We remained in Vichy without my father. The problem we encountered in Vichy was that we were not equipped for the winter. The winter of 1939–40 was extremely tough. The pipes would burst from the cold and often we had no water. Steam didn’t exist at the time and we had to buy wood to heat the stoves with. It was a very difficult winter, especially for my mother, being that my father was away. We tried to do the best we could under the circumstances. We hoped that the French army would defeat the Nazis and we would be able to return to Strasbourg. Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened and eventually the Germans took over Paris and all of Northern France. Vichy was in the southern part of France and then it became the capital of southern France.
By that time we were no longer in Vichy. Through connections that my mother had with French Jews who were politically connected, my father was released from the camp in the middle of February.
Once you left Vichy, where did you go?
There was a small group of Jews who arrived from Strasbourg to a small town in the southern part of France called La Châtre. When my father returned and heard about this town where they didn’t have a Rav, he decided that we would move to La Châtre with this group of people and help them out. My father thought that we would be able to continue on with our lives, but he was gravely mistaken. Our stay in La Châtre was very short.
The French villages were very primitive. There were towns without running water or electricity; life was very difficult in La Châtre. We remained there from Shavuos until Sukkos. During this time there was the fall of Paris and the French army collapsed. Since La Châtre was on the main road from Paris to the south, there were thousands of refugees streaming through the town. Although this was real war, to a certain degree life was still normal.
Vichy became the capital of southern France. The government was led by anti-Semites. Among the first laws enforced were laws against Jews, and particularly against foreign Jews. The law was that foreign Jews could be interned. The French people were never too happy that all these refugees had come to live in their town, so they reported all the refugees and the French government decided to get rid of all Jews of foreign origin.
We were given 48 hours to be at the police station with all our belongings. We were not told any details; we were just informed that we were being sent to a place that could accommodate so many of us.
We were led to the train station, where a regular train was waiting. One car was stuffed with people and guarded by soldiers who claimed they didn’t know where we were going. We were together with all Jews of German or Austrian citizenship. Polish citizens were sent out two weeks later to a camp whose conditions were worse than ours.
Finally, we stopped in eastern France in the town of Lyons. We remained there for a while but we had no idea in which direction the train was headed. When the train began moving, my father was very happy because he saw that we were heading south and not north where the Nazis were in control. We ended up in a little town called Montelimar. In this town there was an established camp for refugees from the Spanish civil war. The barracks were empty aside from some beds. We all moved in together; each family took a different corner. In this camp we were given meals, but naturally they were treif. My father went to the director to discuss this matter. The advantage of this camp was that it was a civilian camp and not a military camp. The director was a civilian Frenchman, who understood quite well what my father was requesting and agreed to go along with it to the best of his ability.
My older brother, who was a very enterprising young man, went to town to see if he could find another Jew in Montelimar. He was able to locate one Sephardic Jew. He went to visit him and requested that he help him find a place for our family to live. He agreed, and we moved into town. It took a long time until the other Jews from the camp were able to move into town. My father rented an empty store and turned it into a shul. He got sifrei Torah from another community and we created our own little community in Montelimar. We managed to live in Montelimar for close to two years, until the summer of 1942.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.