Sitting in her warm Jerusalem home, Betty Eppel exudes beauty, intelligence and optimism – what the French call joie de vivre – as she tells the moving story of how she and her younger brother, Jacques, were hidden in the home of poor Christian peasants on their tiny farm during the Holocaust.
“I believe there’s an angel who’s smiling at me and looking after me,” she says. “My brother, who is two years younger than I am, and I were lucky to be taken in by this wonderful couple, Victor and Josephine Guicherd, who had no children. They gave us so much love and taught us such a love for life.”
Eppel was born Berthe Lewkowitz on April 19, 1935, to parents who had gone to France from their native Poland. They lived in Valenciennes in northern France, where her father worked as a furrier. She recalls that her parents, Schmuel and Perla, spoke Yiddish to each other, but French to their two children. After her mother gave birth to a second boy, Maurice Michel, six-year-old Berthe (Betty) started going to a Catholic school, “where the nuns were very kind to me. One of them removed the yellow star from my jacket before I entered the school so that no one would know I was Jewish.”
In the summer of 1942, two years after the Nazis occupied France, her father took her and her brother to stay with a young couple in a nearby town. Her parents, with the baby, visited them there on September 7, on Jacques’s birthday. Years later, Betty would learn that the Gestapo took her parents to Auschwitz on September 11. Her father managed to escape, picked up his two children, took them on a coal barge and left them with a man named Nicola – who together with their aunt (their father’s sister), took them on a long walk to the village of Dullin, which had about 90 residents, and left them with the Guicherds.
“Even though I missed my mother, we had a beautiful life with the Guicherds for the next three years,” Betty says.
“Victor taught me how to take care of about a dozen cows and about birds and animals, flowers and trees, and Josephine taught me how to cook. She was a wonderful cook. They were very poor. We had no water, but we would wash once a week before going to church. It was a kind of paradise; the years I spent there were the happiest of my life until I got married and had my own children in Israel.”
When German soldiers came to Dullin, Victor hid the two children in a hollow wooden breadbox called a “petrin” in French. Dullin was only five kilometers from Izieu, where SS units under the orders of Klaus Barbie and acting on information provided by French collaborators, rounded up 44 children and their seven supervisors at a Jewish orphanage and sent them by train to death camps. Most were murdered at Auschwitz.
“Victor and Josephine Guicherd looked after us from September 1942 until the end of the war,” Eppel says. Under their assumed surname Leroy, which their father had ordered them to use, the children were taught in local schools by nuns and a priest, and Eppel walked across the field to study piano from an Italian teacher after falling in love with a Bach cantata played by one of the nuns. They helped their adoptive parents with farm work for almost three years, until their father – who had also survived by hiding – arrived at their home.
war ended, my father came to pick us up, but we didn’t want to go with him. We didn’t know him anymore, but we were forced to leave the Guicherds. It was one of the hardest days in our lives. My father took us home and wanted us to be more French than the French, so he sent my brother and me to one of the best boarding schools, where I studied English, Latin and German.”
After graduating from high school, she studied art in Valenciennes, but felt miserable and lonely and resisted her father’s demands that she work for him. She later moved to Paris, where she began working as a window dresser at Le Bon Marche. When Jacques, who was a medical student, saw a boat trip to Israel being offered by the Union of Jewish Students, they jumped at the opportunity.
“We arrived in Haifa and we were sent to a French-speaking kibbutz, Mishmar Hanegev, and I really liked the atmosphere of freedom and work. When we left, I felt very strange, like an umbilical cord had been cut.”
Eppel had made friends with a woman on the kibbutz and who had lost both her parents in the Holocaust, and that woman persuaded her to return. She returned to Israel in 1964 as a tourist, with just enough money to study for four months at Ulpan Akiva in Netanya. She then met an Italian painter who introduced her to Batsheva de Rothschild, who employed her in her Tel Aviv arts and craft shop called Batsheva.
