How it really was: The many lives of a true hero

Jacques Graubart (right) in 1941 with a comrade from the French underground outside the hotel where Graubart worked, while ferrying families across the border to Switzerland (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jacques Graubart (right) in 1941 with a comrade from the French underground outside the hotel where Graubart worked, while ferrying families across the border to Switzerland
(photo credit: Courtesy)
How many lives can one man live? How much pain can one man bear? How much good can one man do?
The man I write about here is the truest hero I have ever met in my 87 years. He was born in Galicia, almost 97 years ago. As a young and small, wiry boy, he dreamed of gliding over the snow-capped mountains, and taught himself how to ski in the Carpathians near his hometown, Sanok.
In 1938, 17-year-old Yaacov Graubart became Jacques when he arrived in Brussels to join an older brother and sister. Another life, another language. Then, in May 1940, the Nazi armies swept through the Netherlands and Belgium and blitzed across France. Jacques began another life, as a Jew under German occupation. This was not for Jacques, whose strong wiry body was controlled by a brilliant mind and a brave spirit.
Jacques joined the French Resistance. He was given papers with a new name, another life. As Léon Alharal, he was caught by the French collaborationist police in the infamous roundup to Drancy. He managed to escape from that arena of horror. Again he was halted by German soldiers, but managed to dispose of the underground materials that would have landed him in a concentration camp. Jacques had his handsome face, pompadour hair in the style of the era, his swift mind and sang-froid to save him.
Who can count how many lives he lived and how many lives he saved. He never spoke of German or French collaborators he may have attacked nor of lives taken.
Jacques found work in a hotel, La Chaumière, near the Swiss border. Under cover of this job, he spent six months of his nights smuggling Jews across the border to Switzerland by ski. He once told me that he could only take children with their parents; to take them alone was too dangerous because they might cry, endangering them both.
Not taking children may have meant deportation back to France, with a J for Jude in tow, sealing their fate.
Imagine the fear of discovery on each run, as he brought parents and children to a village squatting right across the border between France and Switzerland. One of the houses there had a door on the French side and another on the Swiss. At one point, the French Vichy police were on his trail, so he paid Swiss fishermen to row the families across Lake Geneva. I never learned just how many runs he made, but he estimated that he ferried some 100 Jews across the border, until, inevitably, he was betrayed, arrested and sent to Auschwitz in March 1944.
There, as a young and healthy man, he was put to work. One day, an SS officer slapped him across the face. “I slapped him right back,” Jacques told me. “The officer then grabbed me, threw me to the ground, and pounded my head on the earth. Since then, I have had constant noise ringing in my head. No doctor has been able to stop it.”
One day, as we sat together over our favorite meal, he was in a more confessional mood. “Do you know what it’s like to have noise in your head all the time?’’ That was the closest to a complaint he had ever uttered in my presence. On another occasion, he shared with me something that I had already learned from books, that the Germans would degrade their captives by spilling precious soup onto the ground. Starving inmates often fell to their knees or flattened out on the soil to try to swallow a mouthful of the thin spilt food. He told me this quietly, his eyes staring off into an ugly past. “I never lost my dignity,” he said. These words often echo in my ears as I ponder, how would we have conducted ourselves in such conditions?
As a Polish Jew “once removed” (my parents left their shtetl for Canada in the late 1920s), Jacques and I share a great love of herring. During the few years he lived in Jerusalem, we found a nearby restaurant and we sat side by side savoring that simple fish as though it were the greatest imaginable gourmet food.
“Do you know,” Jacques said, “how I used to dream of this in Auschwitz? Herring.” We ate together in silence, a small smile on each of our faces, and drank a tall pint of Israeli beer.
After the war, Jacques returned to Antwerp. He was an autodidact and a polyglot, who spoke Yiddish, Polish, French, Flemish, German and English. He was well read, with a broad command of history, biography and literature.
As a diamond dealer, he had great success, but it is a period of his life of which he seldom spoke. My sense (perhaps revealing a secret) is that he may have opened the diamond trade for Israel in some African countries.
He loved Israel with a passion. “If we had had Israel then, it would not have happened.” I heard this so often. His purse was always wide open for Israeli causes, especially Yad Vashem. I met him at a European meeting of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal in Geneva in the late 1980s.
At that time, our neighbor in Jerusalem, his daughter, Dorothy Kertesz, also met him there. His connection with Jerusalem gave him great pride. Dorothy’s husband, Gavriel, is an architect and town restorer, whose quiet strength and talent helped make Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Yemin Moshe in Jerusalem as well as the restored center of Zichron Yaakov into jewels of international repute.
The Kertesz family guards its privacy well. Suffice it to say that the brilliance and originality of the Graubart line crossed with that of Kertesz gave Jacques immense pleasure, not the least because there was an Israeli Air Force helicopter pilot in his family.
Over the years, as a skier, not only would the entire Israeli family join him in Klosters, Switzerland, but he also became part of the international glitterati he’d meet there. These included authors Irwin Shaw, Leon Uris, Moshe Pearlman and Joseph Kessel.
In Paris, at the home of mutual friends, the Elia family, Jacques introduced us to filmmaker Claude Lanzmann of “Shoah” fame, as well as major French political figures.
Paris is a short train ride from Belgium, and on occasion, when we were both there at the same time, he would invite us for dinner. We ended up dining always and inevitably at the Lutetia Hotel. Why always at this Art Deco left bank hotel?
During World War II, from the time Paris fell to the Germans until its liberation, that is from 1941 to 1944, the Lutetia, Jacques said, housed the Gestapo, but other sources say Abwehr (German military intelligence). Either way, after Paris was liberated, the hotel was used as a repatriation center for prisoners of war and survivors of the death camps. How many lives does one live in over a year in a concentration camp, through days of a death march where, we have been told, only four out of 1,400 survived. Can even an official visit and handshake with President Charles de Gaulle at the French Ministry of War make up for constant lifelong ringing in the head? Jacques was one of only five selected to meet de Gaulle, who was 45 minutes late. The general explained that he had been delayed at Allied Supreme headquarters because the German forces had surrendered.
Jacques spent his last years in Jerusalem, near his family, and later in a retirement home in Ramat Hasharon. “I have none of my old friends to talk to,” he said, showing me the blue-inked number on the arm above his wrist. “They are all gone. I have amnesia,” he added with a wry smile. “I forgot to die.”
A few weeks ago, Jacques died. Peacefully. In Israel.
His family here and abroad brought him to burial in Jerusalem. As the sun set across the Judean mountains facing his resting place, one of his eulogists said, “You are a true hero of Israel. If I were an army officer, I would salute you. If I were a senior government official, I would order flags flown at half-mast.”
At least one flag was flown at half-mast. His close friend Luigi d’Amato, head of the Fratelli d’Amato shipping company, had named one of their cargo vessels the “Jacques Graubart.” At the ship’s christening, d’Amato said: “It is our tradition to christen our ships after family names. We are celebrating 31 years of our very close friendship and therefore we have mutually decided to be ‘brothers forever.’ We are proud to bring his name all over the oceans and retell to all who ask the greatness of a hero of the Second World War.” The flag of the d’Amato company’s headquarters flew at half-mast for a week.
Jacques Graubart was laid to rest in Jerusalem on September 3, 2018. The writer of this column knows he could not possibly paint the man in all his aspects, colors, and lives. His memory will endure in all who knew him.