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Recognizing Jewish Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust

Memorial institutions are finally working to redress an imbalance in the numbers of Jews versus non-Jews hailed for their heroism in defense of victims of the Shoah

Patrick Henry
October 09, 2020
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Wikipedia
Jewish youth liberated at Buchenwald on a train en route to an OSE home in Ecouis, FranceUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Wikipedia
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Wikipedia
Jewish youth liberated at Buchenwald on a train en route to an OSE home in Ecouis, FranceUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Wikipedia

Oeuvre de secours aux enfants (OSE), the Jewish children’s welfare organization, was founded in Russia in 1912 by a group of young doctors committed to offering sanitary protection and health benefits to poor Jews. The organization moved in 1917 to Berlin where Albert Einstein was its honorary president. In 1933, it moved to Paris, and in 1940, once again to escape the Nazis, it moved to Montpellier in the non-occupied south of France.

With its 280 official employees, OSE became the principal Jewish organization concerned with the welfare of foreign Jews in French internment camps. In November 1941, there were more than 28,000 internees in these camps, roughly 5,000 of whom were children under the age of 18. The camps were entirely run and staffed by the French. With help from non-Jewish organizations, such as the Quakers and the Red Cross, OSE social workers fed, clothed, and raised the morale of these detainees, 3,000 of whom would die of malnutrition and disease over the course of the war.

As of August 1942, when children were being deported even from the non-occupied zone, the primary goal of OSE became to illegally evacuate the children from the camps and, with the help of their Christian allies, to place them in non-Jewish homes, farms, and institutions, or smuggle them out of the country.

To accomplish this work, a 33-year-old engineer named Georges Garel (né Grigori Garfinkel) left his role in the Resistance to form the Garel Network, the first entirely clandestine network for rescuing Jewish children in the still-unoccupied zone. With headquarters in Lyon, over the next 12 months, thanks to about three dozen workers—most of whom were Jewish women employed by the OSE—the Garel Network would hide over 1,600 Jewish children in various parts of France.

What happened in France took place in every occupied country. Thousands of Jews, many of them very young, labored individually and in Jewish and non-Jewish organizations to save their endangered brethren. Many could have fled but chose to remain in order to rescue others. With great heroism, they employed subterfuge, forgery of documents, smuggling, concealment, and escape into foreign countries such as Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, and Turkey. Together with their non-Jewish companions, these courageous persons rescued between 150,000 and 300,000 persons who might otherwise have perished.

Yet only the non-Jews who did these things have been formally acknowledged as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem. Since 1963, 27,362 non-Jewish rescuers from 51 different countries have been recognized. They remain beacons of hope 75 years later. Their Jewish counterparts, who often worked alongside them in rescue efforts, deserve the same public recognition. Doing so would give significant emphasis to rescue as a legitimate and successful form of resistance that would serve to discredit further the continuing myth that Jews went to the slaughter like sheep. It would also underscore the basic moral teaching that “righteousness” should be conferred on people for having done something, not for being or not being a member of a specific religion.

One OSE fieldworker named Madeleine Dreyfus brought Jewish children to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Born Madeleine Kahn in 1909, the future Madeleine Dreyfus received her baccalaureate degree in Paris in 1927. She married Raymond Dreyfus in March 1933 on the day Hitler came to power. Her sons, Michel and Jacques, were born in 1934 and 1937, respectively, during the period when she began studying psychology intensely with Sophie Lazarfeld, a student and disciple of Alfred Adler. In October 1941, when her husband lost his job in Paris because of the recently invoked anti-Semitic laws, the family passed into the unoccupied zone and settled in Lyon.

Madeleine began working for OSE as a psychologist in late 1941, giving educational and psychological consultations to troubled Parisian students whose families had taken refuge in Lyon. As of August 1942, under the constant menace of the enthusiastically collaborationist Vichy police force, and, especially after November 1942, when the Germans officially occupied all of France, Madeleine assumed responsibility for the Lyon/Le Chambon-sur-Lignon area link in the Garel Network and sought places of refuge in this mostly Protestant countryside for Jewish children.

‘Righteousness’ should be conferred on people for having done something, not for being or not being a member of a specific religion.