“She also started her dance company and I got to know some very famous people, including David Palumbo, Martha Graham and Abie Nathan. I began to have confidence in myself, that I could really do things. It was such a fantastic time.”
Although she lived in Tel Aviv, she met David Eppel, a journalist from Glasgow who worked for Israel Radio, at a party in Abu Tor.
“Two weeks later, I met Marc Chagall when he opened his mural painting in the Knesset and we had a long conversation,” she recalled. “He asked if I was seeing anyone, and I told him that I had met someone who had just interviewed him the night before on the radio at the Knesset, David Eppel. ‘Ah, he’s very nice,’ Chagall said. At the end of the conversation, he took my hands in his and said to me, in French, ‘Mademoiselle, I wish you lots of luck in life.’”
Following the interview, she felt like one of the characters in Chagall’s paintings, floating in the sky with elation. “I rushed to the telephone and told David, ‘I did a much better interview than you did!’ Betty and David married soon after in Tel Aviv, on March 20, 1966 and had two children, Yaron and Michal, who are today both married with six children between them.
the Guicherds several times, the first time on her own and later in 1986 with her husband, who recorded Victor in French, a recording she still has. In it, when her husband asked Victor if Betty or Jacques had been any trouble, he reveals his big secret:
“No, neither of the children was any trouble, but the others...”
“There were others?” “Oh, yes – Oxenberg, Nicola and Barr.” It turned out that the harvest laborers that he employed had also been Jews.
“Why did I do it? I did it for love, not for a medal.”
Eppel presented the Guicherds with a certificate from Yad Vashem acknowledging them as righteous gentiles. In a letter he wrote later to Yad Vashem, Guicherd explained (in French) that he could not attend the ceremony at which Eppel planted a tree in his honor because his wife was not well and he, too, was not up to the journey.
Referring to Betty and Jacques, he wrote, “We did our best to educate them, to give them instruction – and in one word, to love them.”
Guicherd gave Eppel his father’s ornate longcase clock, an item that had always fascinated her, and the large metal key to the barn where she and Jacques once played. The key now hangs on the wall of her Jerusalem home, where the clock chimes cheerfully every half hour. She stayed in touch regularly with the Guicherds until Josephine’s death in 1984, and Victor’s in 1988, at the age of 90. Her father died in France in 1990, at the age of 86.
Eppel discovered the fate of the rest of her family only after her son Yaron’s bar mitzva.
“Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, such wonderful people, published their book and someone came here from Yad Vashem to let me know that my mother and brother had died in Auschwitz. For many years I did not know and was always looking for them. I also discovered about six years ago at Yad Vashem that my mother’s parents and siblings and her entire family had been gassed in trucks in Poland, not by the Germans, but by Poles. This is why the latest law passed in Poland makes me so upset. It’s so awful.”
Her brother, Jacques, lives with his family in Paris, where he practices as a doctor. Eppel, who taught French for many years to diplomats at the Foreign Ministry, now volunteers at the Israel Museum, which she adores.
“I love talking to interesting people and introducing them to the beautiful art we have here.”
Her husband, David, died on March 31, 2006. Approaching his 70th birthday, he took ill after representing Kol Yisrael’s English News at an event at the old Palace Hotel (now the Waldorf Astoria) to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Israel Radio. In the years before he died, he was able to record his and his wife’s stories on a website, hiddenroots.org, for posterity.
Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation recorded her testimony in detail and she received a signed letter from Spielberg thanking her.
“Far into the future, people will be able to see a face, hear a voice and observe a life, so that they may listen, learn and always remember,” he wrote.
Today, Eppel takes her own children and grandchildren to visit the tree at Yad Vashem she planted in honor of her saviors.
“What’s interesting is that they later put a train from Poland there, in front of the tree. So there’s life and death. I believe that an angel has looked after me, and I hope that this angel will look after this country and create peace here for all the children of Israel.”
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Written in cooperation with March of the Living.
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