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The Children of Château De La Hille

By:Edith Kurzweil Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sixty-two years after the end of World War II, Jewish historians are still uncovering tales of hidden children and memorializing more of the “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem for having saved designated victims. (Parenthetically, we’re still learning about informers, anti-Semites and brutal local policemen who set out to kill would-be escapees.)

One of the French children and grandchildren of the World War II generation who wanted to know the truth about the past of their families and their families’ neighbors is Annick Vigneau, a retired high school teacher and the right hand to the mayor of Montégut-Plantaurel (Ariège), a village of 263 inhabitants.

When she accidentally discovered that from 1941 to 1945 the Château de la Hille, at the foot of the Pyrenées and just three kilometers from her home, had sheltered close to 100 Jewish children from the French police, the Gestapo and the German military, she wondered what had happened to them.

Together with a handful of her local friends, she dug, with passion, into forgotten archives.

As luck would have it, Werner Rindsberg (Walter Reed), one of the “children” who for many years had consciously left this part of his life in his unconscious, had decided to systematically find out what had become of his former friends. He had been with my brother in Home Speyer while I had been in its girls’ equivalent, Home Général Bernheim, in Brussels.

On May 14, 1940, when the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium and France, we managed to flee south in three cattle cars. After a week or so, we ended up in a granary-cum-orphanage in Seyre par Nailloux, about 60 kilometers outside Toulouse.

My brother and I had received our American visas and thus were able to escape that September. But our buddies had to go on living without heat, hungry, worried about discovery
and internment. When by the spring of 1941 some of them had restored the ramshackle Château de la Hille, they moved there and began to freeze and starve in greater comfort.

In fact, the ladies who had formed the Belgian Comité d’Assistance aux Enfants Refugiés Juif (CAERJ) and had succeeded in removing more than 500 Jewish children from the Nazi terror in Germany and Austria, themselves had had to flee.

So none of us knew that it was due to their continuing concern about “their” children that these children enjoyed the protection of the Croix-Rouge-Secours aux Enfants that sent food and (dedicated) personnel to the Château de la Hille.

Given the vicissitudes of immigration and the stoppage of mail during World War II, I lost touch with my former pals. After 1945, they were dispersed around the world. At first we all tried to forget the fears and dangers we had surmounted, but eventually some among us tried to recall these dangerous times in order to come to terms with their lingering influences, while others did all they could to forget every bit of them forever.

So I was stunned when, a few years ago, after I had given a talk, a woman approached me, asking whether I had not been the Ditta Weisz of that period. That is how I met Ilse (Wullf) Garfunkel who, in turn, put me in touch with Walter Reed. Walter informed me of meetings with those of our group he had interviewed on his trips to London, Buenos Aires, Paris, Chicago, Israel, Australia, and more; of a film and a get-together with some of them in 2000 and 2005; and of the difficulties of sorting out truth from so many skewed and often contradictory memories.

About a year ago, Walter received a large box of files from Susan Johnson, a granddaughter of Madame Lily Felddegen, one of our Brussels saviors. She had worked for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and had corresponded with Madame Marguerite Goldschmidt-Brodsky in Basel, Madame René deBecker and Madame Louise Wolff in New York, and a gaggle of American State Department officials to secure visas for their former charges from the moment the Germans invaded Belgium.

Until then, no one had known of these women’s involvement. (When I visited Madame deBecker upon my arrival in New York, she said she wanted to help but had no influence on the American government.) In any event, Walter now has proof that they had obtained the necessary permissions and visas for all the children and were just waiting for the State Department’s approval. It never came.

* * *

After Annick Vigneau had collected enough letters, testimonies, photographs, archives, and reports by officials and resistance fighters, she raised funds for a permanent museum as a reminder of the Jewish refugee children who had lived so precariously in their midst. She set the inauguration of the Musée des enfants du château de la Hillefor June 23, 2007, and invited all those still alive, along with their families and friends.

To facilitate my trip, she arranged for Mr. Viala, a retired aerospace engineer, to drive me to Montégut-Plantaurel. On the way, he showed me the location and the cemetery of the nearby concentration camp, Le Vernet, as well as its conveniently located train station, and a sample of the enclosed locked boxcars that had transported the camp’s inmates to their death in Auschwitz.

On the eve of the inauguration we had a formal dinner for the thirty former “children,” their relatives and friends, along with around thirty Montégutians and a group of Spaniards who, toward the end of the war, had found refuge from Franco’s Spain at the Château de la Hille.

The lingua franca was French or English. It did not even occur to any of us that we might revert to our native German. Inevitably, no one recognized anyone else – in a room full of oldsters – except for a handful who had remained in touch. But that changed in a flash after Toni (Rosenblatt) Parolini took charge of seating arrangements even before Walter, as our master of ceremonies, suggested that we briefly introduce ourselves.

Now we remembered the bumpy snake of a train that took us from Brussels to Toulouse, recounted shared dangers and escapades, how we had dealt with the lack of toilet facilities and with endless calamities. We wanted to know what had happened to whom. Gray-haired, frail participants spoke of their teenage worries, their first loves and brave deeds. They had been courageous, and had known that before they turned eighteen Swiss protection would end; that French gendarmes and the German Gestapo were eager to round them up; and that it was imperative for them to illegally cross either the Swiss or the Spanish border.

Before this trip I had read David Gumpert’s book, Inge: A Girl’s Journey through Nazi Europe. David, Inge Joseph Bleier’s nephew, had recounted her story, mostly via her diary and correspondence, because he had loved her and had known of her efforts to overcome her horrible past: she had married a good man, become a nurse, written two well-received books, adopted a daughter, and so on. But memories of her perilous and botched escapes, which had landed three of her pals in Auschwitz; of her detention at Le Vernet; and of her dead mother had haunted Inge and had caused serious depressions and illnesses which, by 1983, had led her to commit suicide.

From Gumpert’s book I learned that Inge Helft had died in Auschwitz, and that Inge Berlin’s younger brother, Egon Berlin, had, at the age of fifteen and together with four others, joined the Resistance and been shot by the Germans before being clubbed to death. His comrades were sent to the death chambers. The only one who had returned had much to report.

That evening, remembering and forgetting were inextricably entangled, and friendships were renewed. Trying to catch up, avid listeners interrupted to augment details of the past or to tell their own stories. I connected with individuals whose former existence I could not summon up, and wondered what was behind the pensive or haunted expressions of men and women who, at least for those moments, so obviously were concealing their thoughts, were doubting what they heard, or were (silently) recollecting their old lives.

I suspect that listening to the reminiscences by Jacques Roth, whose well-known writings have been inspired by his experiences in wartime France, was bound to have us reflect on our subsequent lives, on what we might have done differently, and on the ties to the pseudo-brothers and sisters with whom we shared what should have been the most carefree days of our lives.

Most of the “children” had lost their parents: few among them could ever fully come to terms with that. The faces of participants who no longer spoke a common language often expressed understanding; the conversations by others covered up long-ago resentments.

I read contentment into the countenances of the two Israelis, Ruth (Schütz) Israd and Else (Rosenblatt) Stern, and was surprised that neither of them seemed to be as worried about the state of their country as those of us who watch CNN or Fox News.

Holocaust literature for the most part deals with the so-called guilt of survivors and omits that they had beaten the odds by focusing on staying alive; that they had concocted schemes of eluding their would-be captors, had taken endless chances, and had suffered inhuman deprivations.

My confreres had banked on their invulnerability while waiting for mail from parents who had been deported, and for the end of a war that increasingly seemed to portend a German victory. They praised the Swiss guardians who had taught them French – only Sebastian Steiger among these still was alive. He too had written a book that, sadly, focused on rivalries among the staff of the Suisse Croix Rouge and downplayed the courage of Rösli Näf and her associates – who had abetted and facilitated many a dangerous flight into Switzerland and had put their own lives on the line.

At the end of that festive and overly abundant meal the former “girls” started to sing both the French marching tunes they used to belt out on their excursions and those they had made up. Now, our emotions got the better of us. I, for one, almost was sorry that I had not been there. This feeling extended to the following morning, when the museum was officially inaugurated.

* * *

More than one hundred people from the surrounding area came to hear the mayor of Montégut (and representatives from Toulouse and Foix) speak movingly of the plight and courage of the children of La Hille. He praised the French citizens who had helped keep so many of them alive and those who had resisted the Germans. And he did not whitewash the gendarmes of the Vichy government who so willingly had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers.

Still, I was most touched by the children, eight and nine years old, who, one after another, began the proceedings by reading a detailed history of les enfants de la Hille. None of them simply read: it was clear to everyone that they empathized; that they would make sure that neither their own generation nor their children ever would allow such inhuman horrors to happen again.

When at the end of the ceremony these kids sang the la Hille songs with much gusto, I felt uplifted by their enthusiasm, almost convinced that we had not suffered for nothing – that, possibly, the example of these Montégutians might serve as a bulwark against future genocides. During the reception that followed, visitors and their friends freely mixed with locals, answered their questions and exchanged addresses.

The following day, Sunday, René and Marie Thérese de Laportalière invited me to their Château de Bonnac for lunch. We drove to Seyre to look at the faint wall paintings of Disney characters one of our “girls” had made so long ago. Upon being informed that I was leaving the next day, the Laportalieres insisted I spend the night with them.

The de Laportalières are serious people. So without wanting to spoil my optimistic mood, René, who after retiring as a commanding army officer had been a banker, said that I ought not think that many villages in France were as aware of French collaboration and anti-Semitism as the commune de Montégut-Pantaurel, and that it had been Annick Vigneau’s sensibility and curiosity about the children who had dwelt at its nearby château that had alerted its inhabitants to the region’s history during World War II.

“There are a number of other such places,” he went on, though “they are few and far between.”

Edith Kurzweil is the former editor of Partisan Review and University Professor Emeritus, Adelphi University. Her most recent book is “Full Circle: A Memoir.”

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