60 Years After World War Ii, Survivors Fete the French Town That Saved Them

When Ida Rozenberg-Apeloig received a book about the activities of the French Resistance in wartime France, her childhood memories of Chateaumeillant came flooding back. Rozenberg-Apeloig was given the book by one of her son’s friends in the summer of 2003 and soon recognized that many of the people cited in the work were associates of her father, fellow members of the resistance who were active in the Cher region of central France during the Nazi occupation.

The book, “Avant l’oublie, Resistance,” or “Before We Forget, Resistance,” led to the formation of a group of survivors who decided that the time had come to honor the village of Chateaumeillant, where more than 100 Jews lived throughout World War II.

“I wanted Chateaumeillant to be remembered as a town recognized for its righteous acts,” she told JTA in an interview at her home in the Paris suburbs.

On Saturday, a plaque was placed on a village church to honor the actions of the town’s residents during the war.

Rozenberg-Apeloig had hoped that such recognition would come from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, but she soon decided to organize a private initiate involving just the survivors and their families.

“We created a file with Yad Vashem but you can’t make 2,000 medals,” she said. “You’ll always end up forgetting one family.”

Her first task was to trace the author of the book. She was fortunate that although the writer had died some time ago, the book had been published by his son, now a legislator representing the Cher region in France’s National Assembly.

The lawmaker, Jean-Claude Sandrier, helped with contacts and assisted Apeloig-Rozenberg in gaining access to the region’s archives from the wartime period as well as opening up initial links with the Chateaumeillant local council.

Sandrier said there are many places in France like Chateaumeillant where individuals hid Jews, but that it was unusual that so many survived from one village.

“There were 2,000 people in Chateaumeillant and for five years, nobody denounced the Jews to the authorities,” he said. “It just needed one person and there would have been a massacre.”

Still, Apeloig-Rozenberg had to find the survivors.

Her first attempt to find them came in an article written by her husband, Marcel Apeloig.

Some people came forward, but the organization received a major boost when another article appeared last month in the national weekly, Marianne.

Rose Di-Maria was one of those found by Rozenberg-Apeloig.

Her family, the Kreps, arrived later than most of the Jewish families in Chateaumeillant, choosing to leave Paris only after the mass round-ups in 1942.

Like most of the survivors, she does not recall a period on the run but rather a tranquil time.

“We went to school in Chateaumeillant and we even sang songs in praise of Petain, but when there were problems they warned us,” she said, referring to Marshal Philippe Petain, France’s wartime leader.

Di-Maria told JTA she didn’t know how they were warned while she wondered after the war how they all had survived.

Unbeknownst to most of the Jews, Chateaumeillant was at the center of an active Resistance network in the Cher region, a French region a few miles north of Vichy, which housed Petain’s collaborationist regime.

For most of the Jews though, four short French words spoken by the local police officers to the village baker were generally enough to save them.

The officer would simply tell the baker that there was going to be “gloomy work this evening,” a coded message that meant a round-up was about to take place.

Then, when the Jewish women came to buy bread, the baker would pass on the information and they would hide in the fields that night.

Now, with almost 50 people involved in the project, the group has unveiled a plaque in Chateaumeillant to honor the people who saved their lives.

Rozenberg-Apeloig spent some five years in Chateaumeillant along with about 40 other Jewish families. Like almost all the Jews who passed by way of the village, she survived the war.

As hundreds of thousands of refugees began to flee northern France in the wake of the German army advance in 1940, Chateaumeillant was among many French villages chosen to host the homeless populations.

The village took in around 500 refugees, including Belgians and many from the Paris region. At least 140 were Jews.

But while more than 70,000 French Jews were ultimately deported to the Nazi death camps, Chateaumeillant did not give up its Jews.

Instead, the town’s 2,500 inhabitants took the Jews in, enrolled the Jewish children in the local school, and, by a mixture of passive and active resistance, blocked the German and French collaborationist officials from deporting the Jews.

Generally, the Jews in Chateaumeillant went about their daily lives, working in trades in the village rather than in agriculture to which they were less suited, Jeanne Cotineau, a Chateaumeillant resident who remembers the Jewish refugees, told JTA.

“They adapted quite quickly to life here, doing odd jobs. They were good tailors and furriers and there were those who knew how to work with leather,” she said.

Cotineau, a teenager at the time, had the job of collecting milk from local farms and distributing rations to people in the village.

One of those was Rozenberg-Apeloig’s family, who were granted extra rations because her brother had just been born.

At least five Jewish children were born in Chateaumeillant during the war years, a fact that was hidden from the authorities by the village doctor, Leon Guyot and the mayor, Maurice Delaire.

Their activities and the assistance provided to Jewish families by the village meant that over the period between 1939 and 1944, only a few young Jewish men were arrested — and later killed in Majdanek — while more than 140 Jews in Chateaumeillant survived the war.

Apeloig-Rozenberg regrets that the project took so long to come to fruition.

“In 1944 and 1945, when Jews came out if hiding, they had to re-start their lives and it was very tough. Most of the Jews were very poor and there was no desire to look into these things,” she said.

Di-Maria agreed saying that “when the nightmare ended, we wanted to push this period out of our minds.”

But principally, she never even knew that so many Jews had survived from Chateaumeilland.

“I was surprised when I talked to Ida,” she said. “Usually, they put up plaques to show where people were deported from, but here people survived.”

In a ceremony attended by a small group of survivors and their families, the plaque was placed on a 12th-century church that dominates the village.

The plaque begins with a simple message: It says “Merci.”

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