Several times a month, accompanied by a small group of children (aged anywhere from 18 months to 16 years), Madeleine would take the train from Lyon to Saint-Etienne, where she would transfer to the local steam engine to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Sometimes these children had been given to her by their parents. Just as often, they had managed to escape or hide at the time of their parents’ arrest and were then rescued by the network.

These trips to the countryside were extremely dangerous ventures in which Madeleine continuously risked her life. Although in almost all cases the children had false Aryan identity papers, Madeleine, who carried the most readily identifiable Jewish last name in France, did not.

Madeline Dreyfus had to take control of these mostly foreign children to get them through police inspections in the train stations and on the trains. She had to keep them from speaking Polish, German, or Yiddish, and make sure that they called their friends by their French names. From September or October 1942 to November 1943, Madeleine made these trips, finding shelter for well over one hundred Jewish children. She would return often to visit the children she had placed, to bring them clothing, medicine, food tickets, and whenever possible, letters from their parents—who, for safety reasons, never knew where their children were hidden.

As of November 1942, Madeleine was already pregnant with her third child, Annette. Being pregnant may have slowed her down, but it didn’t stop her. Annette was born in Lyon on Aug. 29, 1943. “Very shortly thereafter,” writes Raymond, “my wife resumed her trips back and forth between Lyon and Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.”

Only a few weeks later, after his sister-in-law and two of her children were arrested and deported, Raymond begged Madeleine to stop her illegal work, “now that she was responsible for three small children, two months, six, and nine years of age, all without false papers.” Madeleine asked Raymond to wait a bit longer, since there was no one to replace her.

On Nov. 23, Madeleine received a phone call from the father of a child she had hidden at the School for Deaf-Mutes at Villeurbanne, who was distraught because he had heard there was going to be a Gestapo raid at the institute. Madeleine called there and the woman on the other end of the line encouraged her to come to the school right away. It was impossible for Madeleine to know that her respondent was being held at gunpoint and was being instructed to answer in that manner by her Gestapo captors.

Despite walking into a trap, Madeline managed to immediately warn both her family and the OSE. She was sent to Fort Monluc in Lyon where she spent over two months in the Jewish women’s dormitory, from whose window she witnessed the execution of many resisters, Jews and Christians alike. At the end of January 1944, she was transferred to Drancy. In May, she was deported to Bergen-Belsen in northwest Germany, where about 40,000 inmates would die of starvation and disease.

Even in Bergen-Belsen where she would spend 11 months, Madeleine was concerned with the well-being of others. She constantly tried to raise the morale of her companions and organized daily delousing sessions to help stem the typhus in the camp. She and her companions received between 600 and 700 calories a day. Survival was contingent, she reported later, upon selective camaraderie. Small groups of three or four women would stay together and help one another maintain morale and reestablish their humanity: sharing food, assuming social roles, making an effort to speak about art and literature, and reassuring one another that they were still human beings.

After 18 months of incarceration in prison and Nazi concentration camps, Madeleine was liberated and repatriated on May 18, 1945. She continued her practice as an Adlerian psychologist and was particularly gifted with children, teaching, and family situations, until her death in 1987.

Madeleine Dreyfus was only one of dozens of Jewish OSE workers who risked their lives to save other Jews in France. In Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, André Chouraqui, the future assistant mayor of Jerusalem, immediately replaced Madeleine at OSE in Lyon and in the Garel Network. Jews not affiliated with OSE, such as Oskar Rosowsky, risked their lives by fabricating false papers for Jews hiding in the area.

Nor were they alone during the occupation years. Jews were involved in the rescue of other Jews all over France. Moussa Abadi and his partner, Odette Rosenstock, working with the bishop of Nice, Paul Rémond (who would later deservedly be named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem), managed to save 527 Jewish children; Odette, like Madeleine, survived Bergen-Belsen. On the Swiss border, three Jewish groups—OSE, EIF (Eclaireurs israélites de France, or French Jewish Scouts), and MJS (Mouvement de la jeunesse sioniste, or Youth Zionist Movement)—worked together to smuggle hundreds of Jewish children into Switzerland.

