Le Camp de Rivesaltes – March 1941 to February 1942
Rivesaltes is located at the foot of the Eastern Pyrenes, within sight of the Mediterranean Sea. The climate is substantially drier and warmer than in the Basque region. The Tramontane, a strong cold wind from the interior blows almost constantly. The Camp is surrounded by vineyards over which one could see the Mediterranean sea to the east, the Pyrenes to the south and rocky foothills to the west and north. The Camp, originally built as an army base, was much larger than the Camp de Gurs, with empty spaces separating the ”lots and empty areas within the ”lots. No barbed wire surrounded the Camp. Inmates in the camp were Jews, Spanish refugees from the civil war and Gypsies.
The barracks were built of cinder blocks and tile roofs. The central area of the barracks was filled with two level sleeping platforms. People therefore slept head to head, and a passageway ran all around the barrack. We called these sleeping platforms HasenstŠlle, which means rabbit hutches. The latrines in Rivesaltes were similar to the ones in Gurs, except that they were build of cinder blocks rather than wood.
The food in Rivesaltes was about the same as in Gurs, that is some hot brown brew called coffee in the morning and hot soup, mostly vegetables, turnips and rutabaga, but hardly ever any potatoes, sometimes a little meat, 250 grams of bread per day and also a cup of wine. The food was served in the barracks, and everybody ate out of makeshift containers such as tin cans. The children were served in a separate eating barrack (rfectoire) where they had to finish their meals. A guard was stationed at the exit of the rfectoire to make sure that the children had eaten all their food and drunk all their wine. Of course, by the time the wine got to us, it was well diluted with water and there was no danger of intoxication.
Outside organizations set up facilities within the Camp to make life a little easier. The YMCA had a barrack with a library and meeting rooms for young people. From my mother’s letters, I see that ORT, OSE and the Secours Suisse also had facilities to provide additional food for children, the sick and those whose health was threatened by malnutrition. While there were no separate children’s barracks in Rivesaltes, there were school barracks with instruction in French by French teachers.
By the middle of 1941, life in Unoccupied France was getting to be more normal, or rather people were getting used to the situation. The shock of the French debacle of 1940 was fading and the round-up of Jews had not yet started. Relief organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, established homes for the children from the camps. Slowly, the children and teenagers were liberated from the Camp. My mother had always believed that the family should stay together, but by this time, after we had been in camps for over a year and neither the defeat of Germany nor the end of the war were in sight, she realized that keeping the family together was no longer possible. She started to talk to the representatives of the relief organizations to get us out of the Camp into a children’s home. The first one for whom she succeeded was my sister Laure, who was 16 years old at that time. She went to work in a children’s home (colonie d’enfants) run by the Swiss Red Cross located in Pringy, Haute-Savoie.
I do not know how my mother managed to get me taken on by one of the French relief organizations who set up a home for children from the Camp de Rivesaltes. Most of the children who were taken on by that organization were Spanish, but six Jewish boys were included. I left the Camp for Grammont in February 1942.
Grammont – February 1942 to September 1942
The Chateau de Grammont is located about 50 km east of Lyons, at the southern tip of the Jura mountains. The castle itself sits on top of a small hill, as any self-respecting old chateau, first built in the year 950, should. From the top of the walls enclosing part of the castle, one has a beautiful view of the surrounding hilly and fertile countryside, dotted with farms and villages with their church spires, a few castles, the Jura mountains to the north and a little bit of the Alps to the east.
About eighty children, aged 6 to 14 and some adults to work as staff, went from Rivesaltes to Grammont. Since most of the children in Grammont were Spanish and some of the staff was also from Spain, Spanish was the language that was almost always used. I thus learned some Spanish before I learned French, and I still have a good ear for Spanish. I do not remember being homesick for my family, but from letters, which are still in my possession, I notice that I counted the days until I got a letter from my mother and that I continually mentioned my desire to join my sister in Pringy. School in Grammont was rather informal, with the French staff teaching us in French. We had no classroom with desks. We just sat in whatever room was available. I don’t remember any books. We knew in general terms what was going on in the world. We knew that the Germans were still deep in Russia and in North Africa. What we did not know was that wholesale deportations of Jews to Poland had started in Occupied France and would soon be carried out by the French authorities in Unoccupied France. My mother and my brother were deported from Rivesaltes while I was in Grammont, in August 1942. Their last letter is dated August 20, 1942. My father was at that time in a hospital attached to the camp located in Perpignan. He was deported in November 1943. None survived.
Soon after these events, I was able to join my sister Laure in Pringy. The number of Jewish children in Pringy was limited to ten, and since there were already ten Jewish children there, I had not been able to go. I do not know if one of the Jewish children left or if because of the deportations, the directrice made an exception but at the beginning of September I was told by the director of Grammont that I would be going to Pringy. I was, of course, delighted. I packed my few belongings and the director took me on the short two hour train ride from Culoz (Ain) to Pringy (Haute Savoie).
That was the last I saw of the Ch‰teau de Grammont until 1977, when Sylvia and I drove by. People who lived near the Ch‰teau knew that Spanish refugee children had lived there during the war, to which Sylvia answered “Des petits Juifs aussi “.
Pringy – September 1942 to September 1944
Pringy is located 5 Km north of Annecy, on the road to Geneva. I did not fully appreciate the beauty of the countryside until I went back there many years later. It is in the foothills of the Alps, amid rich fields, green pastures, dark spruce forests with the first chain of the Alps as a background. The colonie is located on a knoll overlooking the whole area, with a good view of Annecy and the mountains surrounding the lake.
The colonie d’enfants was one of several that the Swiss Red Cross had established in France for French children who, because they were poor or their father was a prisoner of war in Germany, suffered from malnutrition even more than the French population at large. These children would be brought to one of these colonies for three months to get better food, since the food allocations to the colonie were supplemented with shipments of high quality food directly from Switzerland. There were about eighty children in the colonie, ranging in age from 6 to 14. Ten of these were permanent Jewish kids. As permanent residents of the colonie, we received this better food all the time so that starting in September 1942, I enjoyed more nourishing food than the average Frenchman.
I attended public school in Pringy. It was a typical French village school, with two classrooms, one for boys and one for girls, with all eight grades in one room. I received the Certificat d’Etudes Primaires in 1944, an examination for which we had to go to Annecy. This wasn’t much of a challenge, since this examination is meant for those who complete their studies at the end of eighth grade and not for those who continue on to High School and the University. In a way, being in Pringy as a child was a little bit like being permanently in a summer camp, with kids your own age always available to play with. On the days when there was no school, we would go swimming in a river or go on outings into the nearby forests and sometimes even on longer, all day and even overnight excursions. We followed the progress of the war; we watched airplanes flying over on their way to bombard northern Italy; we watched Annecy being bombarded, but all in all, we were quite isolated from the horrors in the world around us.
Theoretically, I was in hiding in Pringy. Since I was not old enough to require a Carte d’Idendite, I never assumed a false name, although my sister had one. The staff of the colonie knew that we were Jewish and my schoolteacher must also have known. Some of the other children in the colonie probably knew, while for the children in the village school, we were simply the children from the colonie, i.e., outsiders. I therefore do not really consider myself a hidden child.
I remained in Pringy until after the Liberation in August, 1944 but I never had any contact with American soldiers since the entire department of the Haute-Savoie was liberated by the maquis.
Laure and I visit my father in Perpignan – 1943
There is a picture of my father in a park with palm trees. This picture was taken in Perpignan. Perpignan is on the on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea near the Spanish border. It never gets too cold there and palm trees grow. Here is a long explanation how we came to visit in the year 1943.
There were about 80 kids in Pringy. Among the kids, ten were Jewish and the others were French kids from all over southern France. These kids were mainly from poor underprivileged families who could not get enough food and therefore came to Pringy, run by the Swiss Red Cross, to get better food and to get away from their poor surroundings. I do not know who these kids were, nor how they were chosen. Every three months, the kids were exchanged for new kids. That means that every three months, transportation for about 70 had to be arranged. Adults had to travel with these kids. In July 1943, my sister Laure went to travel with a group of kids and to visit our father in Perpignan, and I was allowed to go along .
At the time, my father was in the Hôpital St. Louis in Perpignan, which was administered by the camp de Rivesaltes. (I stayed in that hospital for about 5 weeks the year before because I had scabies.) We remained in Perpignan two weeks to visit our father, where we ate and slept in the hospital. I do not know if we were charged for that stay. It is during that stay that the pictures in the park of my father were taken. My father could get out of the hospital for a few hours at a time with a “laisser passer”. The town was full of German soldiers in shorts from the Afrika Korps who had just been chased out of North Africa.
On our return trip to Pringy, my sister and I travelled alone. The German Feldgendarmery (military police) came thru the train to examine everybody’s papers. We didn’t have any real ones. I didn’t need any because I was only 14 years old, but Lore did. All she had was a typed document signed by the Directrice of Pringy which said that we were residents of a Swiss children’s home, with a stamp from the Swiss Red Cross. This had of course no legal standing, but it satisfied the German MP’s. We heard them talk to each other, saying “Schweitzer rotes Kreuz” (Swiss Red Cross) several times.
I remember that on the way back from Perpignan, the train went through Lyon were Albert Rosenfeld and his wife Friedel lived. I think we stopped to visit them, although Lore did not remember that. I remember clearly that I was in the apartment of Albert and Friedel and they had had a large picture of Jesus above their bed which they would not have had if there was no German Occupation. I was in their apartment also after the Liberation when there was no reason to have such a picture and there was none.
I am glad that we went to visit my father. It was the last time we saw him, but in retrospect it was a foolish thing to do, because at any time during these two weeks we ran the risk of being arrested because we had no ID.