A Jewish Girl and the Archbishop of Toulouse, Part I

Sixty-seven years ago this month, Hitler convened the infamous Jan 20, 1942 Wannsee Conference, where 15 high-ranking Nazi officials gathered at a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to finalize the Third Reich’s policy towards the Jews.

The earlier strategy of expulsion and containment was abandoned for a new policy of mass extermination of all the remaining Jews of Europe. At this point in time, more than two million had already been slaughtered as the Germans blitzkrieged across Europe, subjugating one country after another.

For R’ Emmanuel and Bertha Schlesinger of Vienna and their two daughters, Elly and Renee, the nightmare began with the Anschluss, Hitler’s 1938 annexation of Austria that preceded the outbreak of World War II.

Overnight, the Jews of Austria were singled out for arrest, imprisonment, abuse and humiliation. The Schlesingers with their daughter, Elly, managed to flee to Czechoslovakia. (Renee was in Switzerland). But as Hitler’s hordes proceeded to overrun the European continent, Czechoslovakia too became a death trap.

The family escaped to Belgium—a short-lived respite, as German forces invaded that country in May, 1940. Three days later, the Schlesingers were on the run once again, this time to France.

In an exclusive interview with Yated in her home in Jerusalem, Mrs. Elly (Schlesinger) Braun recalled her flight from Belgium with thousands of German and Austrian Jews. Desperate to escape Belgium, masses of men, women and children were struggling to board an overcrowded train bound for France.

Little did they suspect that France, like the Netherlands, would soon fall to the Nazis and betray tens of thousands of Jews to their executioners, in one of the most shameful chapters of the Holocaust.

Nor in their wildest dreams could they have envisioned the courageous role that 15-year old Elly would play in the rescue of her family and countless Jews marked for deportation and death.

The Vichy Regime—France At Its Worst

“People were literally hanging from the doors and windows, half in and half out,” Mrs. Braun recalled. “The crowding was terrible, there was no place to sit. I wedged my small suitcase into the aisle and sat on top of it. There I sat and slept for the next six days as a journey of a few hours dragged on and on.”

Germany had been at war with Great Britain and France since September 1939, but little fighting took place on the western front until May 1940. Now France was under ferocious attack.

As news came that the Germans had violated the Treaty of Versailles by crossing the Maginot line into France, the train carrying the Schlesingers and thousands of refugees rerouted; its original destination had fallen into German hands. Due to bombings and sounds of heavy gunfire, the train stopped frequently and the passengers often had to get off and wait until it was relatively safe to continue.

After just five weeks of fighting, France capitulated to Germany, signing an armistice under which the German military would occupy three-fifths of France’s territory. This set the stage for the catastrophe that would soon befall French Jewry.

In exchange for full collaboration with the Nazis, the Germans allowed the French to set up a puppet government based in the town of Vichy, and headed by World War I hero, Marshal Philippe Petain and Pierre Laval. Under the leadership of these power-hungry Jew-haters, the Vichy regime agreed to surrender all Jews in France to German control.

Petain and Laval and their henchmen did not wait for German orders. Almost from the beginning, the approximately 330,000 Jews of France were subject to aggressive and swiftly mounting persecution. The French Vichy government, without any dictates from the Germans, passed a number of anti-Jewish measures, including ordering all Jews to wear yellow stars, prohibiting congregating in public areas, forbidding a change of residence and establishing a curfew.

Much worse was to come. In the winter of 1940-1941, the Vichy regime initiated brutal anti-Jewish measures that confiscated Jewish property, stripped Jews of citizenship and locked them up in internment camps under deplorable conditions in the south of France.

Throughout 1941 there were several waves of Jewish arrests. In March 1942, all the Jews – including Jews with French citizenship – were required to register their children with the police. Synagogues were forced to turn over their membership lists. From June 1942 all Jews in France were required to wear the yellow star. In July, Jews were barred from entering businesses and public institutions.

On the 16th of July, 1942, the French police began implementing mass arrests of Jews living in Paris, and sending them to the extermination camps. The detentions broadened to encompass all of France, including the so-called Vichy regime “Unoccupied Zone.”

This was done with great brutality by the violently anti-Semitic paramilitary French police (Milice), who tore parents from children, used rubber hoses and truncheons on women and in some cases, outdid the Germans in their ruthlessness.

France’s Post-War Attempt To Rehabilitate Its Image

After the war, France tried to distance itself from the atrocities committed by the Vichy regime. The country that had made a mockery of its national motto, “Liberty, Fraternity and Equality,” argued that its leaders had been coerced by the Nazis, and never represented the true will of the French people. This self-serving distortion of history prevailed in France for decades.

Historians have long refuted this claim, proving that until the Germans began to lose the war, the pro-Hitler Vichy regime was supported by a broad swath of the French public.

“The misconception that the Vichy Regime was the lesser of two evils endured only for the first few decades after the war,” wrote Holocaust historian Robert Paxton. “Since then, as more archival material has come to light, historians have gradually come to see the collaborators as willing participants in the Holocaust. Before the Nazis ever demanded the Vichy government participate in anti-Semitic policies, the French had enacted policies that removed Jews from civil service and began seizing Jewish property.”

“The Vichy French government participated willingly in the deportations and did most of the arresting,” Paxton asserts. “The arrests of foreign Jews often involved separating families from their children, sometimes in broad daylight, and it had a very powerful effect on public opinion and began to turn opinion against Petain.”

She Spoke French—A Life-saving Asset

Back to the Schlesinger saga, as recounted to this writer by Mrs. Elly Schlesinger Braun.

“The train began to make many stops at small stations in France; at each station, groups of frightened Jews would be herded off the train by gendarmes and driven away in buses—no one knew to what destination.” Mrs. Braun recalled. “Were they being sent back to Belgium? Arrested? Interned in camps? Would they ever be seen or heard from again?”

After an exhausting journey, the Schlesinger family eventually found temporary shelter in southern France, where hundreds of Jews were hiding with local farmers. Both Mr. Schlesinger and his daughter spoke French—Elly far more fluently than her father—which removed the language barrier that hindered so many Jewish refugees who could not communicate with the locals.

Homeless, searching for any kind of roof over their heads shortly after crossing the French border, the Schlesingers were able to rent a tiny room from a French woman who was charmed by Mr. Schlesinger’s approving comment about her “delightful Parisian accent”—considered a mark of distinction among the French.

“Long-term rentals in the village of Castelmeyron were very unusual. My father asked for one month…This woman let us stay for two years,” recalled Mrs. Schlesinger Braun.

Back in Vienna, Elly’s father had paid for years of tutoring for his daughter, inexplicably sensing that it might one day be to her advantage. Little did he realize then how young Elly’s fluency in French would turn out to be a life-saving asset in this most dangerous period.

In August, 1942, the Vichy government issued a decree that all Jews, both French and foreign, had to assemble at trains stations and police headquarters to be deported. Other decrees threatened severe punishments for anyone sheltering Jews.

Local farmers and other French people hiding Jews were caught in a bind. Should they risk their own safety and that of their families to save Jews? Many could not bring themselves to do so. Others were undecided.

The village priest, a rabid anti-Semite, was aware of Jews being secretly sheltered in the homes of many of his parishioners. In a Sunday sermon, he condemned these acts of compassion, saying all Jews were “guilty” and they deserved their fate. Anyone who protected them would be divinely punished, he ranted.

Elly’s father secluded himself for a full day, perusing the New Testament to find grounds to convince the priest that his murderous intentions towards the Jews went against the tenets of his own religion. Armed with facts gleaned from his study, he took the dangerous course of approaching the priest, to implore him to reverse his position in line with Christianity’s professed principles.

R’ Emmanuel took along his daughter, Elly, knowing that her masterful command of French coupled with her gracious manner had unlocked many doors before. He was clinging to a straw but with thousands of lives hanging in the balance, what was there to lose?

The meeting went disastrously. The points raised by R’ Emmanuel to convince the priest to soften his position and behave more compassionately did nothing but enrage the man. He turned red in the face and in a paroxysm of fury, threw father and daughter out of the room.

