French Holocaust survivor Fanny Ben-Ami led a group of Jewish children to freedom when she was only 13.
(photo credit: YOAV DEVIR KKL-JNF)
Ceremonies were held throughout Israel to mark Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, which, this year, fell on April 12. Israelis from all sectors of society, young and old, gathered to honor the memory of the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. The annual ceremony held by KKL-JNF and World B’nai B’rith in Martyrs’ Forest honors the Jews who rescued other Jews during the Holocaust. This year’s ceremony honored the heroism of the Jewish Resistance fighters in France.
“The survival of those who went through the Holocaust is what enables us to stand here today, in the heart of a thriving state that is celebrating its seventieth anniversary,” said Moshe Yogev, a member of the KKL-JNF Directorate. “We are proud of KKL-JNF’s substantial part in the establishment of the state. This is our true victory over those who sought to destroy us.”
In his remarks honoring the Jewish rescuers, Yogev said: “Like previous years, today we honor many Jewish rescuers… members of the French Jewish resistance and rescuers from additional countries who, instead of looking out for only themselves and their families, chose to risk their lives to save their brethren from the inferno. These life-saving acts are a source of pride and inspiration for us all, and especially to the younger generation.”
KKL-JNF and World B’nai B’rith planted the Martyrs’ Forest in the 1950s to commemorate the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The forest, with its six million trees, is one of the first sites ever created in Israel to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.
“We are here to recall the utmost tragedy that led to the suffering and murder of six million Jews in Europe,” said Frederik Rogge, Head of Mission of the French Embassy in Israel, adding: “The Jewish Resistance groups often were the driving force behind the activities of the French Righteous Gentiles.”
Revital Raviv of the Israel Opera sang the anthem of the French Jewish partisans, accompanied by Ruvi Hod on flute and Eyal Lever on guitar. Several of the older guests joined in.
Hundreds of Jewish fighters joined the Resistance to fight the Nazis and help rescue Jews. Two hundred of them were killed during the war, and many others were arrested and tortured. Historian Dr. Tsilla Hershco, author of Those Who Walk in Darkness Will See Light: The Jewish French Resistance during the Holocaust and the Creation of Israel, 1940–1949, spoke about the significant role that they played in the fight against the Nazis. “They worked in an organized manner throughout the entire occupation period,” she said. “They risked their lives and paid a heavy price. At the end of the war, many of them immigrated to Israel and joined the struggle to establish the state.”
The ceremony was held at the Scroll of Fire monument, which tells the story of the exile, the Holocaust, and the rebirth of the Jewish people. The eight-meter-high bronze sculpture, which was created by the artist Nathan Rapoport, a survivor of the Holocaust, is in the form of two scrolls, one depicting the Holocaust and the other depicting Israel’s rebirth. KKL-JNF guides discussed the meaning of the monument with the participating youth and the groups of visitors.
During the ceremony, which was conducted by Elisha Mizrahi of KKL-JNF’s Public Relations Department, high-school pupils from Rehovot read out the names of French Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust and individual stories of survivors and of Resistance fighters. Citations were given to Jewish rescuers who helped to save Jews at the risk of their own lives. Fourteen of them worked in France, and seven worked in other countries.
“Our goal is to honor the acts of ordinary people like ourselves whom the needs of the time made into heroes,” said Dr. Haim Katz, Chairman of B’nai B’rith World Center. “The stories of hundreds of Jews who sacrificed themselves to rescue Jews is almost unknown. We are only at the start of a long journey of doing historical justice in honoring their heroism.”
Since most of the Jewish rescuers are no longer alive, the citations were given to members of their families. The only rescuer who is still with us is Fanny Ben-Ami, who at the age of thirteen helped to save fifteen Jews as they fled from France to Switzerland. It was no coincidence that she was known as “the little commander.”
“I did not see the journey I made as heroism, but as the rebellion of a thirteen-year-old girl saying: ‘This is not just!’” Ben-Ami said. Speaking directly to the young Israelis in the audience, she said, “Travel the world and take in new cultures and learn, but build your lives and families here and only here in Israel. With your help, Israel will remain strong.”
Combat soldiers of the Border Police attended the ceremony - evidence of the fact that even seventy years after the Holocaust, the State of Israel must still fight for its right to exist. Superintendent Shmuel Ehrlich, rabbi of the Border Police training base, recited the El Malei Rahamim prayer.
Abraham Huli, B’nai B’rith International’s Deputy President for Israel, recited the Yizkor prayer in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Daniel Gratz, president of B’nai B’rith Israel, recited the Kaddish. Dr. Rabbi Alain Michel, founder of the Jewish Scouts Association in France, lit the memorial beacon on behalf of the second generation of the Resistance.
Minia Joneck, chairwoman of the Jewish Congregation in Konstanz, Germany, received the citation on behalf of her grandfather, Karl Demerer, who was sent to the Blechhammer camp after having being imprisoned in several labor camps. There, he helped many of the inmates, and saved one hundred women whom the Germans wished to murder simply because they had been tattooed with duplicate numbers already given to other women. Demerer immigrated to Israel in 1961, and for many years kept in contact with many survivors from the camp.
“I am proud to receive the award in the name of my grandfather,” Joneck said. “He was a modest man who did not like to talk about his deeds during the war. We, the members of his family, feel that it is very important to honor his memory and the memories of all the Jewish rescuers.”
Memories from Hell
Those who attended the ceremony listened to the stories of Holocaust survivors at testimony corners that operated before and after the event in various places throughout the forest. Among those who shared their stories were Tsilla Hershco, Eliezer Lev-Zion, Leah Rosenberg, Esther Debora Reiss-Mossel, Noémi Coen-Sitbon, and Itta Claire Ben-Haim.
Esther Debora Reiss-Mossel told a group of soldiers how she was sent with her family to Bergen-Belsen and survived the war with her two siblings. Her parents were murdered in the camp. “For forty years, I did not talk about what happened to me during the war,” she said. “It is moving to come here on Holocaust Remembrance Day and tell you my story.”
Eliezer Lev-Zion told about his work in the Resistance, saying: “Our goal was not to kill, but to save lives.”
Noémi Coen-Sitbom owes her survival to the Resistance, who helped her to hide in the French town of Lautrec. “The landscape there was like Paradise, but hell was all around us,” she said.
Itta Claire Ben-Haim hid in her aunt’s home during the war, disguised as a Christian girl. “It was only when I became a mother myself that I realized how difficult it had to be for my mother to give me up. I survived thanks to her courage,” she said. Among the groups who heard her story was a KKL-JNF delegation to Poland, which will soon be setting out on a journey of learning to the location where the atrocities of the Holocaust took place.
Fanny Ben-Ami’s Story
Fanny Ben-Ami was thirteen years old when she became, without ever having intended to, the commander of a group of Jewish children fleeing from France to Switzerland. She led them in the forests, smuggled them out of captivity, and protected them from German soldiers.
Fanny’s family fled from Germany to France when the Nazis came to power in 1933. After the occupation of France, Fanny was hidden, together with seventy other children, in an orphanage in central France. During an attempt to smuggle the children from France to Switzerland, the children’s escort abandoned them on the way, and Fanny took it upon herself to lead them. Throughout the journey she displayed courage, daring, and leadership, giving the children a sense of security.
When railway service was suspended following the bombing of a bridge, Fanny convinced one of the workers to allow the children to board a postal railway car. After they were captured and imprisoned by the French gendarmerie, who planned to hand them over to the Gestapo, Fanny got them out of the building through a bathroom window and led them to a hiding place in the forest.
For two weeks, Fanny led the children on foot through the forest, where they suffered terribly from cold and hunger. She sought help among the farmers, found a woman who offered them a hiding place, and made contact with a smuggler who took them across the Swiss border.
Once they were across the border, Fanny noticed that one of her group, a three-year-old girl, had been left behind. On returning to look for the little girl, Fanny found her crying near the fence. The German patrol, which had returned in the meantime, fired their weapons at the two girls. Fanny lifted the little girl into her arms, shielding her with her own body, and ran toward the Swiss border guard.
Fanny returned to France when the war ended. Her mother had been killed in the Holocaust, but her two sisters had survived. Fanny immigrated to Israel in 1965, went to live in Tel Aviv, and raised her family here.