Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Marche de la Memoire 2014

The route up to Col de Cerise

Reading about the Holocaust is like staring at the sun – you can only look at a tiny piece or you will damage yourself.

The numbers are too big. The actions are too terrible. The overview is terrifying.  I try not to look.  

This September I couldn’t avoid seeing a little.  Along with two other members of my synagogue, I walked the annual Marche de la Memoire from St Martin de Vesubie in France, up a steep mountain in the Alps, and down the other side towards Valdieri in Italy. 

The Marche de la Memoire commemorates the exodus of 1000 Jews who fled for their lives across the mountains between France and Italy. It has been alternating annually between the Col de Fenestre (organised by the French) and the Col de Cerise (organised by the Italians) since 1999.  

It was a challenging hike, but not too tough to notice the carpet of pink flowers on the rocky ascent.

I have no idea what they are called – they were just small, pretty, Alpine flowers and I imagine they bloom there every year at the same time in the late summer.

At the top of the mountain, we gathered with hundreds of French and Italian people, remembering atrocities done there once, and atrocities still done around the world.  

On the stones behind us, there were photos of some of the Jewish children of the area who had been captured, and killed at Auschwitz.  

Apparently in previous years, someone had said Kaddish (the traditional prayer for the dead) but not this year.  This year, an Italian girl read a poem she had written and another played Hatikvah on her violin.  A historian, eyewitnesses and a survivor spoke.

They played Hatikvah again.  A few people hummed along.  I felt like I was the only one singing.

A few of us put a stone onto a pile of stones on the peak. 

The story of the Jews of St Martin de Vesubie

In September 1943, nearly 4 million European Jews had already been murdered.  Some were working as slaves. The rest of the Jews of Europe were hiding or running. Nowhere was safe for very long.    

One tiny area became a haven for a few months.  South East France, under Italian military control, refused to surrender Jews to the German SS or to the French Vichy administration.

A few thousand Jews from Germany, Austria, Hungary, Rumania, Poland, the Ukraine, Belgium and Czechoslovakia, made it to the safe Italian zone. Some were moved to St Martin de Vesubie where they spent that summer living as free Jews.  They established schools and synagogues. They sat in cafes and organised dances. 

To get there, all of them had made hundreds of critical decisions -who to trust, when to go, when to hide, who to pay.  On the 8th of September 1943, there was another critical decision to be made.

Italy had surrendered to the Allies. The Italian occupying forces in France, who had protected the Jews for ten months, began to retreat home over the mountains.  

1000 of the Jews from St Martin de Vesubie decided to go with them. For three days they hiked over the Alps hoping to meet Allied troops on the other side.  It was a hard climb, carrying small children and bundles of belongings.  Some turned back. Some dumped their belongings as they went.   

But the Allies weren’t there yet. Instead they encountered the German army and the SS who were occupying and terrorizing that region of Italy.

One third of the Jews that made the trek were arrested within a week, deported to Auschwitz and killed. Two thirds went into hiding in Italy.

All of the Jews that stayed behind in St Martin were deported to Auschwitz and killed. 

There were pictures of local children who never made it back wedged into the stones at the peak

 This is one

Germaine was born in Nice, in the South of France.  When she was 12, she was deported to Auschwitz by train which left Drancy on February 10, 1944.  There were 1,500 people on that convoy, of whom 295 were children. 

 She was one of the 16 Jewish girls taken from her school in Nice.

She was one of the 11,400 Jewish children who were deported from France to death camps in Europe by train.

The train cars were tightly packed. There was no food, water or toilets.

On arrival at Auschwitz, she was selected for death and gassed immediately.  Her body was burned.

Her train, convoy 68, was one of 75 train convoys from France to the death camps.

Auschwitz was one of the death camps.

The death camps were one of the methods used to kill Jewish people.

France was one of the thirteen countries where Jewish people lost their right to live.

Germaine was one of the one million children murdered.

She was one of the six million Jewish people who were murdered.

It is too much to fathom.

Convoy 64

Serge Klarsfeld's French children of the Holocaust outlines what is known about the children taken on the 75 massive train convoys that went from France to the death camps.   

It lists the names and ages of the children, as well as where they were taken from.  

(If you want to break your heart, look at the photos of the some of the children before they were systematically and deliberately killed by the Nazis in the death camps)  

Here is the description for convoy 64 which left Drancy on December 7, 1943:

Convoy 64 deported 156 children - 79 boys and 77 girls. As with those deported on convoy 62, most had been arrested in the countryside. Almost half were brought from a gathering point in the Côte d'Azur: they had fled St.-Martin-de-Vésubie, on the French side of the border with Italy, into Italy, only to be caught by Germans newly occupying the Italian towns.

Convoy 64 included Chaja Weisenfeld (30) and her month-old twins, Fernande and Jeanine; the three Gutwirth sisters, Fanny (20), Schewa (17), and Malka (15), and with them Dora Haimowitch (91); five Berenstam children, Suzanne (22), Maurice (20), Frida (18), Henri (12), and Jeanne (10); four Darmon children, Jacqueline (12), Paulette (9), Gilberte (6), and José (5); Georges (14), Marie (11), and Pierre (5) Deutsch; four Erdberg children, Bernard (11), Estelle (9), Thérèse (5), and Victor (3); Tauba Fischer (35) and her four children, Anna (12), Rosa (5), Chil (2), and an 8-month-old baby; and three Itic children, Léa (20), Suzanne (17), and Paulette (16).

The entire list of the children on convoy 64 is given.

I can see two names from the long list. 

Joseph and Suzanne Katz aged eight and five. Their last address is given as St Martin de Vesubie.    

In my imagination, they are walking up the mountain together, and they can see the pink flowers carpeting their rocky ascent.

I have to stop there. 

Living in hope


Remembering the damage done, with Hatikvah at the top of the pass

A documentary about the flight from St Martin de Vesubie was made by by Andre Waksman, whose family survived the Holocaust in southern France, is easy to download: