A 43-year-old mystery was raised at the trial of Klaus Barbie Wednesday as witnesses testified about the arrest and deportation to death camps of 44 Jewish children sheltered at a former summer camp in the village of Izieu, near Lyon, in April 1944. The youngest was five, the oldest 17. All perished, as did the six adults arrested with them. Barbie, the wartime Gestapo chief in the Lyon district, is accused of having ordered the arrests and, according to one witness, was at the railroad station to watch the children herded into boxcars for Auschwitz. But none of the witnesses could answer the question which has puzzled French authorities for more than four decades: Who denounced the children to the Gestapo?
Barbie was not in the prisoner’s dock Wednesday. After being brought to court under protest Tuesday to be formally identified by six witnesses, he was returned to St. Joseph Prison, where he intends to remain for the duration of the trial. French law allows defendants to be absent from court. Barbie claimed that right on May 13, the second day of his trial.
THE ARRESTS RECALLED
The four witnesses who appeared Wednesday recalled that on April 6, 1944, at 9 a.m., the children at Izieu were sitting down to breakfast when a truck with six German soldiers arrived, followed by a civilian car with three Gestapo agents.
Pleadings were of no avail. Forty-five children–one of them a non-Jew, was released shortly afterwards — were put aboard the truck along with the six adults who staffed the shelter. They were taken to prison in Lyon where, after a brief stay, they were sent to Auschwitz. Two of the children were shot there and 42 died in the gas chambers.
One of Wednesday’s witnesses, Leon Reifman, is the sole survivor of Izieu. He was 17 in 1944. He alone saw the truckload of soldiers drive up to the shelter and managed to climb from a window and hide in underbrush until the convoy drove away. The person or persons who tipped off the Gestapo remain unknown. France Culture, a state-owned radio station, reported last week that it was the Mayor of Izieu who wrote to Gestapo headquarters denouncing “the Jewish character” of the shelter.
The father of the non-Jewish boy released after the raid is also suspected. He was executed by the French underground immediately after the war for collaboration with the Nazis.
Another possible suspect is Lucien Bourdon, a farm worker at the time, who disappeared from Izieu several days after the arrests. He served during the final months of the war as a guard in the Saarbruck concentration camp in Germany, where he was arrested by American forces.
Bourdon, still alive, has been summoned to take the stand at the Barbie trial. In the search for the real culprit, some observers may recall Pierre Laval, the Prime Minister in the Vichy government, who was executed for treason after the war. Laval is known to have complained that the Vichy police were lax in searching French orphanages for children of “Jewish blood.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.