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< Echoes of Memory

Daily Miracles That Saved the Mendels Family

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by Jacqueline Mendels Birn

It was a miracle that while my father continued going to his office after the “Aryanization” of his business with his Jewish star on, he was not arrested and taken away to an internment camp between May 1941, when Jews were first rounded up, and the end of July 1942, when we fled.

It was a miracle that we were not arrested while we walked in our neighborhood with our yellow Jewish stars on the left side of our clothes.

It was a miracle that neither the concierge of our building nor the neighbors denounced us.

It was a miracle that we were not caught in the Vel d’Hiv roundup of 13,000 Jews in Paris on July 16–17, 1942—we were registered at our local city hall. (The police came to get us one week after we fled Paris.)

It was a miracle that the police did not ask for my parents’ papers in the metro or at the train station or on the train on the day we fled, July 31, 1942.

It was a miracle that when Manuela fell on her head in Angoulème, she did not have a concussion and did not have to be treated in a hospital, because we would have been arrested there. It was not legal for us Jews to travel; my parents did not have an ausweiss (visa). My parents did not have false papers at that time. Their IDs said “JUIF,” and we were not wearing our compulsory yellow stars.

It was a miracle that we crossed the demarcation line in the middle of the night on August 1, 1942, with German soldiers a few feet from us, but that they did not notice us and they did not have their vicious dogs with them. They did not hear Manuela say that she had to go pee pee when we were lying flat on the ground.

It was a miracle that the two young smugglers did not denounce us while leading us across the demarcation line. Some smugglers took money from Jews and then denounced them to the Gestapo and received money from them as well.

It was a miracle that, after my parents were arrested, interrogated, fined, and kept one month in a hotel under daily watch in Périgueux, in the Dordogne, we were not sent to an internment camp. At the same time, in August 1942, there were roundups of Jews in Périgueux and all around the Dordogne and in the département to the north, the Creuse.

It was a miracle that my mother, a foreign Jewish woman of German origin, was not sent to Gurs, an infamous camp where many German Jews were sent and from where most inmates were shipped to Auschwitz.

It was a miracle that we were allowed by the préfet (prefect) to “hide under watch” in a village close to the headquarters of the office for foreign Jewish affairs in Sarlat (less than 60 miles away). The préfet determined life or death for Jews.

It was a miracle that my mother, who carried cyanide pills at all times for a family suicide (and she told my sister and me about it), did not reach the point where she administered the pills to us all.

It was a miracle that when the Gestapo came to the house in Le Got to arrest our downstairs neighbor who had been denounced as a member of the underground, the Gestapo did not go up the stairs to where my parents were listening to the BBC in French.

It was a miracle that our neighbor, with a gun to his neck, did not denounce us, the Jewish family upstairs, in order to save his life.

It was a miracle that with our “carte de circulation temporaire” (temporary travel permit by foot or bicycle) for foreign Jews with the stamp “JUIF” in red, we were not arrested when we went to the neighboring village on Saturdays for food or visits to the doctor.

It was a miracle that the mayor, Paul Delpech, went to the headquarters for foreign Jewish affairs in Sarlat every three months to renew our permit for the “carte de circulation temporaire” and it was renewed with the stamp “JUIF,” but the police, who knew our address, did not come to arrest us.

It was a miracle that on February 23, 1943, there was a list of foreign Jews to be deported, including Dutch Jews. At the time, Dutch Jewish families with multiple children were exempt from the transport. My parents, with two children and a third child on the way, were not deported.

It was a miracle that when my mother could not give birth at home because the baby was in breech position, on August 6, 1943, she was transported to a hospital in the middle of the night. That hospital was in another département. The midwife probably knew and trusted the doctor in Montayral, Lot-et-Garonne. As a foreign Jew, my mother was not allowed to travel more than 10 kilometers and was forbidden from crossing into another département. Besides, she was only allowed to travel those 10 kilometers on Saturdays. It was a Friday night and my brother was born on Saturday, August 7, 1943. There were no police or Gestapo that night to arrest her.

It was a miracle that the Gestapo did not come to the hospital where my brother was born and stayed for three weeks with my mother, who almost died in August 1943 when all of France was occupied. It was a miracle that when my mother needed a blood transfusion, her rare blood type, AB+, was found.

It was a miracle that my brother survived until milk was found that agreed with him. He did not digest cow’s milk, but my father managed to find Nestlé sweetened condensed milk, which agreed with my brother’s digestion. 

It was a miracle that no one in the village denounced us and that neither the militia nor the collaborators looked for us or found us in the village.

It was a miracle that when the Germans retreated after D-Day, the division “Das Reich” did not stop in our village. The village of Oradour-sur-Glane, just north of our village, was denounced as having resistance members among the inhabitants. That village was destroyed. All the men were shot and the women and children were locked in the church, which was burned to the ground. To this day, the village is a memorial to those killed.

It was a miracle that after D-Day, the kommandantur in Paris ordered German officers to go to each commune (district) and demand a list of Jews from each mayor. By that time, the mayor of our commune, who worked in the resistance and created false ID cards for its members, had gone into hiding for fear of being denounced and shot or deported. He would have been forced to declare the names of Jews in his commune, and that would have been the end for us.

©2018, Jacquline Mendels Birn. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   echoes of memory, volume 11jacqueline mendels birn

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