Menu JTA Search

French heroes helped Jews survive

FESTALEMPS, France, April 16 (JTA) — There is a plaque just in front of the war memorial in Festalemps, a tiny village in the Perigord region of southwestern France. The plaque commemorates 24 Jews who were taken from farms and homesteads in the village on the night of Oct. 8, 1942. The Jews were put onto a bus by French gendarmes and taken to a nearby town. From there they were transported by train to Drancy, a concentration camp in the northern suburbs of Paris. From Drancy, they were taken to Auschwitz — and, like more than 70,000 French Jews, from Auschwitz they did not return. They were not, however, the only Jews who had taken refuge in Festalemps — and some survived the war, thanks to heroic efforts. In 1939, as the French government waited for the German army to cross the Rhine and enter France, a decision was taken to evacuate the population from the eastern border areas. People from across Alsace, Lorraine and the Moselle — and the large Jewish communities of eastern France, including from cities such as Strasbourg and Metz — poured into the French interior. Initially, the easterners were placed in empty houses on the Atlantic coast. They were not to remain there long. France was cut in two during the war, with an occupied zone run directly by the German army and a “free” zone, administered from the central French spa town of Vichy, by the collaborationist government of World War I hero Marshall Philippe Petain. Fearing a potential allied invasion from the west, however, the Germans soon set up another zone, the “Forbidden Area.” All “non-residents,” including the Jews who had been relocated from eastern France, were thrown out of towns along the Atlantic coast. Under orders from Vichy, they were spread around the rural villages of Perigord in the occupied zone. For the residents of Perigord, the arrival of the strange “Easterners” — many of them city dwellers and some speaking a Germanic-sounding Alsatian patois — must have seemed strange. So strange, in fact, that most of the locals were not even aware that some of the Easterners actually were speaking another Germanic-sounding language, Yiddish. Isidore Drabinowski was born in Metz in 1930, the son of Polish Jews who had arrived in France after fleeing pogroms in the mid-1920s. With the outbreak of war in September 1939, the Drabinowski family arrived in a small town on France’s Atlantic coast. In the middle of 1940, “we were taken by train and bus to Festalemps and placed in abandoned farm houses” near the 200-person village, Isidore Drabinowski says. For the next two years, Jewish children went to the school next to the village hall, even though Festalemps was in occupied France, under the control of the German army. In 1941, a young man named Henri Neyrat arrived in Festalemps to take up his first teaching post. Neyrat is still alive today, and it is difficult to imagine this mild-mannered, humble man spending much of the war organizing Resistance operations against the Germans across southwest France. Throughout almost three hours spent recalling the war at his home, Neyrat’s easygoing tone of speech disappeared only once — when he described the day in 1942 when Jewish children in Festalemps were forced to wear the yellow star. “That was intolerable,” he said. “I told all the children in the school they were not to make fun of the Jewish kids.” Fernand Peyronnet, a young man in the village at the time, remembers it a bit differently: “Neyrat told the children he would give the first child who made fun of the Jewish children a kick up the arse,” Peyronnet says. Peyronnet knew Neyrat well, and was an active participant in the soccer team Neyrat set up in town. A scion of generations of Perigord farmers, Peyronnet also helped Resistance activities. He knew the region like the back of his hand, including the location of the Demarcation Line, the crossing point between occupied and free zones, a few miles south of Festalemps. Neyrat, an accomplished soccer player, had asked Peyronnet to pass the wife of a professional soccer player across the line in early 1942. Peyronnet was happy to oblige, he said, “just to annoy the Germans.” The way both Neyrat and Peyronnet describe it today makes it sound like youthful fun, but the Demarcation Line was patrolled by German troops. Detection could have led to death. Unlike some “passers,” Peyronnet received no money for doing it, and repeated the mission at least four times, saving the lives of at least seven people. Drabinowski has spent the last few years searching for details about the period and, with the assistance of the Perigord archives, can put exact dates on Peyronnet’s night passages. Drabinowski himself was passed over the line by Peyronnet in late August 1942 and spent the rest of the war together with his family in the village of St. Cyprien in the free-zone section of Perigord. He did not remember Peyronnet’s name until he was contacted more than 50 years later by Robert Frank, another Jewish child who spent most of 1942 in Festalemps. Peyronnet also kept his exploits from his fellow villagers, even when the war was long over. “He led us through woods and forests and we stopped on the side of the road which marked the Demarcation Line,” Drabinowski recalls. “We waited for a German patrol to pass and then we crossed over. But I never saw his face. He was just a shadow in the night, leading us to safety.” Peyronnet passed Isidore Drabinowski’s father, Jacques, over the line in July 1942. The rest of the family followed a month later. It’s doubtful that Jacques Drabinowski knew what was beginning to happen to French Jews in the occupied zone, though he was passed over just a day after the infamous roundup at the Velodrome d’Hiver in Paris, the first major deportation of French Jews to Auschwitz. Nevertheless, Jacques Drabinowski had decided that he and his family had to leave Festalemps. Luckily for the Drabinowskis, Jacques’ eldest child, Annie, knew of Neyrat, and it was she who asked the teacher whether he could help the family. Once again, Peyronnet was only too happy to oblige Neyrat. According to official Perigord archives, French officials carried out a deportation in the free-zone section of the region on Aug. 26, 1942, some two and a half months before the deportation in the occupied zone, which included Festalemps. However, the Vichy regime at that time was still making a pretense of protecting its citizens, and French citizens like Isidore Drabinowski — and even parents of those Frenchmen like Drabinowski’s father — were exempt from the deportation and, thus, survived the war.