How a daring nun saved 83 Jewish youngsters

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By Niamh Hughes
BBC News

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Two Jewish women from Alsace discovered themselves in nice hazard when Germany invaded France 80 years in the past. But whereas their mother and father and youthful sister had been caught and murdered, they survived – with dozens of different Jewish youngsters – because of the bravery of a nun in a convent close to Toulouse.

Twelve-year-old Hélène Bach was enjoying within the backyard along with her youthful sister, Ida, once they noticed a navy truck approaching and rushed inside.

The two women and their mom had left their dwelling in Alsace Lorraine, north-eastern France, after the German invasion in May 1940 and began travelling in direction of the “free zone” within the south of the nation.

To cut back the chance of the entire household being caught, it had been determined that the daddy, Aron, and oldest daughter, Annie, would make the journey individually. But when Aron and Annie had been arrested in 1941 and brought to a detention camp close to Tours, Hélène’s mom rented a home close by. And they had been nonetheless there a 12 months later, when the German troopers got here driving up the highway.

Hélène and eight-year-old Ida bumped into the kitchen to warn their mom.

“My mom informed us to run – to cover within the woods,” Hélène says. “I used to be holding my little sister by the hand however she didn’t wish to include me. She needed to return to my mom. I might hear the Germans. I let her hand go and he or she ran again.”

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picture captionHelene and Anne’s mom, Cecile Bach
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Isolated within the woods, Hélène hid till she felt the coast was clear.

Then she crept again to the home and located some cash her mom had left on the desk.

“She knew I’d come again,” she says.

Hélène went to stick with a buddy she’d made within the space. She by no means noticed her mom or youthful sister once more.

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Hélène’s older sister, Annie, had her personal slim escape. After a 12 months on the camp close to Tours, she succeeded in escaping by some fencing and working away.

Aged 16, Annie succeeded this time in making the journey alone to her aunt’s dwelling within the southern metropolis of Toulouse, however even there she wasn’t secure. While her aunt’s household weren’t formally registered as Jews and will faux to be Catholics, this wasn’t an choice open to Annie.

One day within the autumn of 1942, the police rang on the door “They ordered, ‘Show your loved ones guide and all of your youngsters, we wish to test!'” she says.

“The luck of my life is that my cousin, Ida, had gone to purchase bread – that is why generally I consider in miracles. So my aunt stated that is Estelle, Henri, Hélène and, pointing at me, Ida.”

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Not lengthy after Annie’s arrival in Toulouse, her aunt obtained a letter from Hélène, from her hiding place close to Tours. She then made preparations for her to be rescued.

So one night time a younger girl from the French Resistance, the Maquis, knocked on the door of the home the place Hélène was staying.

“She stated that she got here to seek out me, to cross the demarcation line,” Hélène remembers. To present that she might be trusted, the customer pulled out {a photograph} of Hélène that her aunt had supplied.

It was a troublesome journey. The younger girl had false papers by which she and Hélène had been described as college students, despite the fact that Hélène was so younger. They had been stopped and questioned a number of occasions.

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The “free zone” within the south of France didn’t reside as much as its title. The authorities of Marshal Philippe Pétain, primarily based in Vichy, handed anti-Jewish legal guidelines, allowed Jews rounded up in Baden and Alsace Lorraine to be interned on its territory, and seized Jewish property.

On 23 August 1942 the archbishop of Toulouse, Jules-Geraud Saliège, wrote a letter to his clergymen, asking them to recite a letter to their congregations.

“In our diocese, shifting scenes have occurred,” it went. “Children, girls, males, fathers and moms are handled like a lowly herd. Members of a single household are separated from one another and carted away to an unknown vacation spot. The Jews are males, the Jewesses are girls. They are a part of the human race; they’re our brothers like so many others. A Christian can’t overlook this.”

He protested to the Vichy authorities about their Jewish coverage, whereas a lot of the French Catholic hierarchy remained silent. Out of 100 French bishops, he was one in every of solely six who spoke out in opposition to the Nazi regime.

Saliège’s message struck a chord with Sister Denise Bergon, the younger mom superior of the Convent of Notre Dame de Massip in Capdenac, 150km (93 miles) north-east of Toulouse.

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“This name deeply moved us, and such emotion grabbed our hearts. A beneficial response to this letter was a testomony to the power of our faith, above all events, all races,” she wrote after the warfare in 1946.

“It was additionally an act of patriotism, as by defending the oppressed we had been defying the persecutors.”

The convent ran a boarding faculty and Sister Denise knew it will be attainable to cover Jewish youngsters amongst her Catholic pupils. But she anxious about endangering her fellow nuns, and in regards to the dishonesty that this might entail.

Her personal bishop supported Pétain so she wrote to Archbishop Saliège for recommendation. She information his response in her journal: “Let’s lie, let’s lie, my daughter, so long as we’re saving human lives.”

By the winter of 1942, Sister Denise Bergon was amassing Jewish youngsters who had been hiding within the wooded valleys and gorges of the area round Capdenac, often called L’Aveyron.

As round-ups of Jews intensified – carried out by German troops and, from 1943, by a fascist militia, the Milice – the variety of Jewish youngsters taking refuge within the convent would finally swell to 83.

Among them had been Annie Beck, whose aunt realised she could be safer there than in Toulouse, shortly adopted by Hélène, taken on to the convent by her information from the Resistance.

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picture captionAnnie and Sister Denise
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Hélène lastly felt secure, although was overwhelmed with emotion on her arrival.

“At the start, Madame Bergon took me right into a room and he or she tried to make me really feel as if my mother and father had been right here, and so she was like a mom actually,” she says.

At the identical time, the destiny of her youthful sister, Ida, weighed closely on her.

“Every night, we needed to first do our homework. And then once we completed we might exit and play. I all the time thought if my sister had not let go of my hand, she would have been within the convent with me,” she says.

Another Jewish refugee from Alsace Lorraine was a boy referred to as Albert Seifer, who was a couple of years youthful than the sisters.

“Surrounded by large partitions, we had been like in a fortress,” he says. “We had been very completely satisfied.” We didn’t actually really feel the warfare although we had been surrounded by hazard.”

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Parents and guardians would ship their youngsters with cash, jewelry or different valuables so as to pay for the youngsters’s maintenance, earlier than they did their finest to flee from France. Sister Denise stored cautious information.

“From the start of 1944, the round-ups of Jews had been changing into tighter and quite a few,” she recalled in 1946. “Requests come from all sides and we obtained round 15 little women, a few of whom have simply escaped in a miraculous method from the pursuit of the Gestapo.”

She added: “They had merely change into our youngsters, and we had dedicated ourselves to endure every thing in order to return them safely to their households.”

Other than Sister Denise, solely the college’s director, Marguerite Rocques, its chaplain and two different sisters knew the reality in regards to the youngsters’s origins. The different 11 nuns had been conscious that quite a lot of the youngsters had been refugees from Alsace-Lorraine, however didn’t know they had been Jewish – and nor did the officers whom Sister Denise pressed for increasingly more ration books.

The youngsters’s lack of familiarity with Catholic rituals threatened to show them, however an evidence was discovered.

“We got here from the east of France, a spot with many industrial cities and lots of employees who had been communists,” says Annie. “So we posed as communist youngsters who knew nothing of faith!”

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The longer the warfare continued, the extra harmful the youngsters’s place turned and Sister Denise started to fret about attainable searches.

“Even although all compromising papers and the jewelry from the youngsters’s households had already been hidden in essentially the most secret corners of the home, we didn’t really feel secure,” she wrote in her 1946 journal. “So, late at night time, when everybody was asleep in the home, we dug a gap for the hidden issues within the convent’s backyard and we buried as deep as attainable something that might be compromising.”

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picture captionA window in what was as soon as the youngsters’s dormitory

In May 1944 a battle-hardened elite SS Division often called Das Reich arrived within the space from the Eastern entrance.

About this time, Annie remembers {that a} member of the Resistance arrived with an alarming warning.

“One day the doorbell rang. Since the sister answerable for the door was a bit far, I opened it myself,” she says.

“A younger man was standing there. He stated: ‘Quick! I have to communicate to your director! It could be very, very pressing!’

“The man informed us that we had been denounced. News had unfold that the convent was hiding Jewish youngsters.”

Sister Denise hatched a plan with the Resistance, who agreed to fireplace warning photographs if the enemy was approaching.

“The youngsters would fall asleep, the older ones paired up with the youthful ones and, on the first detonation heard within the night time, in silence however in haste, they have to get to the woods and go away the home to the invaders,” she wrote in 1946.

But quickly she determined to cover the youngsters with out ready for the invaders to reach. One group, together with Annie, was taken to the chapel.

“The chaplain was sturdy and will raise the benches. He opened a lure door. We slid down in there,” she says.

The tiny underground house was 2.5m lengthy and fewer than 1.5m excessive.

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picture captionAnnie subsequent to the lure door within the chapel

Seven youngsters huddled collectively there for 5 days. They couldn’t arise or lie all the way down to sleep in the course of the lengthy nights, and had been solely allowed out for brief durations within the early hours of the morning, to train, eat, drink and go to the bathroom.

Air got here by a small vent that opened on to the courtyard.

“After 5 days there it was not attainable to endure,” Annie says.

“Imagine if the nuns had been arrested,” she provides.

Those days hidden underground marked Annie for all times – she has slept with a night-light ever since. Hélène was lucky sufficient to be housed as an alternative with a neighborhood household.

Though they did not enter the convent, the SS did go away a path of destruction proper on the convent’s doorstep.

“We discovered some maquisards [members of the Maquis] who had been killed and tossed on the highway. The Germans set an instance in order that others didn’t resist,” Annie says.

Sister Denise needed to pay her respects to the useless and requested Annie to assist her place flowers on every of the useless our bodies.

In June 1944, Das Reich was ordered north to affix the trouble to repel the Allied landings in Normandy. On the way in which it took half in two massacres designed to punish locals for Maquis exercise within the space. Then, on arrival in Normandy, it was encircled by the US 2nd Armoured Division and crushed, shedding 5,000 males and greater than 200 tanks and different fight automobiles.

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After southern France was liberated, in August 1944, the Jewish youngsters slowly left the convent. Albert Seifer was reunited along with his household, together with his father, who returned alive from Auschwitz.

Annie and Hélène weren’t so lucky.

Although their aunt survived, their mother and father and youthful sister, Ida, had been murdered in Auschwitz.

Annie settled in Toulouse, married, had youngsters and just lately turned a great-grandmother. She nonetheless frequently meets Albert, now 90.

Hélène married and had a son, settling in Richmond, west London. Aged 94 and 90, the sisters journey between London and Toulouse to see one another as usually as they’ll.

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picture captionHélène and Annie on the entrance to the convent
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They consult with Sister Denise as “notre dame de la guerre” – our woman of the warfare.

They had been unhappy to say goodbye to her, and frequently visited her for the remainder of her life.

When Annie’s youngsters had been younger she usually took them along with her, so as to preserve this era of historical past alive for them – a relentless reminder of what the Jewish folks endured.

Sister Denise remained on the convent and continued working till her loss of life in 2006 on the age of 94. Later in life she helped deprived youngsters, after which immigrants from North Africa.

In 1980, she was honoured by the Holocaust Memorial Center, Yad Vashem, as Righteous Among the Nations. A road is called after her in Capdenac, however aside from that the one memorial to her act of bravery is within the grounds of the convent.

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picture captionHélène (left), Annie (proper) with Sister Denise and the memorial – Albert Seifer is standing on the again

It says: “This cedar tree was planted on 5 April 1992 in reminiscence of the saving of 83 Jewish youngsters (from December 1942 to July 1944) by Denise Bergon… on the request of Monsignor Jules-Geraud Saliège, archbishop of Toulouse.”

It stands near the spot the place Sister Denise buried the jewelry, cash and priceless gadgets mother and father left behind – and which she gave again, untouched, after the warfare to assist the households begin once more.

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