Recollections of sheltering from the Holocaust in Saint Martin Vesubie

A memorial walk to the Col de Fenestre pass is held once a year.

The official French memorial ceremony, September 15, 2019 (photo credit: COURTESY: SCHONBRUNN FAMILY)
The official French memorial ceremony, September 15, 2019
Seventy kilometers north of Nice, France, at roughly 1,000 meters altitude, nestled among the mountains of the Maritime Alps, lies the picturesque village of Saint Martin Vésubie, about 30 kilometers west of the Italian border.
In the hills surrounding the village one can see a number of chalets reminiscent of Switzerland. In fact, the region is referred to as the Suisse Nicoise. Except for the center of town which is level, the town is either going up or going down sometimes very steep and narrow streets. At some points in the old part of the village, the streets, or rather passageways, are so narrow that barely two people can walk abreast.
The village attracts tourists from all over Europe. In the summer people come to enjoy the protected and pristine Mercantour National Park, in which Saint Martin Vésubie is the starting point for cycling, canoeing, horseback riding and of course hiking, or should I say mountaineering, since one inevitably will reach heights of several kilometers altitude? For the more adventurous there is rock-climbing. In fact, there is an indoor sports center in the village where one can practice rock-climbing.
In the winter, not too many kilometers from town, there are venues for all sorts of winter sports: skiing, cross-country and Nordic ski runs. Throughout the year a number of events take place that are particular to the region.
At first glance then, Saint Martin Vésubie would seem to be just another typical tourist spot not to be missed. I am sure there are other villages that are similarly attractive to the visitor, such as are found in Spain, Italy or Greece.
However, there is something unique about Saint Martin Vésubie that one rarely finds in other places, and it’s not necessarily something about its physical character, but rather its spirit. This village, you see, observes once a year, without pomp or fanfare, a very special day to commemorate an event bequeathed to its citizens by their near ancestors.
It is an exceptional legacy which has been etched into the hearts and minds of many of its citizens to this day. Like a precious family heirloom, it is being handed down from one generation to the next so that it may not be forgotten. It is something that can only be described as Philo-Semitism.
The memorial to those deported from from Saint Martin Vesubie. The names are read annually following the Marche de la Memoire.  (Courtesy: Schonbrunn family)The memorial to those deported from from Saint Martin Vesubie. The names are read annually following the Marche de la Memoire. (Courtesy: Schonbrunn family)
Allow me to elaborate.
In 1940, when France, having lost the war, announced an armistice with Nazi Germany, the country was carved into three separate zones. The northern and all of the Atlantic coast fell under direct German administration. The southern part of the country euphemistically called the Zone Libre, or Free Zone, came under the jurisdiction of the Fascist French government, with its headquarters in the city of Vichy.
Not to be left out, Italy, being part of the Axis powers, occupied the southeastern part of France, which by 1942 included an area of more than 800 square kilometers. This area comprised the regions of Provence and Savoy, from Toulon in the South on the Mediterranean coast all the way North to the Swiss border, very close to Geneva. The city of Nice then, and of course Saint Martin Vésubie being so close to the prewar frontier, found themselves governed by the Italian military.
Initially, many Jews from the North of France and elsewhere, including my own family, fled to the relative safety of the South, although persecution of Jews there by the Vichy government continued. This state of affairs changed drastically when in November of 1942 Germany invaded and occupied all of France, except of course, the area under Italian administration.
HAVING NOWHERE else to go, many found asylum in the Italian sector, particularly in the city of Nice where thousands of Jews found refuge. However, many were not so lucky, and were rounded up by the Nazis to be deported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps, where they perished.
When in January 1943, Germany pressured Italy to give up the Jews under its control, the Italians refused to cooperate, and in March of that year the Italians prevented Nazis from deporting Jews from their zone.
Of those who escaped the Nazi clutches, a number of families, including my own, found haven in the small village of Saint Martin Vésubie. Altogether about 300 families, more than 1,000 souls found refuge there, where they outnumbered the residents. Its citizens opened their arms to us, sheltering us and feeding us, and in general, providing us with all the services that were needed. (See the excellent film A Pause in the Holocaust by André Waksman).
Our family, my parents, my mother’s young cousin Margit Reich, and three of us children – my brother Eli, five-and-a-half years old; my baby sister, Danielle, age one and a half; and myself, age four – lived at the edge of the village in a two story building. Going up one flight of stairs, we occupied an apartment to the right of the landing. Across from us was our neighbor, Madame Rifka Fass, who lived alone and who unfortunately was one of the deported. As I look back, the snippets of memory that remained with me from that period seemed to be of a placid existence. This calm, however, did not last long.
With massive allied landings in the South of Italy, the Italian government very soon realized that the war was a lost cause for them, so that on September 3, 1943, the Italian government signed an armistice with the allies.
Five days later, on September 8, Nazi Germany invaded the formerly controlled Italian Zone, and with that thousands of Jews were trapped and once again had to flee. First the Nazis made a clean sweep of Nice, where thousands were immediately rounded up. In Saint Martin Vésubie, at great risk and upon penalty of death, some of the villagers took in some of the children, passing them off as their own.
For the rest of us the only means of escape was going east over the forbidding mountain passes and down into Italy. Aside from the distance to walk, at that time of year the weather in the Maritime Alps can be quite cold, especially when reaching altitudes above two kilometers.
None of us were prepared for such an arduous journey. Not having the proper winter clothes or shoes, and with three small children in tow, made the ascent over a rocky and steep trail made that much more difficult.
Newly demobilized Italian soldiers guided us through the mountains and helped by carrying the small children. Several hundred of us followed them helplessly, having no other recourse but to trust that they would lead us to safety. Little did we or even they know what was awaiting us on the other side of the mountain.
