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Holocaust Odysseys

Holocaust Odysseys: The Jews of Saint-Martin-Vésubie and Their Flight through France and Italy

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Holocaust Odysseys
    Book Description:

    This book describes the ever-escalating dangers to which Jewish refugees and recent immigrants were subjected in France and Italy as the Holocaust marched forward. Susan Zuccotti uncovers a grueling yet complex history of suffering and resilience through historical documents and personal testimonies from members of nine central and eastern European Jewish families, displaced to France in the opening years of the Second World War. The chronicle of their lives reveals clearly that these Jewish families experienced persecution of far greater intensity than citizen Jews or long-time resident immigrants.The odyssey of the nine families took them from hostile Vichy France to the Alpine village of Saint-Martin-Vésubie and on to Italy, where German soldiers rather than hoped-for Allied troops awaited. Those who crossed over to Italy were either deported to Auschwitz or forced to scatter in desperate flight. Zuccotti brings to light the agonies of the refugees' unstable lives, the evolution of French policies toward Jews, the reasons behind the flight from the relative idyll of

    Saint-Martin-Vésubie, and the choices that confronted those who arrived in Italy. Powerful archival evidence frames this history, while firsthand reports underscore the human cost of the nightmarish years of persecution.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13455-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Maps
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    IN THE EARLY SUMMER OF 1943, Jews still alive in German-occupied Europe had little reason for optimism. The most destructive war in history, raging for nearly four years, showed little sign of abating. True, the Allies had landed in North Africa in early November 1942 and the Russians, after a titanic 125-day battle, had turned the German tide at Stalingrad three months later. But if the vise was slowly closing around the Third Reich, its progress was barely perceptible to most Europeans. The military front remained far away, scarcely in Europe at all.

    Meanwhile, by the summer of 1943 nearly...


    • CHAPTER ONE Jewish Immigrants and Political Refugees in France, 1933–1939: Jacques and Paulette Samson, Lya Haberman, William Blye, and Charles Roman
      (pp. 13-21)

      AFTER THE END OF THE First World War in 1918, the Treaty of Versailles provided for the restoration of a united and independent Poland. Poles in the postwar period were proud of their country, uneasy about the status of minorities, and frightened by Russian Bolsheviks threatening from the east. In a climate of political and economic insecurity, anti-Semitism in Poland soared. The situation became so bad that in July 1937, thirty-fouryear-old Rywka-Rajzla Samsonowicz (the name would later be shortened to Samson) insisted that her husband, Szlama, immigrate to France with their two oldest children, twelve-year-old Jacob Joseph (Jacques) and ten-year-old...

    • CHAPTER TWO Jewish Immigrants and Political Refugees in Belgium and Luxembourg before the War: Menahem Marienberg, Miriam Löwenwirth, Sigi Hart, Boris Carmeli, and Walter Marx
      (pp. 22-30)

      JEWISH ECONOMIC IMMIGRANTS and political refugees from Central and Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s did not settle only in France. Thousands moved to other countries in Western Europe and South America, to the United States and Canada, and elsewhere. Those who made it to Great Britain or the western hemisphere escaped Hitler’s clutches and do not figure in this story. Those who found refuge in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, however, were only temporarily out of danger. When the German army invaded on May 10, 1940, thousands fled to France without visas or permits of any kind. There,...

    • CHAPTER THREE Flight to Southern France, May and June 1940: Sigi Hart, Menahem Marienberg, Boris Carmeli, Miriam Löwenwirth, Lya Haberman, and Walter Marx
      (pp. 31-39)

      THE GERMAN ARMY ATTACKED Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. Until then, Jews in Western Europe had worried about their relatives and friends in the East but hoped that they themselves would escape the ravages of war. As Sigi Hart, then a fourteen-year-old lad in Antwerp, explains, “It all started on a Friday. We had heard what happened to the Jews when the Germans arrived in Austria and Czechoslovakia [in 1938] and, after the war broke out in September 1939, in Poland. And we had heard that Hitler made a speech threatening to ‘clean up’ the Jewish...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Jewish Refugees in the Unoccupied Zone, May 1940–August 1942: Sigi Hart, Charles Roman, Menahem Marienberg, Walter Marx, Miriam Löwenwirth, and Boris Carmeli
      (pp. 40-50)