Let us remember in particular two young Jewish heroines who gave their lives in these endeavors: Mila Racine, who was caught smuggling Jewish children into Switzerland in October 1943, was deported to Mauthausen, and died during an Allied bombing mission at the age of 23. She was replaced by Marianne Cohn, who was arrested for smuggling Jewish children across the border in May 1944, then beaten, tortured, and murdered by the Gestapo in July 1944. She was 21 years old when she died.

During the occupation of France, OSE saved the lives of roughly 6,000 Jewish children in France; yet 32 OSE staff members lost their lives and 90 OSE children did not survive. Among the 76,000 Jews deported from France were 11,600 children whom the Nazis never asked for.

Prudence dictated that Christians and Jews lie low, out of risk’s path. Nor was there any shortage of active collaborators with the Nazi edicts from the highest levels of French government and society to the lowest. All those who chose to rise up against this evil deserve recognition. To celebrate Jews and non-Jews, who risked their lives together to rescue persecuted people, would offer a superb example of human solidarity in a world of rapidly increasing anti-Semitism and group hatreds.

Finally, to insist on the differences between Christian and Jewish rescuers violates the spirit of the overwhelming majority of Jews and Christians alike who did not think in terms of religious affiliations or differences when they put their own lives at risk to save others. In Lisa Gossel’s award-winning documentary The Children of Chabannes, Félix Chevrier, the gentile leader of a rescue mission that sheltered 400 Jewish children, is described as having been anguished throughout the entire rescue period “because he didn’t want to save the children because they were Jewish. He wanted to save them because they were children.” The great Jewish humanitarian, pediatrician, teacher, and radio personality Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage in Warsaw and later inside the Warsaw Ghetto did his work in a similar spirit. When asked what he would do after the war were he to survive, he responded: “Take care of German orphans.” We defile the memory of these rescuers when we confine them to categories that their magnanimous souls obviously transcended.

In the absence of a program at Yad Vashem that recognizes “Jewish Holocaust Rescuers,” a group of Holocaust survivors from Holland, France, Germany, and other countries, who were themselves saved by the efforts of Jews, came together in 2000 with a number of Jewish rescuers and representatives of international Jewish organizations and founded the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers during the Holocaust (JRJ). Focusing on the ideas of “self-rescue” and “rescue as resistance,” this group has been engaged in numerous initiatives aimed at bringing this neglected chapter of Holocaust history to public attention. The goals of the JRJ are to collect testimonies, set up a database for research, and incorporate their findings into the curriculum of Holocaust studies in Israel and throughout the world.

Moussa Abadi and Odette Rosenstock
Moussa Abadi and Odette RosenstockWikipedia

Haim Roet, the founder and chair of the JRJ, was 11 years old in 1943 when he was rescued and hidden in the village of Nieuwlande, one of only two “places,” along with Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, to be declared “righteous” by Yad Vashem. Three rescuers led this operation, which saved 200 children: Johannes Post, Arnold Douwes, and Max “Nico” Leons. Jan Post was caught by the Germans and executed; Arnold Douwes lived into old age. Max Leons died in 2019 at the age of 97. Post and Douwes were both named “Righteous Among the Nations.” In 2011, the Jewish Rescuers Citation was created. It is a joint project of the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers during the Holocaust (JRJ) and the B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem.

So many people participated in the rescue mission in Nieuwlande that a monument was constructed at Yad Vashem to honor the entire village. It contains more than 100 names of rescuers chiseled in stone. Max “Nico” Leon’s name is not on the stone for the same reason he was never cited by Yad Vashem as a rescuer of Jews: He was Jewish.

In Amsterdam on Nov. 24, 2011, at his surprise 90th birthday party, Roet presented Leon with the Jewish Rescuers Citation, a well-deserved honor intended to redress what increasingly appears, with the benefit of hindsight, to be a historical and moral injustice that only perpetuates the kinds of divisions between human beings that rescuers of all faiths heroically refused to recognize.

Patrick Henry is professor emeritus of philosophy and literature at Whitman College. He is the author of, among other books, We Only Know Men: The Rescue of Jews in France During the Holocaust and the editor of Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis.