French woman who saved Jews in WWII honored

French ambassador: Righteous Among the Nations highlight the ‘two faces’ of my country.

Marignan, French Ambassador Bigot, Kohlman 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Marignan, French Ambassador Bigot, Kohlman 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Yad Vashem unveiled the name of a new member of the Righteous Among the Nations in a Jerusalem ceremony attended by French Ambassador Christoph Bigot on Monday. Serge Marignan accepted a medal and certificate of honor on behalf of his grandmother, Jeanne Albouy, who hid and protected the Wulek family, refugees from Poland who had settled in France in prior to the WWII.
Yad Vashem bestows the honorary title of Righteous Among the Nations on non-Jewish men and women who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Survivor Claire Kohlman, now the matriarch of a large ultra-Orthodox family in Bnei Brak, was only two-years-old when her father Wilhelm Wulwek was arrested as a foreign national in 1940. After his release, the Wulek family moved to the Gard district in southern France and met Jeanne Albouy, whose own husband was then a prisoner of war in Germany.
According to Yad Vashem, Albouy searched for a safe place for the Wulwek family, finding them a hiding place in her cousin’s empty house in the village of Sinsans.
Wilhelm, his wife Mélanie and their children Victor and Claire were later joined there by Mélanie’s brother Julius Heller. The children were registered at a local school and the father worked at an agricultural job.
However, after the Nazis occupied southern France in 1942, the family was in “constant danger,” according to a recounting of the Wulwek family story provided by Yad Vashem.
When the Nazis carried out sweeps in the adjacent village, “my parents had to hide,” Kohlman told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
“People used to tell them [that the Nazis were coming] and they went to hide during the night in the fields [and] in the forests and Jeanne took my brother and me [into her] house and we were sleeping there, eating there; we were hidden there by her.
Whatever they had to eat they gave to us also.”
Speaking to an assembly of members of her large extended clan, the French ambassador and the Marignan family, Kohlman said that Albouy “showed you can maintain your humanity” even under harsh circumstances.
“She hid us for three years and worried about us. Many times Nazi soldiers arrived and searched in the area, and mother and father went to hide. We were partners to everything in their lives for these years, and we felt like one family. Jeanne, you did the good and right thing for years.”
“I’m very moved,” she told the Post, noting that now, with the passage of years, she can “understand even more than before all what they did for us; that they put themselves in danger to save us.”
Albouy and her daughter Lucette “never asked” for recognition and “I never thought of that,” Kohlman said. However, she believes that it was important that Marignan submitted his grandmother’s name for recognition.
“We believe in the next world they see that and understand that we didn’t forget,” she said.
During her time in hiding, Kohlman recalled, she was once confronted by a German soldier who began to badger her with questions.
“I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. I was like paralyzed. I remained like a stone,” she recalled, until “a woman came and told him she didn’t speak German,” at which point he left her alone.
Contemporary Europeans could learn a lot from her story, Kohlman believes.
When she was in school in France, she says, she learned about the French values of liberty and equality and is now sad that these lessons are being forgotten with the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.
In a similar story, Marignan’s mother, around 15 at the time, was caught by the Germans, breaking curfew, and was interrogated for an hour. However, Marignan said, she did not give up the fact that she was hiding Jews in her home.
“I’m very moved,” he told the Post, noting that “there are extreme anti-foreigner movements in Europe today,” and that people should think about the heroism of people like his grandmother, who risked her life to save others who were different.
“This is something that today we should think about,” he said.
Bigot, speaking with the Post after unveiling Albouy’s name, engraved on a memorial wall, said that the Holocaust represented a “very tough part of our history.”
“You had people with zeal who collaborated [and] and at the same time, you had these people who we honor today, who, in modesty, saved lives.”
France, at the time, he said, had “two faces,” both of heroism and collaboration and “this is something that still haunts our conscience for days, years, and centuries. Its part of us and that is why it is so important to remember to let the memory pass to the next generation and to know in certain circumstances you have to disobey, you have to rebel, you have to listen to your heart and not to whatever can be dictated to you.”
The two families had nothing in common, he noted, but their “special human bond.”
Irina Steinfeld, director of the Righteous among the Nations department at Yad Vashem, noted that only those who risked their lives are eligible for this honor, even if they helped Jews in other ways.
Last year, she noted, Yad Vashem recognized over 450 righteous individuals and one can say that this “number is very big and very small at the same time. In taking a risk for a good deed, the righteous are not just good people, people who did good deeds. The righteous are more than that.”
It would be “self-righteous,” she noted, to demand of everybody that they take such extreme risks. “You don’t have the right to demand that people should sacrifice themselves and be willing to pay such a dear price.”
“What I take away from this are these very special moments, these stories, but what I take away especially is when I look at the people around them. You had Jews who were persecuted, you have the people who were willing to pay a price to save them and then you have the perpetrators [and] people who were indifferent. I think that what we should do is look at the people who are indifferent and this is what we should take away: not to be indifferent.”
It is important, she said, “to look around us and to not to permit that a group of people will become invisible, as the Jews did.
People felt no obligation towards them and this is what we should take away, that we don’t have the right to permit people to become invisible.”