Joël Nommick was born on December 30, 1942 in Macon, France to Jean Nommick and Agnes née Serman. Jean and Agnes were from the Russian Empire (present day: Estonia). Joël’s parents had known each other growing up and married in Paris. By 1931, Jean and Agnes had two sons, Bernard and Serge, and had moved to Thoissey (Ain) near Macon. In Thoissey, the family owned and operated two successful businesses, a tannery and a factory which manufactured fur coats.
German forces invaded France on May 10, 1940. Soon after, the Vichy government in France came to power in southern France and collaborated closely with the Nazi regime. Vichy officials enacted numerous anti-Jewish laws. In 1942, Jean was accused by an individual who had worked for the Nommicks' business of being a thief who stole both the tannery and fur coat factory. Jean was arrested and sent to jail.
Following Jean’s arrest, Agnes, Bernard, and Serge assumed false identities, living under the surname Sabacier. Joël was born in 1942, and like the rest of his family, lived under a false name until liberation. Joël and his brothers were often kept close to home, as his mother worried about their safety. The years spent living with false identities were difficult as the family often could not obtain ration cards. Their neighbors, the Thomassons, took great personal risk by helping Joël’s family obtain food.
Jean spent time in eight different prisons, military hospitals, and concentration camps including Drancy, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen. After he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, Jean wrote a letter to the family saying they would be reunited soon, however he never returned. After the war, the family discovered Jean was last seen traveling towards Russia, but they were never able to figure out what happened to him.
In the summer of 1954, a stranger in his thirties rang the doorbell looking for Joël’s father. When Joël told him that his father had died, the man began crying. This man had been traveling to the South of France on vacation when he passed their village and remembered that the Nommick family lived there. The man explained that he had been sent to Auschwitz during the war for being a Communist and there contracted typhus. It was with the help of Joël’s father and a Jewish Hungarian doctor that he was able to hide and recover from his illness. Meeting this man allowed Joël to have more insight into his father’s life while in the camps.
Growing up, Joël rarely attended synagogue, except during the High Holidays. He believes the experiences his family went through shaped his mother’s attitude towards Judaism. In 1980, he finally had a Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem at the Western Wall. Joël Nommick ran several eyewear design businesses and lived in France until 1972. Joël and his wife reside in Washington, D.C. and he volunteers at the Museum.