"Anyone can go to the Holocaust museum [in Washington DC] but not everyone gets this experience." ~A. Speitel (student, 17)
A Hidden French Child of the Holocaust revisits her rescuers.
French President Francois Hollande gave a very moving speech in Paris on July 22, 2012 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the first round up of Jews in 1942 at the Vel d’Hiv, a bicycle stadium in Paris. On July 16, 1942 early in the morning 13,152 men, women and children were arrested by French Police in their homes, taken to the stadium from where they were taken to internment camps near Paris and deported to Auschwitz Birkenau where they were murdered solely for being Jewish. I would have been one of those children.
At that time I was just five years old and found myself with my parents in the village of Arthes near Albi in Southern France under the Vichy collaborationist government of Philippe Petain and his Prime Minister Pierre Laval. We were helped by two local families in the village who took extraordinary risks in protecting us. Towards the end of the war I was sent to a convent where the Mother Superior hid about 10 Jewish children. My memoir “Your Name Is Renee”, written in the voice of the child that I was then details my story during that time.
I had the pleasure to stay in touch with my rescuers and their descendants over the years. It had been twelve years since I last visited them so I decided to return this past July. Lucette Fedou Cormary who as a teenager was in charge of protecting me from arrest and death, is now a spry “young lady” of 85. She and her fourteen descendants are all very warm, kind and caring. They still live in Albi right near where I was hidden. My visit had many poignant moments. A journalist friend organized a book signing (where two of my war years classmates surprised me by their presence), wrote four articles in the local paper “La Depeche du Midi”, organized a special ceremony in my honor with two local mayors, introduced me to official representatives at the Bastille Day (July 14) parade and planned a television interview.
In the words of President Hollande at the end of his talk: “Honor was saved by the Righteous, by all those who were able to rise up against barbarism, by those anonymous heroes who risked their lives to save innocent people.”
In these times of renewed anti-Semitism all over the world, it is of utmost importance to teach the lessons of the Holocaust in all its dimensions. The Shoah did not arise spontaneously out of nowhere. It was made possible by centuries of hatred and lies.
This is the reason why I now devote my time to teach the lessons of the Holocaust by speaking in schools, institutions and organizations all over the country. I am on the board of the Holocaust Awareness Museum in the Klein Branch of the JCC in Northeast Philadelphia. In the past year alone, 25,000 students were able to hear personal stories from survivors through its outreach programs. Hopefully by hearing my story and those of others students will have the courage and assume individual responsibility to speak up when faced with acts of hatred and discrimination.