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That Child Was Me

Aharon Granevich-Granot, Southern France

Matzos hidden in a basket of soiled laundry. Food vouchers clandestinely exchanged. Such are the memories of Reb Hershel Fink, a Holocaust survivor who spent the war years in southern France, which was part of the Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime. None of the righteous Gentiles are alive to testify how they hid the region’s Jews, but their children, now elderly themselves, remember their parents’ refusal to take the side of evil in the face of the Nazi onslaught.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

It happened during the predawn hours, in the picturesque town ofValrosin southernFrance. Outdoors, a frigid cold held the world in its grip. Not a soul could be seen in the streets; even the stray cats had found shelter from the biting cold.

Then police cars emerged through the heavy fog, and a burst of knocks shattered the silence as the farm awoke and came to life. “Open up! Police! We know there are Jews here!” the French policemen shouted, then burst into the house before the owner could protest.

“I was a small child at the time,” says Mr. Jean Phillipe, 70 years after that night. His father, Anton, had provided refuge on his estate for a Jewish family that had lived in Valros before the war, hiding them when the Nazis enlisted the French police to arrest Jews and deport them for the “Final Solution.”

“I will never forget the scene,” relates 80-year-old Phillipe, who we located in one of Valros’s coffee shops. “I awoke to the sound of children crying — the French policemen found the family hiding in the barn. Even then, I knew it wouldn’t be long before they would be murdered. I looked at the panicked children who had just been pulled out of their straw beds. One of them was my own age, and I felt my heart break, knowing that their deaths were soon to come.

“After that, my father was taken away. I watched him walk to the police car with his back straight. I was proud of him. I knew that he had acted as he had in order to save lives, that he had not simply followed the herd.”

Jean Phillipe is one of dozens of children of the Righteous Among the Nations whom we met during the course of our journey through southernFrance. Even at the height of the Holocaust, active Jewish life continued in this area despite southernFrancebeing controlled by the fascistVichyregime. Although theVichygovernment collaborated with the Nazis, it was still possible for Jews to go on living, albeit with restrictions.

And so, thousands of French, Polish, and Belgian Jews found refuge in the region. Later, when the Nazis forced the French government to make arrests, a number of Gentiles hid Jews in their homes, in collaboration with the anti-Nazi underground. Those righteous Gentiles themselves are no longer alive for us to interview. But their children, themselves elderly, still remember.

Mr. Jean Phillipe recalls that even during the war, life on the family estate in Valros was tranquil — until the day the Nazis gave orders to arrest the Jews.

“We had lived peacefully and amicably side by side the Jews,” Phillipe attests. “We had wonderful Jewish neighbors. I remember my parents saying they would do what they could to prevent the Nazis from going through with such a terrible crime. A few days later, my father took us aside and said, ‘Soon a Jewish family will be arriving, and we are going to hide them in the barn. We will provide them with food and drink. But no one can know that they are here. We can’t trust anyone, even our neighbors.’

“A few days passed, and the family arrived — a widowed mother and her two sons. Our lives changed after that. We trembled every time we saw police.” And then came the night the family was captured.

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