Sharing stories of ‘hidden childhood,’ heroism

Considering that some 6 million Jewish people were killed by the Nazis, along with tens of thousands of Gypsies and other minorities, learning about the Holocaust can be a deeply disillusioning experience. 

Monique Saigal, a recently retired Pomona College professor whose grandmother, Rivka Leiba, was killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, is a living testament to man’s potential inhumanity to man.

There was, however, another facet of human nature displayed during World War II: a heroism that showed itself through acts of quiet resistance and daring rebellion.

Ms. Saigal was saved by one such act.

France is besieged

In 1940, the French government surrendered to the Nazis and—under the direction of newly appointed premiere Philippe Pétain—agreed to cooperate with Germany on the promise that France would not be divided between the Axis powers.

While Germany occupied three-fifths of northern France, French Resistance forces, under the direction of Charles de Gaulle, refused to surrender or recognize the resulting Vichy Government, so the remaining portion of southern France remained free.

For the next 4 years, the Vichy Regime openly collaborated with the Nazis as they persecuted Jews in Occupied France. First, they were ordered to wear a yellow star, identifying themselves as “Juif.” Then, in July of 1942, 13,000 Romanian Jews in Paris, where Ms. Saigal and her family lived, were rounded up and sent to the Drancy transit camp and then to Auschwitz. Eventually, 70,000 French Jews would be killed.

Ms. Saigal’s grandmother, who was of Romanian descent, escaped the first raid. The next month, fearing for her granddaughter’s life, Ms. Leiba threw Ms. Saigal, then 3, on a train with a group of children heading for southwest France. The children, whose fathers had all died in combat, were going to stay with volunteer families for a month-long vacation from wartime woes.

While her father, Aaron Ségal, had been killed in the trenches of France, no arrangements had been made for Ms. Saigal to accompany the delegation. Whether because Ms. Leiba was in a hurry or because she wanted to hide her granddaughter’s Jewish name, she wasn’t even wearing a nametag.

Twenty-year-old Jacqueline Baleste and her father, a veteran who had been injured in World War I, came to the train station in the village of Lüe expecting to pick up a 4-year-old boy. When he didn’t show, they encountered a little girl with blonde hair and a red dress, crying and clutching the hand of a slightly older boy. They decided to take her home.

Later, Ms. Baleste would say, “Angels sent me this little girl.”

On September 26, 1942, the day before Ms. Saigal was scheduled to return to Paris, French police knocked on the door of her grandmother’s apartment, tipped off by her concierge. When they asked Ms. Leiba to gather her things, she refused, saying, “Where I’m going, I’m not going to need anything.”

Her words proved grimly prescient.

She was taken to Drancy and then sent to Auschwitz, where she was gassed on September 25, 1943. Ms. Saigal’s mother sent a telegram to the Balestes, asking if they could care for her a while longer. The family, who had grown fond of little Monique, agreed. Her mother wouldn’t pick her up until 1950, 5 years after the war had ended.

Professor shares stories of ‘hidden childhood,’ heroismGrowing up in Lüe, Ms. Saigal had no memories of her grandmother and, given the danger, had little contact with any family. Her mother came to see her once but when someone in the village denounced her as a Jew, she quickly fled on her bicycle. Monique’s life with the Balestes, whose home featured a flower garden and a farmyard teeming with chickens and rabbits, was simple. There was no telephone or radio and there was an outhouse instead of indoor plumbing, but her adoptive family was affectionate and welcoming.

Ms. Saigal was on the brink of adolescence when she went back to live with her mother, which proved a difficult transition. Her mother was not as demonstrative as her adoptive godmother had been. What’s more, Ms. Saigal was suddenly expected to be Jewish again, when she had been raised for 8 years as a Catholic.

 As a result of her earlier experiences, Ms. Saigal’s life was fraught with a fractured sense of identity and fears of abandonment, which she would deal with as an adult through therapy. Her mother, who had since remarried, didn’t want to talk about the war that resulted in the loss of her husband and mother. Much later, Ms. Saigal would learn her mother had spent 6 months hidden in southern France and that she had bravely transported weapons hidden in a baby carriage and distributed them to Resistance fighters.

Ms. Saigal’s new stepfather was American and so, in 1956, the family moved to Los Angeles, where she took on a second dual identity. Along with being both Jewish and Catholic, she became French and American.

After 2 years of high school, Ms. Saigal went to LA City College and then UCLA, where she studied Spanish and French literature. She met and married her husband, a Bolivian man who happened to be Catholic, adding another layer to her fractured sense of ethnic identity.

In 1965, Ms. Saigal was hired as a professor at Pomona College where she taught French, literature and film. Her family settled in Claremont but over the years, she returned many times to France to take in the sights and to savor a culture she values.

“French people like to read books and discuss them and perhaps not agree with each other but still like each other,” Ms. Saigal noted. “I like French food, too, and French films are always interesting.”

She also kept in touch with Ms. Baleste, who at 91 is still alive and living in the French Pyrenees. Ms. Saigal did not, however, think much about her experiences in World War II.

“For many years, it didn’t bother me,” Ms. Saigal said. “I didn’t see myself as being hidden.”

Embracing the past

As years went by, however, her history began to nag at her. Ms. Saigal contacted a Los Angeles professor who specialized in working with the hidden children of the Holocaust. After hearing her story, the professor told her, “You still have a hidden life.”

The professor’s pronouncement resonated with Ms. Saigal, who gradually began to own her history. 

In 1995, she traveled to the Yad Vashem Memorial in Israel to honor her godmother and the Baleste family. She also traveled to France in 2007 when Ms. Baleste received the Legion of Honor in France for her “deeds of righteousness” during World War II.

Closer to home, Ms. Saigal decided to tell her story in 1999 to French students enrolled in her course called “Paris: Myth or Reality?” Two years later, when she heard that a Cal State Los Angeles professor planned to bring a group to France to visit former internment camps and other significant World War II sites, she decided to go along.

When the trip, which Pomona College agreed to help finance, was cancelled, Ms. Saigal’s husband suggested they go anyway. She obtained the original itinerary from the professor, which included a stop at the Drancy transit camp where her grandmother had been briefly held, and they set out for France.

Ms. Saigal visited internment camps in villages like Pithiviers and Beaune la Roland. She filmed the Struthof concentration camp in Alsace and strolled through Oradour-sur-Glane, a village that was decimated by the Nazis.

The trip provided an opportunity to learn about moments of triumph as well as tragedy. Ms. Saigal and her husband spoke to people in Chambon sur Lignon, a small Protestant enclave whose citizens helped save 5,000 Jews by refusing to report anyone as Jewish to the Nazis.

The trip proved to be a watershed moment for Ms. Saigal.

“This business of being Jewish and Catholic had been confusing,” Ms. Saigal said. “Doing the research, it liberated me.”

Inspired, Ms. Saigal decided to write a book focusing on the women of the French Resistance, whose role in defying and thwarting the Nazi regime has often gone unacknowledged. Her book, she vowed, would also honor the contributions of her adoptive family and the memories of her father and grandmother, both of whom paid the ultimate price during World War II.

Through research and through word of mouth, Ms. Saigal obtained the names of women who performed heroic acts during World War II as part of the French Resistance, many of whom were still alive.

Ms. Saigal spent several summers interviewing and filming living heroines of the French Resistance, whose stories she has highlighted in a book called French Heroines, 1940-1945: Courage, Strength and Ingenuity.

Ms. Saigal’s book includes chapters on 18 women, a number she chose to reflect the Hebrew word and character “Chai,” meaning life, which has special significance in the Jewish tradition. In Hebrew numerology, the letters add up to the number 18, which represents good luck.

Ms. Saigal has also included her own story, including her good luck in being sheltered from the horrors that claimed her grandmother’s life by a loving and courageous family.

Whether engaged in subtle sabotage, as in the case of the women who broke machinery and tampered with the products of German factories, or in outright spycraft, each of the subjects of Ms. Saigal’s book is well-deserving of the title of heroine.

French Heroines introduces readers to women like Maïti Girtanner. The daughter of a Swiss father and a French mother, she was 18 when, in August of 1940, German soldiers invaded the village of Bonne, situated on a river dividing Occupied France and Free France. When they entered her family’s garden, Ms. Girtanner, spurred by “a Biblical wrath,” vowed to join the Resistance.

Able to speak good German and armed with a bicycle and a rowboat, she helped hundreds of Jewish people escape from the Nazis, providing them with food, shelter, money and false identity cards. Before she was captured by the Gestapo in 1943, Ms. Girtanner also used a combination of daring, lies, charm and adept piano playing to hide stranded British soldiers, report on the activities of German submarines to Resistance leaders and procure the release of several jailed Resistance fighters.

Eventually, she was imprisoned for several weeks in a retaliation camp in Paris, and subjected to merciless beatings and experiments on her spinal cord performed by a young Gestapo doctor. Though the experience left Ms. Girtanner permanently disabled, she went on to become a teacher and, years later, mustered the strength to forgive her Nazi torturer.

It is a compelling tale, as are the stories of women like Lilian Klein-Lieber, aka “Firefly,” who helped countless Jewish teens to find hiding places or cross the border into Switzerland; Marthe Cohn, whose flawless German and forged documents without the Jewish stamp allowed her to become a spy for the French army; and Yvette Bernard Farnoux, who helped provide food and support for jailed Resistance fighters and their families before she was arrested and sent first to Auschwitz and then the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp.

While the stories of the death of Ms. Saigal’s grandmother and her fortunate placement with the Baleste family were cut from the original edition of her book when it was published in France, she has produced a translated version of French Heroines in which her own story has been included.

Some of the subjects of French Heroism have died since it was written. Ms. Saigal is happy she was able to record their stories while they lived.  

In most cases, Ms. Saigal’s heroines were in their 20s or even their teens when they began aiding the Resistance. She attributes a good portion of their daring to youth, recalling her own boldness when she first moved to Claremont. In 1968, she donned a dress made with fabric emblazoned with Eugene McCarthy campaign buttons and went from door to door, exhorting people to vote for the poet and Congressman who was running on an anti-war platform. She is not as brazen now, Ms. Saigal said.

“When you’re young, you’re not afraid of danger,” she said. “I’d ask these women, ‘Weren’t you scared?’ and they’d say, ‘No, because I was in the middle of action.’”

The action of World War II is receding into the past. Nonetheless, she feels that there is much to learn from that time, especially given that history tends to repeat itself.

 “You should stand up for your rights. If there’s something you don’t want to accept, you should try to change it.”

Not in a violent way. There are ways to rebel without using violence, she said, adding, “I think people should develop some courage.”

Anyone interested in obtaining a copy of French Heroines can email Ms. Saigal at msaigal@pomona.edu.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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