Sixty-five years later, Maurice Arnoult still has nightmares about the boy and girl he couldn’t save when French Vichy police were rounding up Jews and deporting them to Auschwitz.
Sitting in the tiny, cluttered shoemaker’s workshop where he has worked since 1937, Arnoult even at 98 has no problem recalling the people he helped save, and the adults and children he never saw again.
Outside the weather is wet and chilly, he has a cold and is coughing, but his heart is strong.
Arnoult was among 75 righteous French people honored recently as “righteous ones” at the Pantheon, the burial ground for some of the great names in French history, in the first-ever ceremony hosted by the French government recognizing officially the Gallic French who saved Jews in France during World War II.
Former French Cabinet minister and Auschwitz survivor Simone Weil, the president of the Holocaust Foundation in France, served as master of ceremonies. Arnoult also received congratulations from President Jacques Chirac.
Marie Laure Pelosse, a Holocaust Foundation official, wondered why France waited so long to recognize the Jewish rescuers when the official lists of righteous people were drawn up years ago by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel. According to Pelosse, 240 righteous French are still alive.
“I can say that this process started in 1995, when President Chirac admitted for the first time that the French government, the Vichy collaborationist regime, was officially responsible for deporting 76,000 Jews from France,” Pelosse said.
She said the idea for the ceremony came from the Holocaust Foundation, and that the French government immediately agreed to organize the proceedings.
“Some people said it is too late for this because most of the righteous people are already dead of old age, but I don’t think it is too late,” Pelosse said. “It is late, but not too late.”
Arnoult was cited, among other deeds, for lodging and feeding six adults and four children for nearly three years at his home in a Paris suburb. They were Jews he had managed to spirit out of the city’s Belleville section, where thousands of Eastern European Jews lived and worked.
He also escorted dozens of others from their hiding places, providing food and new addresses for them to hide. Some of them he knew vaguely from the neighborhood; others were friends and acquaintances of people he knew. Arnoult was part of an informal network of French people who helped hide Jews in transit.
One of the children he saved in August 1942 was with him at the Pantheon ceremony.
When Arnoult took him in, Joel Krolick was 11 years old, living with his parents and siblings in the same building where Arnoult still works.
“Maurice saved my life,” Krolick says in a telephone interview from his home outside Paris. “He allowed me to live another 66 years.”
Krolick stayed with Arnoult for nearly three years. After the war he lived in an orphanage, where he met his wife. The rest of his family was not so fortunate.
“My little sister Annette was 6, my brother Joseph was 3,” Krolick says. “Today their names are on the wall at the Martyrs’ Museum in Paris, along with my parents. What can I say?”
While Arnoult estimates he helped save a couple dozen people directly or indirectly, he hasn’t forgotten those he couldn’t help.
“I told the father, ‘Bring me the big boy tonight, and bring the little boy and girl tomorrow,’ ” he begins slowly, referring to the Krolicks. “The big boy came, Joel, and I got him out. The next day I went looking for the little ones, but they had been rounded up by the French police with their parents. They were never seen again.”
He raises his hands in a helpless gesture.
“I couldn’t save them, I couldn’t save them,” Arnoult says softly. “I couldn’t take them all out at once.”
His shoulders move up and down and his eyes water. Arnoult is crying for Krolick’s brother and sister.
For decades Arnoult designed fine women’s shoes for stores and select private clients. The women drove from well-to-do neighborhoods to Belleville, a traditionally immigrant district in northeast Paris.
By the 1930s, Eastern European Jews were heavily represented in making the shoes and supplying the leather, and Arnoult learned many words in Yiddish.
Among the clients in worn notebooks listing their names and numbers, handwritten and barely legible, is a Madame Chirac, the mother of France’s current president.
“She liked black satin evening shoes,” Arnoult says with a smile. “She came regularly after the war. But let’s face it, all of my old clients are dead by now.”
As those clients died and large factories took most of the business, Arnoult turned to instructing young people — mostly girls from abroad — in the trade. They pay him what they can.
Arnoult’s shoemaking trade was the vehicle for saving the Jewish families.
“All food supplies were rationed during the war,” he explains. “I went to the black market collaborators, the guys working with the Vichy people, and made deals with them. I made shoes for all the women in their families, got more leather for more shoes, and was able to purchase potatoes, sugar, flour and everything I needed to feed 10 people, without raising any suspicion.”
Yad Vashem named Arnoult a Righteous Gentile in 1994.
Like Pelosse, Krolick wonders why France waited so long to hold this ceremony.
“I talked with Simone Weil at the Pantheon,” Krolick says, “and Weil said, ‘Finally France held this ceremony. Finally.’ “
Krolick adds, “I’m French, France is my country, but I criticize the governments, the connivance of politicians. Maurice Papon, who deported all the Jews from Bordeaux as the police chief there, was given the Legion of Honor years ago for his great career after the war, but Maurice Arnoult never got anything from France until now. What can I say?”
Arnoult has an idea of why it took so long to be recognized in France.
“The bottom line, no matter what kind of ceremonies are held, is that France is an anti-Semitic country,” he says. “However, except for some marginalized or extremist Muslims here, it’s not active. For the Gallic French, it’s latent anti-Semitism, like a person temporarily cured of a sickness that is still there deep down, like the dying embers of a fire that refuses to be put out.”
A French-language book was written about Arnoult in 2002, and Paris Match magazine recently did a large spread on him. The award has no stipend; Arnoult gets by teaching the young people his craft.
Krolick comes to see him twice a month. They have lunch at a couple of spots near the workshop in Krolick’s old neighborhood. Neither knows what happened to the people Arnoult saved.
Except one: Arnoult’s companion of more than 60 years, a Jewish woman named Alice, was a former employee he saved during the war. She died several years ago.
Arnoult shrugs his shoulders; he wants to live to 100. He also wants to find a younger woman, perhaps one in her 70s.
Smiling, he says, “It would be great to have a girlfriend, someone I could share a glass of wine with and talk to.”