      AS THE FRENCH GOVERNMENT wavered and military resistance faltered in early June 1940, the nation literally fell apart. Shortly after noon on June 17, three days after the fall of Paris, the newly appointed French prime minister, eighty-four-year-old Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, announced by radio that France must cease hostilities. Five days after that, on June 22, French delegates signed an armistice with the Third Reich. France was now divided. About three-fifths of the country north of the Loire River and extending south in a narrow strip along the Atlantic coast to the Spanish frontier was occupied by the Germans and...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Arrests in the Occupied Zone, 1941–1942: Jacques and Paulette Samson
      (pp. 51-57)

      EVEN BEFORE THE VICHY REGIME began issuing its antiforeign and anti-Jewish measures in the summer and autumn of 1940, the German occupiers of northern France and their French collaborators had begun to act. Newspapers like theParis-PressandL’Oeuvrethat had castigated Germany for atrocities in Poland in 1939 and early 1940, including those against the Jews, now blamed the Jews for France’s troubles. Blue-shirted French Fascist militants began to put up anti-Semitic posters, picket Jewish stores, and break shop windows. In the cafés, restaurants, and streets, many Parisians began mouthing anti-Semitic slogans. Then on September 27, 1940, a week...

    • CHAPTER SIX Arrests in the Unoccupied Zone, August 1942: William Blye, Charles Roman, and Menahem Marienberg
      (pp. 58-69)

      ONE MONTH BEFORE the deadly roundup of 12,884 foreign Jewish men, women, and children in Paris on July 16, 1942, Vichy officials agreed to deliver ten thousand additional Jews from the unoccupied to the occupied zone. The intention was to rid southern France of the economic, social, and political burden of recent immigrant and refugee Jews, especially those already in internment or labor camps. If the number already detained was insufficient to meet the quota, more Jewish newcomers were to be seized from among those in supervised residence or living freely. The details for this operation were finalized in July,...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Narrow Escapes and Subsequent Arrests in the Unoccupied Zone, August–November 1942: Miriam Löwenwirth, Boris Carmeli, Sigi Hart, Charles Roman, and Walter Marx
      (pp. 70-82)

      Miriam Löwenwirth and her large family, Czechoslovakian war refugees from Antwerp, were in Quarante on August 26, 1942, when the Vichy police came for recent immigrant and refugee Jews. The Löwenwirths seemed to meet the criteria for arrest, with one vital exception. Little Ben-Zion, whose mother had declared at his birth that it was no time for a baby to be born, was eight months old. The police had been instructed to spare all families with infants under the age of two. Ben-Zion saved the lives of his entire family.

      After that narrow escape, the Löwenwirth family was ordered to...


    • CHAPTER EIGHT Saint-Martin-Vésubie, November 1942–September 1943
      (pp. 85-101)

      THE VALLEY OF THE VAR RIVER leading north from Nice is broad and flat for several kilometers. Gradually, however, steep limestone hills appear, and both the valley and the road following it begin to narrow. After about thirty kilometers, at the point where the smaller Vésubie River flows into the Var from the northeast, the traveler to Saint-Martin-Vésubie forks right, entering a dark and gloomy gorge. The cliffs of the Gorges de la Vésubie now rise directly from the river and road, or even overhang them or yield to dank tunnels. Houses and entire villages seem to cling to the...

    • CHAPTER NINE Crossing the Alps after September 8, 1943
      (pp. 102-111)

      THE MAIN ROAD FROM Nice to Saint-Martin-Vésubie does not end at the village. Instead, the mountains separating France from Italy, only about ten kilometers away at this point, force it to veer sharply to the west. North and east of Saint-Martin-Vésubie, two smaller paved roads twist insistently on toward the frontier, following the valleys of the mountain streams known as the Boréon and the Madone de Fenestre. These roads are postwar creations; before the war, they were mere tracks for shepherds and smugglers. The northern road ends just beyond the hamlet of Le Boréon, eight kilometers from Saint-Martin-Vésubie and 1,473...

    • CHAPTER TEN Those Who Stayed Behind
      (pp. 112-118)

      NOT ALL THE 1,100 to 1,250 Jews in Saint-Martin-Vésubie chose to flee over the mountains into Italy after the announcement of the Italian armistice with the Allies. An unknown number remained behind, trusting in the help and support of their French friends in the area and the Comité Dubouchage in Nice.¹ But, as it turned out, the Jewish committee could do little outside the city itself. Within hours, as the Italian army began its disorderly retreat behind its own frontiers, the German army marched into Nice. German police occupied bus and train terminals, blocked harbors, roads, and rail lines, and...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN The First Week in Italy, September 11–17, 1943
      (pp. 119-124)

      THE JEWS WHO CROSSED the Alps from Saint-Martin-Vésubie after September 8, 1943, entered the Italian province of Cuneo through two separate passes. Those who came through the Col de Cerise descended along a footpath or mule track into the valley of the Torrente Gesso della Valletta. No road, then or now, reaches the border at this point. Eventually picking up a road, the Jews passed through the tiny hamlets of Terme di Valdieri, Santa Anna di Valdieri, and San Lorenzo before arriving in the larger village of Valdieri, with a population of about 2,500 during the war. Residents of the...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER TWELVE The Roundup in Valdieri and Borgo San Dalmazzo, September 18, 1943
      (pp. 125-132)

      ON THE RAINY SATURDAY MORNING of September 18, 1943, SS Captain Müller, the local German commander in Borgo San Dalmazzo, printed a poster and ordered that it be put up throughout the valley of the Gesso and its tributaries. The poster announced that by 6:00 P.M. that same evening, all “foreigners” in the area must present themselves at the barracks of the Italian Alpine troops in Borgo, on pain of death for themselves and all who helped them. Müller originally used the word “Jews” rather than “foreigners” on his poster, but someone, probably an Italian official, pointed out that the...


    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Deportation from Borgo San Dalmazzo: The Marx and Marienberg Families and Boris Carmeli
      (pp. 135-141)

      When Walter Marx, his mother, Johanna, and his cousin Werner Isaac turned themselves in to the German SS in Borgo San Dalmazzo on September 18, 1943, they must have been terrified about the future. They had seen Walter’s father arrested in Lamalou-les-Bains seven months before. They knew he had been interned at Gurs before being sent north to Drancy. They were aware that thousands of other Jews, especially foreigners, had been arrested throughout France, sent to Drancy, and deported somewhere “to the East.” While in Saint-Martin-Vésubie, as seen, they had also heard rumors of the murder of deported Jews. If...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN Hiding in the Province of Cuneo: William Blye, Charles Roman, Walter Marx, and Menahem Marienberg
      (pp. 142-149)

      AT BORGO SAN DALMAZZO, travelers going west toward the mountains and the French frontier can fork to the left and enter the valley of the Gesso, where they will soon arrive in Valdieri. They can also fork to the right and enter the valley of the Stura, formed by a river known as the Stura di Demonte.¹ A steep mountain ridge separates the two valleys, with Valdieri at its southern base and Demonte, the principal town of the Stura valley, on the north. Wider and flatter than the Gesso, the valley of the Stura contains a major highway that follows...

    • CHAPTER FIFTEEN Resistance: Walter Marx and William Blye
      (pp. 150-156)

      For obvious security reasons, it was not possible for unknown strangers, especially with German accents, to join the Italian Resistance without a personal introduction. In Walter Marx’s case, that introduction was provided by Nella Giraudo, whose father owned the hotel in Borgo San Dalmazzo where he and his mother had stayed when they arrived in Italy. When Walter returned from his disastrous trip to Genoa in search of help from Don Repetto, Nella accompanied him to nearby Demonte, in the valley of the Stura on the critical military highway leading to France. There she introduced him to a group of...

    • CHAPTER SIXTEEN Traveling to and Hiding in Florence, September and October 1943: Miriam Löwenwirth, Sigi Hart, and Lya Haberman
      (pp. 157-164)

      ALL REFUGEES FROM Saint-Martin-Vésubie who escaped arrest on September 18, 1943, or later eventually had to make an agonizing choice. Should they stay in the mountains of the province of Cuneo, among the thousands of Jews, partisans, deserters, and even bandits who were attracting so much German attention, or should they attempt the dangerous journey south, to seek anonymity and await the Allies in Genoa, Florence, or Rome? Despite the horrendous shelter, terrible cold, and danger of detection in the northern mountains, it became apparent to many after the first few weeks that Don Raimondo Viale’s network of priests would...

    • CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Arrests and Narrow Escapes in Florence, November 1943: Sigi Hart, Miriam Löwenwirth, and Lya Haberman
      (pp. 165-175)

      THE RAID THAT Rabbi Nathan Cassuto warned of was not long in coming. At dawn on Saturday, November 6, German SS agents aided by Fascist collaborators launched their first major anti-Jewish raid in Florence, arresting scores of people at the Jewish community’s school in via Farini and the Jewish orphanage in via Bolognese, both of which had been vacated to house refugees. Apparently the large numbers involved, mostly from Saint-Martin-Vésubie and the province of Cuneo, exceeded the ability of the Refugee Assistance Committee to place them in safer quarters. A nearby garage housing fugitives was another target. Then at about...

    • CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Traveling to and Hiding in Rome, January–June 1944: Charles Roman and Jacques Samson
      (pp. 176-182)

      When Miriam Löwenwirth, Sigi Hart, and Lya Haberman set out for Florence in September and October 1943, Charles Roman and his mother, Marianne, chose to remain in the mountains of the province of Cuneo. Don Viale’s subsidies would keep them alive through the winter, they reasoned, and perhaps the Allies would arrive in the spring. They spent the winter of 1943–1944 in a rough and freezing hut on the northern slopes of the valley of the Stura. Spring brought an easing of the physical discomfort, but it did not bring the British and American troops, still stalled south of...

    • CHAPTER NINETEEN Auschwitz: Sigi Hart and Boris Carmeli
      (pp. 183-188)

      WHEN THEY WERE CRAMMED into boxcars for the trip to Auschwitz, Sigi Hart and Boris Carmeli were both without their families. Seventeen-year-old Sigi traveled with Pinkus Goldman, the father of his friend Ludi, who was also alone. Sigi would turn eighteen on November 15, 1943, the day after his arrival at the camp. Of the trip, Sigi says, “When I was in the train, I realized that I was no more a child. It came to me like you take away a curtain, that this is the real thing, that something is going to happen.” The train stopped at the...


    • CHAPTER TWENTY After the War: Jacques and Paulette Samson, Charles Roman, Lya Haberman, and Miriam Löwenwirth
      (pp. 191-196)

      As the Allies worked their slow and painful way up the Italian peninsula, liberation came first to cities in the south. For Jacques Samson and Charles Roman in Rome, the date was June 4, 1944, nearly eleven months before the liberators reached the province of Cuneo. Young Jacques knew exactly what he wanted to do with his newly acquired freedom. “To be scared without having done anything wrong—that was terrible,” he says. “That is why I wanted to join the French army after liberation—for revenge.” The day Rome was liberated, Jacques left the Pontificio Seminario Francese in Rome,...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE After the War: William Blye, Walter Marx, Menahem Marienberg, Sigi Hart, and Boris Carmeli
      (pp. 197-208)

      When he was liberated in the province of Cuneo after two winters in the mountains, William Blye immediately returned to Nice to search for his father and brothers. He knew that they had been arrested by French police in Nice, in the unoccupied zone, in August 1942, and delivered to the Germans in the north. When he found no more information in Nice, William went on to Germany, where he had been born. To no avail. “Nobody from my large, extended family had made it. My father and brothers were gone. Of all my uncles, aunts, cousins, and nieces, none...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO Journeys Back
      (pp. 209-217)

      ALTHOUGH BORIS CARMELI and Jacques and Paulette Samson settled in Rome and Paris, respectively, after the war, they did not revisit the old places where they had lived between 1940 and 1945. Europe for them existed in the present. The past was best forgotten, as much as possible. Boris sang professionally in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and Warsaw but did not visit Drancy or Auschwitz. Jacques and Paulette were among the last of the group of nine families interviewed for this book to return to Saint-Martin-Vésubie, doing so only in 2003. They have never returned to the area of Borgo San...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 218-226)

    IN BOTH FRANCE AND ITALY during the Holocaust, rates of deportation and death were proportionately higher among recent immigrant and refugee Jews than among Jewish citizens. In France, for example, there were about 195,000 French Jews and 135,000 foreign Jews in the country at the end of 1940. Of these, about 24,500 French Jews and 56,500 foreign Jews were deported or died in France.¹ Thus, about 24.5 percent of all Jews in France were victims. When broken down into their French and foreign components, however, the percentages are quite different. About 12.6 percent of all French Jews were deported or...

  11. Principal Witnesses
    (pp. 227-230)
  12. Abbreviations
    (pp. 231-232)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 233-272)
  14. Index
    (pp. 273-285)