re not from Lyon as you said. They escaped from Riversaltes and are going to be taken back there.”

Elly hurried home to tell her father the alarming news. “Take your bike immediately and warn the family,” her urged, instructing her to take the back roads. It was close to sunset. The neighbors knew Elly never rode her bike on Shabbos. Their suspicions would be aroused were they to see her riding Friday night.

Now, with young Simcha safely in the Children’s Home and his parents in hiding, Elly knew she had to stand her ground with her interrogators.

“Eventually, they let me go home. I wasn’t hurt, just very frightened,” Mrs. Braun recalled in the interview with Yated, adding that the gendarme who had tipped her off about the Aroms gave her an approving nod as she passed by. “I owe you one,” he mouthed, grateful she had not given him away.

Emotional Reunion

 

Later in the war, she heard the devastating news that the Children’s Home at Moissac had been raided by the French police and the children had been deported. “I was haunted for years thinking I had carried Simcha to his death,” she murmured.

Some sixty years after the war, Mrs. Braun was at the home of a friend when she was introduced to an older gentleman from Paris about to take his leave. Something about him tugged at her memory.  His name…his German accent… A bizarre intuition drove her to follow him down the stairs.

“Excuse me…Can I ask you something…? Were you by chance born in Dusseldorf, Germany? Were you on a train from Belgium to the south of France in May, 1940?” Mrs. Braun blurted, not daring to hope.

The man turned around in amazement. His eyes met hers for a long moment.  “Mon Dieux!” he whispered, tears welling up. “You’re… you’re the girl on the bicycle!”

He had forgotten her name but would never forget the girl who had saved his life, whisking him from the clutches of people who wanted him dead. Thanks to kindhearted villagers who hid many of the children prior to a Vichy raid on the Moissac Home, Simcha had survived the war. He settled in Israel where he fought in the War of Independence, sustaining a serious wound.

He had gone on to study the violin, becoming a renowned musicologist and divided his time between Paris and Israel, where he lectured in various universities.

The terrifying nighttime ride to freedom on the bar of an old rickety bike so many years ago had become an iconic memory for him. It even formed the basis of a chapter in a book he had co-authored about his life, entitled “The Girl on a Bike.” What had become of the young woman who had rescued him, he often wondered. Her courage, energy and presence of mind had taken on almost mythical proportions in his memory. Who was she? Had she survived the war?

The reunion of two survivors who had shared a traumatic event over sixty years ago was emotional and bittersweet. Simcha’s joy at finding his rescuer was tempered with sorrow on hearing details of his parents’ fate. Their escape from the police had been short-lived. Tracked down and re-captured, they were shipped to the notorious Drancy internment camp in France. From there they were packed into cattle cars, taken to Auschwitz and murdered there.

“If you were a refugee with money or valuables, you had a chance,” Mrs. Braun mused. “You could buy food, pay for a roof over your head, bribe people to hide you. Even then, survival took many miracles. Like tens of thousands of fellow refugees, the Aroms were penniless and spoke no French. Police were hunting them down without mercy,” she sighed, her eyes shrouded with memories of harrowing events she could never forget.

Desperate Mission To Save Her Father  

The encounter with Simcha brought a certain closure for Mrs. Braun. She began to share more with her children about the war years; she spoke of several episodes in which with the urging of her father, R’ Emmanuel Schlesinger, she had embarked on rescue missions. One of the most dramatic of these was the astounding rescue of R’ Emmanuel himself.

This took place in February 1941, following the issuing of a decree that all male refugees in the Vichy region, called the “unoccupied zone,” were to report for internment in a concentration camp in Southern France.

R’ Emmanuel was under no illusions about the purpose of “internment.” In the 1930s, after reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf, he became convinced that if Hitler ever came to power in Germany, he would do exactly to do the Jews as he promised in his book. In 1939, following the events of Kristallnacht and the mounting terror and persecutions against Jews in Germany, R’ Emmanuel traveled from city to city, warning Jews to flee for their lives while they still had the chance.

At this point in time, the Nazis were still talking of expelling all Jews, not exterminating them, and R’ Emmanuel was written off as a neurotic. Later, as the Jews in Nazi-occupied countries were ghettoized and deported under the pretext that they were being sent to work camps, R’ Emmanuel was one of the few who realized the terrible truth; deportation was a death sentence.

When the decree was issued by the Vichy regime that all Jewish males were to report to the local precinct on a Sunday morning, from where they would be bused to internment camps, R’ Emmanuel understood the wheels of doom were moving forward.

On Shabbos, he sent Elly to the city of Montauban where the government buildings were housed, to see if she could prevent his internment. He knew several refugee families in Montauban and Elly was to seek some of them out to find out which Vichy officials to approach.

It was a desperate long shot and they both knew it. Approaching local gendarmes with whom she was on friendly terms to advocate for her fellow refugees was one thing; seeking an audience with senior Vichy officials in Montauban was another matter. Why would they give her the time of day? But her father’s confidence in her and his blessings for success gave her courage and she immediately set out.

“My parents put themselves on the line all the time for others,” she explained. “Taking risks was our day to day life.”

In Montauban, Elly went to a family named Lerner where she met a young Viennese rabbi who advised her to seek out a Vichy official named Mr. Flugfelder, reputed to be cruel and was much feared. But as the person in charge of all Jewish affairs in the region, he held the key to her father’s freedom.

Elly mustered up her nerve and entered his office. Trembling, she began to plead for her father but her voice broke and she burst into tears.

In an extraordinary reversal, the official, known for his cold-heartedness, took pity on her. He told the desperate girl her father would have to report for internment with all other male refugees but would be released in three weeks. Not trusting Flugfelder’s promise, Elly returned home heartbroken. Her father was interned a day later at the Stepfonds camp.

Visiting him there about a week later, Elly was horrified at the appalling conditions in the camp. Filthy, lacking adequate food, water and sanitation, the internment camps were breeding grounds for suffering and disease. But these conditions paled next to the horror R’ Emmanuel sensed was in store for those interned. Although he had no explicit knowledge of the extermination camps, his instincts told him the Jews were being sent to their deaths. He sent Elly back to Flugfelder to again plead for his release.

The Vichy official let her in and heard her out. He took down her father’s name and said he would be released in a few days. Miraculously, he kept his word. To the family’s joy, Elly’s father returned to Castel Meyron.

 

A Bribe of Eggs

 

Elly had additional encounters with the Vichy official who held in his hands the lives of tens of thousands of Jews interned in French camps. At her father’s suggestion, she brought to Flugfelder’s office, wrapped in a sweater, a tray of eggs as a gift for the official’s family. In the famine-strapped region of Tarne-et-Garonne, eggs were a prized commodity.

Flugfleder told her to bring the eggs directly to his wife and gave her his home address, as well as an official note permitting Elly to travel freely in the area. For a Jew to possess such a note at that time was priceless.

A short time later, hearing about Elly’s success in freeing her father from the Stepfonds camp, a Mrs. Lichter pleaded with her to intercede on behalf of her husband who was also interned there. Flugfelder had rejected her husband’s application to be released. Perhaps Elly could persuade him to reverse that decision. Elly knew it was hopeless but could not refuse the woman’s pleas.

“What do you want from me now?” Flugfelder scowled when she entered his office. Frightened at the realization that she was pushing her luck, she begged him to reverse his decision about Mr. Lichter. After a silence, he grudgingly agreed. Three days later, Mr. Lichter was a free man. Once again, Hashem had opened a path through utter darkness.

Shabbos Flight 

One of Elly’s most remarkable rescue missions involved another Shabbos bike ride, this time alone—except for a dog yapping at her heels. Reb Duvidl Halberstam and his son, Moshe, had come to R’ Emmanuel on Shabbos morning in desperation. Moshe had been summoned to police headquarters on Sunday and was to be taken to an internment camp.  Was there anything the Schlesingers could do to help?

R’ Emmanuel had once before obtained a release for a couple by presenting a letter from the respected Dr. Carrere in a nearby village of St. Nicholas de la Grave, testifying that the couple was too ill to be interned. His daughter Elly had accomplished this miracle. Could she possibly do it again?

The hour was very late. Elly would have to travel to the doctor immediately, have him sign the letter attesting to Dovid’s “illness,” take it to police headquarters, ask them to stamp it, and rush back home with the life-saving letter. All this had to take place in a very condensed time frame.

R’ Emmanuel turned to his beloved daughter. As much as he dreaded exposing her to danger, he knew she was the only one who could help the Halberstams. He prayed that her superb command of French coupled with a willingness to take risks for a fellow Jew and to try for the long shot, would crown her mission with success.

Elly set out with her bike, her father’s blessings and prayers echoing after her. It was many long hours before she returned, totally spent. Arriving at the building where her parents had a tiny room, she found R’ Reb Duvidl and his son, Moshe, anxiously standing outside where she had left them. Smiling, she held up the stamped doctor’s letter. Their joy and relief were palpable.

Thanks to Elly’s efforts, Moshe was exempted from internment. Shortly afterward, the Halberstam family received visas from America, enabling them to leave France on one of the last ships to the United States, before the ports were closed for the duration of the war.

*****

French-Austrian Tribute to An Unsung Heroine

Mrs. Braun’s encounter with Simcha Arom in the early 2000s in Jerusalem had unexpected ramifications. His biographer and publicist was fascinated by the story of his dramatic rescue by “the girl on the bike,” and shared the story with French and Austrian government officials with whom she was well-connected.

A bit of research uncovered the fuller scope of R’ Emmanuel’s and Elly’s rescue efforts. In May 2013, a joint French-Austrian ceremony was held at the French Palace in Vienna, awarding Mrs. Braun honorary membership in the Austrian Society for Exile Research, “in recognition of her efforts on behalf of victims of National Socialism (Nazism).”

In her acceptance speech, Mrs. Braun graciously thanked her hosts, saying it was her late father who deserved the award as he was the inspiration and catalyst for anything she had accomplished.

The ceremony, attended by French and Austrian dignitaries, was covered by the local media, with write-ups and photos carried by Wiener Zietung and DOW. Vienna Radio broadcast a live interview with Mrs. Braun.

The Wiener Zietung article, “The Anonymous Lifesaver,” praised Mrs. Braun for her courageous actions on behalf of persecuted refugees. “Her visit to the Archbishop of Toulouse, Jules-Gerard Saliege, contributed to the publication of the famous Pastoral Letter of 23 August 1942, which condemned the deportations of Jews and encouraged pastors and the faithful to help refugees,” the article noted.

“The reading of this letter in hundreds of churches in southern France led many people to hide and protect the Jews in their midst. Thousands of lives were probably saved. Elly Schlesinger, however, remained anonymous, an unsung heroine.”

***

In her live interview on Radio Vienna (weekend of May 11, 2013), Mrs. Braun was asked if she had “reconciled with history.”

“My personal history and that of my parents have turned out well, thank G-d,” she responded.  “But my father had five siblings who were all murdered. My grandparents and so many others were killed. One can never come to terms with this. The fact is that I can never laugh properly. It does not come entirely from the heart. Because I can never forget this misfortune and can never forgive those who were responsible.”

“I have every reason to be happy because I have wonderful children and a wonderful life,” she added. “But because of my memories, the heart is very, very heavy.”

***

The writer thanks Rabbi Avrohom Braun of Monsey, son of Mrs. Elly Braun, for sharing memories and valuable insights related to article’s content.

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