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French survivor wants to honor hero

PARIS, April 16 (JTA) — On the night of Oct. 8, 1942, the Jews of Festalemps, a tiny village in the Perigord region of southwestern France, were given half an hour to pack their bags and board a bus for deportation. Robert Frank, then a boy of 13, was deported that night, along with his family. The rest of the family members were killed shortly after they arrived in Auschwitz — but Frank survived. During the war, Frank’s family had been moved to the Atlantic coast from an eastern region bordering Germany. However, when the Germans occupied the area, the “non-residents” were thrown out and spread among the rural villages of Perigord. Frank’s family were Polish Jews who had settled in the city of Metz in northeastern France when they first arrived in the country. They had to adapt quickly to the different way of life in Perigord. Frank’s father soon learned the trade for which the region is famous, preparing geese for foie gras production. Robert Frank was the oldest child in his family, and the only registered French citizen. That meant that he was split from his family when the bus deporting Jews from Festalemps reached the nearest town, Angouleme. “My father gave me a bag with important things belonging to the family, including my mother’s wedding ring,” Frank said. “As he handed me the bag, he said to me in Yiddish, ‘Don’t forget that you are a Jew.’ ” Jews from villages across Perigord were held in Angouleme for what Frank recalls as around two to three days. One of those families, the Bernsteins, had lived in an abandoned farmhouse belonging to the family of Fernand Peyronnet, a young man from Festalemps who had begun passing Jews over the Demarcation Line out of the Nazi-occupied area. Peyronnet had fallen in love with the Bernstein’s 17-year-old daughter. “Peyronnet cycled 70 kilometers to bring food to the girl in Angouleme. If you know this part of Perigord, that’s up and down hills,” Frank recalled. Frank knew the Bernsteins, and when their son, Bernard, was also split from his family in Angouleme, Bernard’s mother asked Robert Frank to look after him. Neither of the boys was to see his family again. Along with other Jewish children, Frank was taken by a Catholic priest to a care center, where he remained for three months. Early in 1943, the boys were picked up by Rabbi Elie Bloch, the rabbi of Metz, and placed with Jewish families in Poitou-Charentes — until they too were rounded up by French police and put on a train to Paris. Arriving in the capital, some of the boys were sent immediately to Drancy, and from there to Auschwitz. The others were taken in by UJIF, the Jewish organization that dealt with the Germans. UJIF received a considerable amount of criticism after the war for agreeing to cooperate with the Nazis. But Frank insists that without them, he would not have survived the war. “They saved my life,” he said. UJIF placed the children under its care in the ORT school in Paris’ heavily Jewish Marais quarter. Eventually Frank was taken in by a schoolteacher, with whom he spent the war under a non-Jewish name. When the war ended, Frank went back to visit Metz. Members of the Jewish community there were so convinced he had died in the Holocaust that his name was on the memorial board in the local synagogue alongside the rest of his family, all of whom had been killed in Auschwitz. Frank went back to visit Festalemps with his wife and children on many occasions, but never dared to speak to the villagers. Finally, one day in 1998, two men from Festalemps noticed him in the village square and asked Frank what he was doing. “I told them I was there on a pilgrimage, and that I lived in Festalemps during the war,” Frank said. The men introduced Frank to the Festalemps’ mayor, and the idea was raised to place a plaque in memory of the 24 Jews who were deported from the village and killed by the Nazis. Frank was happy to have a plaque, asking only that it be put to the side of the village’s war memorial. “They did not die for France,” Frank said. “They died because they were Jews.” Today, the plaque lies slightly apart from the war memorial. In common with other commemorations of French deportees, it mentions that they were killed “because they were born Jewish.” At the ceremony to unveil the plaque in 1998, Frank met Peyronnet and began a campaign to see that he was honored for his role in saving Jewish lives. On March 16, 2003, at the village hall in Festalemps and across from the plaque, Peyronnet was presented with a medal by Israel’s consul-general in Paris on behalf of Yad Vashem, honoring him as one of the Righteous of the Nations. Isidore Drabinowski, another young Jew whose family Peyronnet led to safety across the Demarcation Line, has continued to request that schoolteacher Henri Neyrat also receive the award. Neyrat was the person who began using Peyronnet to take the Jews to safety. Neyrat says he doesn’t understand why he should be honored. “It was just a bit of fun among young guys,” he said. Neyrat has refused the Resistance Medal, one of the highest awards France offers, “because it was given to some people who only joined the Resistance when they saw which way the wind was blowing.” “Fernand and I just did what any human being would do,” he said. “I don’t deserve a medal. I have something much more precious,” Neyrat said. “Do you know what it means for a teacher that one of his pupils remembers him fondly after 60 years?”