Kin of Righteous Gentiles meet Holocaust survivors

Trip honors legacy of France’s 3,331 non-Jews who stood up to Nazis and collaborators by shielding Jews.

Yad Vashem 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Yad Vashem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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 Israel.
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 save Jews.
“This visit has two purposes,” said Dina Sorek, vice president of the France-Israel Foundation, which sponsored the group at its expense.
“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.”
The whirlwind tour, which began last Saturday and ended on Wednesday morning, took in as many parts of the country that fit into the schedule.
“We showed 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 me.”
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 Gentile.
Dora Weinberger now has two children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“And two more on the way,” she added.
At 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 priest.
“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.
During the 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 resistance.”
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.
In a place like the Middle East, however, that’s easier said than done.
“To be honest, I thought it was a country at war before I came,” said Blaise Palopoli.
“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.
“After 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 week.
While politics was officially off limits, many said it affected the light in which they saw Israel for the better.
Participant Pierre Colombie pledged to learn the Hebrew words of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva.
“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 said.
“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.
“I 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 what happened.”
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.