To an outside observer, the lively dinner party that sat down at Goshen
restaurant in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, might easily have passed for a group on
Birthright, the program which offers young Jewish adults free trips to
But with the exception of a few IDF soldiers, none of the young
20-somethings at the gathering were Jewish. Rather, they were part of a special,
first-of-its-kind delegation to Israel of descendants of French Righteous
Gentiles – non-Jewish individuals who risked their lives during the Holocaust to
“This visit has two purposes,” said Dina Sorek, vice president
of the France-Israel Foundation, which sponsored the group at its
“One is to commemorate the Holocaust, as well as the deportation
and murder of 78,000 French Jews who lived in France. But at the same time, it
is meant to tell the story of these 3,331 unique people who saved Jewish lives
at the risk of their own during World War II. This is a story of courage and
modesty, which needs to be passed on from generation to generation.”
whirlwind tour, which began last Saturday and ended on Wednesday morning, took
in as many parts of the country that fit into the schedule.
them the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and all the important sites in Jerusalem,”
said Raphi Peleg of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s The Israel Experience, who
volunteered to be its tour guide.
“But the most powerful moment in my
opinion was when they met the survivors whose lives were saved by their family.
We had tears in our eyes for three, four hours.
Some of the grandchildren
did not know the stories well, and they discovered a new sense of pride in what
their grandparents had done,” he continued.
At a reception held at the
French ambassador’s lavish house in Jaffa earlier in the day, Dora Weinberger, a
Holocaust survivor born in the French city of Metz, warmly embraced Capucine
Mezeix, whose great-great uncle, Catholic priest Arthur-Andre Sentrex, helped
hide her father during the war.
“We have a wonderful relationship,”
Weinberger said of Mezeix. “She is like another granddaughter to
Weinberger recalled the story of how her father was told by the
local gendarmerie that he would be taken away the following day. His pleas for
help were answered when Sentrex offered to hide him in the belfry of the church
for a week – an act that probably saved his life.
The Weinbergers later
underwent several other ordeals, until they finally managed to escape to the
safety of neutral Switzerland – but they never forgot the altruism of the
Catholic priest, and petitioned Yad Vashem to recognize him as a Righteous
Dora Weinberger now has two children, five grandchildren and
“And two more on the way,” she added.
the reception in Jaffa, Mezeix, a dark haired 27-yearold doctoral student from
Grenoble, said she was deeply proud of her familial ties to the late
“She’s part of the family – my human family,” she said of
Weinberger. “There is a bond.”
While the visit highlighted the legacy of
France’s 3,331 citizens, recognized by Yad Vashem Holocaust museum as Righteous
Gentiles, a darker side of French history also loomed large.
war, the Vichy regime, headed by Marshall Phillipe Petain, collaborated with
Nazi Germany and actively persecuted French Jews, a point acknowledged by French
Ambassador to Israel Christophe Bigot.
“We have to take full
responsibility for Petain, other French politicians and the policemen who put
Jews on trains to Auschwitz,” Bigot said at the reception. “At the same time,
the only country which reacted to the invasion of Poland alongside Britain in
1939 was France. Also, of all the countries in Europe, the survival rate for
French Jews was the highest, at 75 percent. This I attribute in part to the
During the visit, organizers were adamant about keeping the
past separate from the present.
One of their biggest fears, they said,
was that the history of the Holocaust might be conflated with the region’s
current conflicts. So, they issued a strict order: No politics.
place like the Middle East, however, that’s easier said than done.
honest, I thought it was a country at war before I came,” said Blaise
“During the trip we’ve seen one face of Israel – a good,
beautiful and nice face. It’s hard to judge the situation. I disagree with the
politics of Israel, but it’s been a fantastic trip.”
Palopoli said that
before his visit to Israel he didn’t think much of his grandfather’s decision to
take in two young Jewish girl’s during the last months of the war.
all, it was him not me,” he said, “but meeting people alive who were saved by
him means a lot to me.”
On their last night in Israel, each participant
stood up at the restaurant and summed up the events of the past
While politics was officially off limits, many said it affected the
light in which they saw Israel for the better.
Colombie pledged to learn the Hebrew words of Israel’s national anthem,
“When we go back to France, we’ll talk about this experience and
try to explain why it was so special – even though it’s inexplicable,” Colombie
“I was told before I came that I would be treated well by the
Israelis, and they were true to their word. I hope one day to bring my child
here so that he too may learn about our family story.”
“We had three very
intensive days, but my only wish is that we would have come here for two weeks,”
said Matilde Brochard.
And Dina Weinberger, the Holocaust survivor, was
also on hand, sitting next to her adoptive granddaughter Cacupine.
want to send a message to France,” she said. “We need more people to send
documents about the Holocaust to Yad Vashem. We need them to send letters,
manuscripts – as much information they can so that future generations will know
But it was another Holocaust survivor who drew the most
cheered reaction, when at the end of his speech he declared in same breath “Vive
la France,” and “Vive le Israel.”
At that point the Holocaust survivors,
the descendants of their saviors and IDF soldiers all stood up together and sang
the Marseilles, France’s national anthem, followed by Hatikva, in unison.