Undaunted, Elly’s father decided to go over the priest’s head and appeal to his superior, the Archbishop of Toulouse, Jules Gerard-Saliege, known to be decent and fair-minded person.

The journey to Toulose was fraught with great risk. Jews were not permitted to leave their towns of residence and the trip involved a 4-hour long walk to the train station, followed by a 40-mile train ride to Toulouse. Exposure on public thoroughfares almost guaranteed arrest and deportation.

But the Schlesingers undertook the difficult journey, hope and prayer in their hearts. They arrived without incident. Once in Toulouse, they presented themselves to the office of Archbishop with Mr. Schlesinger’s Hungarian passport, which had just recently been renewed by a French passport agency and bore a Vichy stamp.

“Do you realize the significance of a Jew having his passport stamped by the Vichy regime?” Mrs. Braun interrupted her gripping narrative to produce the yellowed passport. “This was unheard of. No country was issuing passports to Jews during the Holocaust, least of all a Nazi-occupied country. “Yet against all regulations,” she marveled, “my father applied for a passport renewal and some clerk had the audacity to stamp it.”

“And that is what got us an audience with the archbishop of Toulouse,” she continued. “We were not ‘stateless’ Jews but Hungarian citizens and Hungary was Germany’s ally.”

To their surprise, the elderly, frail archbishop received father and daughter warmly, which encouraged his visitors to petition for his help. Elly did most of the talking. For close to half an hour she voiced her father’s anguish over the plight over the Jews in France, the deportations, the mistreatment of those arrested, and the fate of those who were dragged away. She begged the archbishop to intercede on behalf of the Jews, to find some way to help them.

The young girl mentioned their previous encounter with the parish priest who had incited his parishioners to betray the Jews they were hiding. She was apprehensive about “tattling” on the village priest but her father insisted.

“My father’s determination supported me. All my courage came from him,” Mrs. Braun reminisced some 70 years later.

The archbishop listened attentively. He rose and paced the room, obviously agitated. Finally, he turned to his visitors. “I’m going to do everything in my power to reverse this situation,” he told them. “I’m going to draw up a letter that every priest in every parish in my diocese will read to his congregation next Sunday.”

“I want you both to be present in the church in your town (where the anti-Semitic priest presided) to confirm that my letter is read there,” the archbishop instructed Elly and her father.

Father and daughter offered their heartfelt thanks and took their leave. They made the perilous trip back to their village in peace. That Sunday, in compliance with the archbishop’s instructions, Mrs. Braun recalled, “we sat in the last row of the local church as the village priest was forced to read aloud the letter from the Archbishop of Toulouse.”

In his letter dated August 23, 1942, the archbishop sought to rally the conscience of the French people. Without naming people, he condemned the deportations and crimes against humanity being perpetrated on the Jews. Between the lines, he urged all Christians to assist the refugees.

“Humanity is called upon to live up to a morality that recognizes basic duties and human rights,” the letter said. “These rights and duties come from G-d. One can violate them…but no mortal has the power to do away with them.”

The manifesto went on to describe the “dreadful sights” playing out in France as authorities subjected the Jews to inhuman suffering.

“Children, women, men, fathers and mothers are being treated like cattle; members of a single family are torn from each other and carted away to an unknown destination. The Jews are real men and women; foreigners are real men and women. They are part of the human race; they are our brothers, like so many others. A Christian cannot forget this.”

In Overnight Sensation, Archbishop Letter Reverses French Support For Vichy

The letter was read in 400 churches throughout Toulouse that Sunday. The French Resistance picked it up and turned it into an overnight sensation, distributing hundreds of thousands of copies throughout France, to the BBC and Catholic bookstores. The letter became renowned as the Manifesto of Human Dignity.

Who was the courageous author of this manifesto? Monsignor Gerard Saliege, the Archbishop of Toulouse, had witnessed the unfolding horror engulfing French Jews as Vichy France tightened the noose beginning in 1941.

“As early as November 23, 1941, after the first wave of arrests of Jews, Saliege sent a protest letter to the Vichy authorities, even as the rest of the French Catholic hierarchy maintained silence or supported Vichy’s actions against the Jews, ” notes Yad Vashem.

Until the Schlesingers approached him directly with a plea for help, Saliege’s protests to Vichy authorities about their mistreatment of the Jews were made privately. Now they “went viral” with an unequivocal manifesto that reached hundreds of thousands. Historians agree that this was a vastly influential force in shifting French public opinion in the summer of 1942.

In an abrupt turnaround, support for the Vichy regime suddenly plummeted. The protest from the pulpits of Toulouse following the passionate appeal by Elly and her father also paved the way for the adoption of practical strategies to hide and rescue Jews.

Saliege instructed the clergymen and nuns in his archdiocese to hide Jews, particularly children. Saliege’s adjutant, Bishop de Courreges was appointed to coordinate activities to save Jews by Church institutions in the archdiocese of Toulouse. Thousands of lives were saved this way.

“Vichy officials caught wind of Saliege’s letter before it went public and tried frantically to head it off,” writes Susan Zucotti in “The Holocaust, The French and the Jews.” When Saliege refused to withdraw it, officials prohibited its public reading and sent telegrams to all mayors throughout Toulouse advising them of the ban. Most priests, ignoring the mayors, obeyed their archbishop. Vichy authorities sought to undermine Saliege’s prestige and authority by spreading lies about him. He refused to capitulate.

Within a few weeks, at least four other bishops in Vichy France followed Saliege’s example, condemning the wave of arrests of Jews throughout Paris and its suburbs in the summer and fall of 1942.

“In Paris, Jews by the tens of thousands are being treated with the most barbarous savagery,” wrote Bishop Pierre-Theas of Montauban. And now, in our region, we are witnessing a heartrending spectacle; families being torn asunder, men and women being treated like animals and herded to an unknown destination. The present anti-Semitic measures are a contemptible attack on human dignity….”

In the fiercely anti-Semitic climate of that era, speaking out against the Nazi genocide and in defense of the Jews took considerable bravery. Nazi retaliation was inevitably swift and lethal.

In November 1942, the Germans occupied the territories of the Vichy regime, stepping up the ongoing actions to arrest Jews and deport them to their extermination. Ultimately, 78,000 Jews—a fourth of the Jewish population in France—were annihilated.

As ghastly as these events are, were it not for the few humanitarians like the Archbishop of Toulouse and the other four bishops, the numbers of those deported and murdered would certainly have been higher, similar to other Nazi-occupied countries where church leaders remained silent or actively supported the genocide.

As for R’ Emmanuel Schlesinger and his daughter Elly who risked their lives to plead for their people, the episode with the archbishop is only one piece of a captivating and inspirational saga, to be continued in Part 2 of this series.

 

The Vel D’Hiv Roundup

One of the largest, most horrific roundups was July 1942’s Vel d’Hiv, the largest deportation of Jews from France that would occur during the war.

Among the 13,000 Jews arrested and deported to Auschwitz were 4,000 children—removed with their parents for “humanitarian” reasons, according to French Prime Minister Pierre Laval. If they stayed behind, he reasoned, who would care for them? [After the war, Pierre Laval was convicted of crimes against humanity and executed by firing squad.]

Ultimately, parents were torn from their children in the stadium by French gendarmes and forced into cattle cars without the children. Babies and children were left abandoned in the stadium. Days later, they were herded with adult strangers into cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered.

All told, the Vichy regime helped deport 78,000 Jewish refugees and French citizens to death camps. It wasn’t until 1995 that a French president admitted the horrendous crimes the French had committed, acknowledging France’s prominent role in the Nazi genocide.

“These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions,” past president Jacques Chirac said. “Yes, the criminal insanity of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state.”

More recently, French president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech on France’s role in the genocide, denouncing his political opponents on the far right who dismiss the Vichy government. “It is convenient to see the Vichy regime as born of nothingness, returned to nothingness. Yes, it is convenient, but it is false. We cannot build pride upon a lie,” Macron said.