Alexander Halaunbrenner easily finds his two kid sisters, Mina and Claudine, in a group photo taken in an improvised summer camp called Izieu near Lyon in 1944.
The children hidden at Izieu were rounded up by the Lyon Gestapo led by Klaus Barbie on April 13, 1944. Mina and Claudine were gassed at Auschwitz along with more than 30 other children from the summer camp.
The photo is among thousands of photographs, official documents, lists and personal testimonies that make up the exhibit on deported children at the Paris City Hall.
Halaunbrenner’s father and brother were killed by Barbie’s Gestapo in Lyon. A baby sister and his mother survived separately in hiding. Halaunbrenner was with his mother.
“It breaks my heart every time I tell the stories of my family and the Shoah,” said Halaunbrenner, now 75, as he surveys the large rooms at City Hall filled by the exhibit.
In all, 11,400 French children were deported, 6,000 from Paris.
Halaunbrenner has been the flag bearer for the past 35 years at ceremonies held by the Association of Sons and Daughters of Jews, which organized the City Hall exhibit. The organization was founded and is still headed by famed Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld.
“I have been an activist for all these years to teach young people that it really did happen,” Halaunbrenner said. “The Gestapo called me in to identify my father’s body. I was 10 years old. What can I say?”
He looks around at the crowd of people invited to opening day of the exhibit, nearly all of them are elderly. They examine the photos and documents, and compare family notes and train convoy numbers from the Drancy internment camp north of Paris to Auschwitz.
“Are the children and grandchildren of all these people going to continue passing the message about the Shoah to the French, the Europeans and the Americans?” Halaunbrenner asks. “Frankly, the answer for the most part is no. People have other things to do. They have lives to live.”
Klarsfeld, well known in Europe for tracking down Nazi war criminals including Barbie, the so-called “Butcher of Lyon,” says school groups have signed up to visit the exhibit.
On Jewish radio here, Klarsfeld was asked about bringing Jewish school groups to the exhibit, and says of course they should come.
“But the most important thing is to bring groups of French French and Magrebi Arab French kids,” he said. “If they don’t come and see the physical proof of the Shoah, they will stop believing that it happened. In fact, that is happening already.”
Klarsfeld sent an invitation to the Iranian embassy.
“It is obvious that Iranian President Ahmadinejad never took a class on the Shoah,” he said wryly. “I would like to bring this exhibit to Iran, but I don’t think that will happen.”
The thousands of documents list deportees city by city, and by district in Paris. It will be the permanent collection of a museum on the site of the Des Milles internment camp near Marseilles.
“You notice that the children are all dressed up in the photos,” Halaunbrenner said. “The photos come from family archives. Neither the parents, children or the photographers could imagine that these beautiful families would all be killed not long after.”
Photos show Halaunbrenner’s mother with Klarsfeld’s wife, Beate, in La Paz, Bolivia. They traveled to Lima, Peru, and then La Paz to identify Barbie, whom the Klarsfelds had tracked there living under the alias Klaus Altmann.
Originally documented in Klarsfeld’s 1985 “Les Enfants d’Izieu,” or “The Children of Izieu: A Human Tragedy,” the story now covers the walls of Paris City Hall.
Barbie was brought back to France in February 1982, but his trial didn’t start until five years later. Halaunbrenner’s mother was among the many who testified against Barbie in a trial that made international headlines. Barbie died in prison in 1991.
Barbie had been recruited by U.S. counterintelligence services in 1947 in Germany, and moved to Bolivia a few years later with U.S. government help.
Michal Gans visited the exhibit from Kibbutz Beit Lohamei Haghetaot in Israel, where she is the international department director of the Ghetto Fighters Museum.
Gans is proposing a project to French Talmud Torah classes and Jewish schools for parents holding their children’s b’nai mitzvah in Israel.
“We associate the bar mitzvah with the memory and name of a child who was deported in a ceremony that takes place at the museum,” she explained, noting that several such ceremonies have taken place.
She brings 30 high school teachers to the Ghetto Fighters Museum every year from France, Italy and Belgium. So far, 250 teachers have done the weeklong program on the kibbutz.
“We had a similar program in the States, but it ended many years ago,” Gans said. “The key to teaching lessons from the Shoah is in getting middle school and high school students to come to exhibits like this one here in Paris.
“Gallic French and Arab and African French kids must come with school groups to see the photos and documents. Otherwise they will never be able to believe what they learn in class, if they learn anything at all.”