How did the situation change in the summer of 1942?
In the summer of 1942 the Germans asked the Vichy government to send them Jews. The French police went out to catch Jews, especially those who were foreigners. My father found out about this and he was very scared that we would be caught by the police. During the last two years my brothers had befriended some local farmers who needed help in their fields during the peak season. In return, the farmers gave them eggs and other precious foods. Through this they formed a friendship with the farmers. My brothers asked and they agreed to allow us to stay on their farm.
In the meantime, a Jewish organization in Limoee had organized a summer camp in Ussac; three of us had joined the camp. During the time that we were away, my parents fled Montelimar under very difficult conditions, in the middle of the night, with whatever belongings they owned, and escaped to the fields of the farmers.
However, after a few weeks the farmer got scared. Word spread that the police were looking for the Rabbi. The police were stationed around our house in case the Rabbi returned home. In addition, my father heard from a friend, who listened to the news on the radio, that French Jews were being forced to leave or they would be arrested. My father realized that he must escape. So after being with the farmer for 10 days my parents took leave. They decided to flee to a big city where hopefully they would not be noticed as much. They planned to go to the harbor city of Marseille, in southern France.
How did they manage the trip to Marseille?
There were quite a few Jews living in Marseille, including many of my father’s talmidim and other Rabbis as well. Getting there was quite an ordeal. Trying to hide and disguise themselves as they traveled, my father had to cut off his beard to resemble a Frenchman. Eventually they managed to reach Marseille. They met up with my father’s friends who helped them find a hideout. My father spent Sukkos with Rabbi Schneerson who had a refugee house right outside Marseille for French and illegal refugees.
When the summer camp [session] was complete, half the children had no home to return to. So this Jewish organization, known as Jeshuren, made a decision to maintain the camp as a home for these children who had no one else to turn to. We remained in camp over the winter. We were always thankful and grateful for what they did for us. The letters we wrote my parents were returned to us and we had no idea of my parents’ whereabouts. My oldest brother was able to obtain false French papers for himself and he came to this camp on the day of my bar mitzvah to celebrate with me. He brought news of my parents and this is how I knew that my parents were in Marseille.
While in Marseille, my older brother spoke to a Swiss Jew who told him that if we arrive in Switzerland as refugees, Switzerland would accept us. My brother called many of his contacts and was able to obtain false papers for all of us and for my parents. My parents and two of my brothers who were together with them in Marseille made their way by train to the Swiss border. At the Swiss border, the only way to get through was with the help of a Frenchman who knew his way through the forest. This guide had to be paid with large amounts of francs. Naturally, my father left him money. The guide brought them near the border and left them with instructions. Chasdei Hashem, they managed to get over the barbed wire and to enter Switzerland, which was our salvation.
In the meantime we were still in the children’s camp. Since I was only 13 years old, I had to go to the local school. Younger and older children were divided into two classes. The mayor of the town, together with his wife, were the teachers. During recess the Jewish boys did not interact with the gentile boys of the class. One time the teacher commented that we boys were always quiet and withdrawn. (We didn’t answer back but in our hearts we felt, this is war and in war you don’t play with others.) We remained there until February.
We heard through a Swiss Jew who had contact with some French Jews, that my parents entered Switzerland around October, right after Sukkos. However, we had no contact with them and we had no idea where in Switzerland they were.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.