When we arrived in Entracque, a small Alpine Italian village, the villagers there initially provided us with some succor. Unfortunately, the reception was short-lived, as the Germans had taken over the whole Piedmont region. It was there that my father was arrested along with several hundred men. They were first sent to a prison camp in the nearby town of Borgo San Dalmazzo, where the train station was located, and from there all were deported to Auschwitz. We never heard from my father again.
On the way up to the Col de Fenestre. Survivor Eli Schonbrunn surrounded by descendants of survivors from Canada, England, France, Israel and the US. September 15, 2019. (Courtesy, Schonbrunn family)On the way up to the Col de Fenestre. Survivor Eli Schonbrunn surrounded by descendants of survivors from Canada, England, France, Israel and the US. September 15, 2019. (Courtesy, Schonbrunn family)
STARTING 21 years ago and every year since, in September, a Marche de la Memoire (memorial walk) takes place in Saint Martin Vésubie to commemorate the exodus of Jews fleeing their Nazi pursuers. Several hundred people from both the Italian and the French side walk up to meet at the pass known as the Col de Fenestre, at an altitude of 2,474 meters (8,117 feet), or at the Col de Cerise, at 2,543 meters, along the demarcation lines of the frontier between France and Italy.
This past September, 76 years later to the day, accompanied by my two children, my son-in-law, and several of my grandchildren, I was privileged to retrace the walk of the four-year-old child I had been, to the Col de Fenestre pass. We were joined by my brother who came from Los Angeles with his daughter, and two of his grandchildren. My cousins Elaine and Sidney, the children of my mother’s cousin, along with their spouses, came from Toronto, Canada. We were also joined by some of the children and grandchildren of the original escapees. They came from Rehovot and Jerusalem and several from London.
We were met at the pass by an Italian group consisting of more than 100 marchers led by Sandro Capellaro, who organizes the walk from the Italian side. After several speeches, a rabbi from Nice recited the kaddish memorial prayer and then blew a shofar.
For the Shabbat preceding the walk, we were fortunate to have a minyan (prayer quorum) for the Friday evening prayers; the first in that place since 1943. Prayers were followed by a dinner attended by close to 40 people and organized by very dear friends David Bernheim, his wife, Lizzie, and my daughter Karina. The Bernheims have been instrumental in keeping alive the legacy of Saint Martin Vésubie by looking for and reaching out to survivors such as myself.
David has lived in Saint Martin Vésubie for some years now. He is a selfless soul who modestly considers himself an “unofficial” organizer of the march. However, without his unstinting help in so many ways, I doubt the event would have been so successful. It was he who negotiated with the village authorities to allow us the use of venues for Friday night dinner and for a Shabbat prayer service the next day. He also organized a tour of the village and other activities for those who were unable to make the climb.
On Shabbat morning, something else not seen in the village for 76 years took place, as we were privileged to read from a Torah graciously loaned to us by Chabad of Nice. Naftali Gerowitz from Rehovot, who also read from the Torah, negotiated with Chabad to lend us the scroll, which we transported 60 kilometers into the mountains to St. Martin Vésubie.
The walk was difficult on two counts: first was the physical aspect. Even with two walking sticks, I could feel my heart pounding as the climb became more and more steep. The last half kilometer was especially grueling, and I had to take frequent breaks.
The second was the emotional aspect. As I plodded along I thought of my parents, and I could not fathom how they managed with three of us little children. I thought of their courage and sheer willpower under the most trying circumstances, to protect us and bring us to a safe haven.
In the center of the village, not far from City Hall in a small square, stands a monument to the sons of the village who fell in defense of their country during WWI and WWII. Nearby there stand three granite slabs with chiseled inscriptions of more recent vintage. The first is dedicated to the Righteous among the Nations of Saint Martin Vésubie who answered the call to save their fellowmen in their time of distress.
Another is a memorial to the Jews of Saint Martin Vésubie who, despite the best efforts of the village to save them, were arrested and deported and perished in the ovens of Auschwitz.
Several years ago, through the dedicated and unswerving efforts of Daniel Wancier, himself a survivor and the representative of Yad Vashem for the Nice-Côte d’Azur region and also the organizer of the march on the French side, a third slab was erected. It lists in alphabetical order the more than 300 names of men, women and children, some as young as one month old, who were deported and murdered by the Nazis, among them, my father.
At five in the afternoon after the walk, a ceremony attended by more than 80 people, including the mayor and other officials of Saint Martin Vésubie, was held in the square in front of the three monuments. After a solemn speech by the mayor, we were each given a slip of paper with five names which we read out, the names of those carved on the third slab. With the permission of those attending I donned my tallit and recited the El Malei Rachamim memorial prayer, first in the Hebrew and then in a French translation.
Simultaneously, at the Borgo San Dalmazzo train station on the Italian side, a ceremony was held near a monument to the memory of the more than 300 souls who were deported from the station. Bronze plaques of their names are embedded into the platform on the spot where they stood before being shipped out. As a backdrop, there are three cattle cars that stand on the railroad track as a reminder.
I thank the all-merciful One for allowing me to survive and live to see my children and grandchildren join me in this most moving event. It was indeed for me a personal March of the Living. 
On October 2, Saint Martin Vésubie was hit by Storm Alex. Three months of rain fell in 24 hours, causing significant damage. Rivers overflowed, washing away roads and houses, and several people were killed, with some still missing. Residents were left without electricity or water for several days, and it will take the town many months to rebuild and recuperate.
Any survivors of the march or their descendants interested in joining the next Marche de la Memoire are welcome to contact the writer at: [email protected]