In the middle of France lies the small region of Creuse and in it, the small village of Chabannes. In the early 20th century it was a small, poor, insulated village of around 300 people, and in it lies the Chateau de Chabannes. The area is known for its agriculture and the landscape is dotted with farms. Farms that at the time were not mechanized, but still run by the power of the farmer and his animals. The chateau was one of 15 homes run by the OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Efants, which roughly translates to Relief Work for the Children). The OSE was a Jewish run organization to help save the Jewish children of Europe from destruction by the Third Reich.
Between the years 1939-1943 the chateau saw over four hundred children come through its doors. Some children stayed a few months and some stayed for years. Luckily, Creuse was located in the unoccupied zone of France, meaning it fell under the rule of the Vichy government and not the Nazi’s, although the Vichy government was very much in collaboration with the Nazi’s, it was still safer than being directly under the Nazi’s. The children who came to the chateau through the OSE came from Germany, Poland, Austria and France, some were from orphanages, some had been sent by their parents and others had been rescued from interment camps, with ages from 2-17 years of age, many of the children never saw their parents again.
How it all Started
In 1939 the OSE started moving children to Chabannes, it was to be the only OSE school run by a non-Jew, Felix Chevrier. Felix had left a successful career as respected journalist and newspaper editor to run the school, he was 56 years old at the time. Felix went to the local police with the idea that the best way to run the school was to integrate the Jewish children with the local village children. It was Felix who recruited the non-Jewish teachers for the school.
Every morning Felix greeted each child to class with a beaming smile, each child had daily contact with Felix. He became a father figure to the children, an anchor in a scary and tumultuous time. He was always kind and interested in each child. Felix, a true Frenchman, believed in the rights of each man.
Along with Felix, were the Paillassou sisters (Reine and Rene), Georges Loiner, Rachel Pludermacher, Pierre Stablonsky and a number of other French and Jewish teachers. What they found with the Jewish children that arrived were city kids. Kids that had never been anywhere near a farm or livestock, and had never been without electricity. It was a culture shock to say the least. Many did not even speak French, but they learned.
The children that arrived through the OSE, found food, shelter, order, school work and an atmosphere of kindness. They found people who truly cared about them, and were able to give as normal of a child hood as possible during a war. These were children who had escaped hunger, separation from their family, expatriation, terrifying exodus from the occupied zone and concentration camps. In his journal Felix wrote “My spirit refuses to share the prejudices of Mr. Hitler against you and yours”. Felix saved them simply because they were Jewish and they were children. If they had not been Jewish, they would not have been in danger from the Nazis.
Ruth Keller was sent to Chabannes in January 1941. Her father had been arrested during Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) and the family escaped to Belgium. They were in Dunkirk while the Nazi army burned the city and people and the British and French awaited evacuation. It was after this that her mother decided to send her to Chabannes.
Norbert Bikals was sent to Chabannes in late October 1938. His family lived in Berlin and his father and brother had been arrested one night by the SS. His mother then arranged to send him to France. The last time he saw his mother was as the train left the station and he waved to her standing on the platform.
Peter and Warren Gossels were brothers sent to Chabannes. Peter remembers that on July 3, 1939 he was on a train from Berlin and on July 4, 1939 he arrived in France. Their mother had been sent to Auschwitz because she could not afford the $100 it could cost for the visa to leave Germany. She died in Auschwitz.
Safety and Upheaval
For two years the children lived in relative peace, secluded away in the tiny village, insulated from the world around them. Some of the children wrote letters to their parents and some were lucky enough to receive them as well.
The children received regular education in French, science, mathematics and leather work. They put on plays and had an orchestra, Rachel Pludermacher even taught them how to dance so that they could have dances. She also taught the children gymnastics, along with Georges Loiner. The children had cold showers, even in winter, Rachel would tell them “don’t just sit there and let the cold become stronger than you are”. Georges, who was an engineer by education, became the school physical training teacher. He knew, as all the teachers knew, that one day these children may have to rely on their own physical prowess to survive. He taught them to be strong, to run, jump and throw things because it was very likely that they would one day need those skills to save their lives.
On August 26, 1942 the school hosted its summer sports festival. The kids and staff were enjoying the day of sports and sunshine. There had been rumors of round ups, the teachers had heard the rumors, but no one knew for sure when they would begin. At 4 AM on August 27, 1942 the Vichy French Militia arrived at Chabannes with orders to arrest 90 Jews in the Creuse region. They were to arrest 14 from Chabannes, twelve children and two teachers. They took the oldest children first.
They were initially sent to the Drancy Interment camp, where six of the boys and the two teachers were approached by a police officer and he asked if he could help them. They asked him to get word to Chevrier about where there were and what was happening to them. The officer was able to contact Chevrier and he was lucky enough to save them. Sadly though, six of the boys had already been sent to concentration camps.
Wolfie Blumenreich was sent to 13 different camps including, Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Gagolian, Landesult, and Brichama. His last camp was Auschwitz, where there were regular selections of fit and unfit to work. Wolfie survived 13 selections by hiding in the toilets, under the excrement. When he was liberated he weighed 83 pounds, and was a walking skeleton. Wolfie and Jerry Gerard were the only two of the six boys sent to camps, to survive the war.
The youngest of the boys sent to the camps was Rolf Rothschild. He was selected because his parents were in Rivesaltes interment camp and they simply missed their son. The family had been apart for eighteen months. Rolf died at Auschwitz aged nine. It was after this that the OSE stopped telling the parents which home their child was at, they had to protect the child.
September 1, 1942 another round happened. Fourteen kids are to be taken from Chabannes, some of them as young as two years old. When the prefect of Creuse arrived at the school, he found the children gone. Some had been sent to Limoges, under the direction of a doctor who said they were “too ill to be taken”, some were taken on a VERY long walk in the woods with the husband of Chevrier’s secretary, and others saved just by Chevriers ability to talk. The list had many names misspelled, such as Erna Levy was on the list, they had Ernst Levy, so Chevrier simply told him that there was no girl there by that name.
By the end of 1942, even though life appears normal to the outside world, Chevrier and his staff were working hard to find places to hide the children because on November 11, 1942 the Germans now occupied Creuse. Most children were sent away one by one, some were sent to live with families in unoccupied France, some became OSE employees, some worked on local farms, some escaped to America, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, and the older boys joined the French Resistance.
The Paillassou Sisters
Reine and Rene Paillassou were young women, in their twenties when they took on the challenge to teach the children of Chabannes. The sisters were the “rock stars” of Chabannes, because in a time when it was rare to even own a car, they owned a convertible! It was the sisters who worked to integrate the Jewish children with the local kids, they helped them all to see that they were all just kids.
The sisters taught French, and they worked very hard to teach those who did not speak French. They knew that one of the most important things they could do for these children, was to make them as French as possible. It saved the lives of those who went into hiding on local farms.
The sisters also worked with the French Resistance. Their father was a retired policeman in Benevent. One day the sisters were asked to speak to their father about talking to an old colleague to see if he would warn them when the next round up was to take place. No one thought he would agree to help, he would be putting his career and his life on the line. To everyone’s surprise, he said he would warn them.
Rene had been forced to leave Chabannes earlier in the year, because she had been declared “undesirable” by the local Vichy representative (her one-time best friend) as she refused to have the children line up at midnight to wave flags as the train of Petain (head of Vichy government) passed by.
When the time came, the office in Benevent let their father know a round up was coming. He met him in the street and told him that he would be a Chabannes that night. Their father called Rene and gave her their code phrase “our cousins from Nantes arrive tonight”. If anyone checked, the family did have cousins in Nantes!
Each sister set off on their bicycle to meet the other one half way, with the news. Reine rode back to Chabannes and told Chevrier what was to happen, he went pale and said “Thank you, I’ll handle it”. The police chief didn’t go to the school that night, he went to Chevrier’s house. When asked where the children were Chevrier said “The children are free! The teachers are free!”, the police chief, the very one who warned them, left. The children never returned to Chabannes.
Why Did They Do It?
Before the war there were 330,000 Jews in France. They would send 76,000 to concentration camps, 11,000 of which were children. Groups like the OSE, notable church leaders and ordinary French citizens stepped up to hide Jews, simply because it was the right thing to do.
Chevrier and his staff didn’t save the children because it would bring them fame, glory or wealth, they did it because they didn’t buy into a twisted ideology that these children, were inhuman simply because they were Jewish. Prior to the children of Chabannes, there was not a Jew or Protestant in Chabannes. It was an area that practiced no religion since the Freemasons had come to town. Anti-Semitism was preached from the Parisian newspapers created by the far right that believed in Hitler’s ideology. The people of Chabannes didn’t read those papers, so they could not be influenced by them.
Of the four hundred plus children to pass through Chabannes, only six were deported to camps and only four killed. It is still four to many, but it is thanks to Chevrier, his staff and the locals that the rest of the children survived. It takes great courage to go against the flow and it takes even greater courage to risk your own life for what is right. Both Chevrier and the Paillassou sisters have been honored at Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
Chevrier kept a journal, 170 pages written in 1942, it gives us a unique glimpse into the daily life at Chabannes. It contains over one hundred black and white photographs, powerful essays by both students and teachers, and drawings depicting the fun and happiness of the children and drawings also depicting their fears and nightmares. Upon his death in 1962 Chevrier donated his journal to the Memorial du Martyr Juif Inconnu a major Jewish archive in Paris. A wonderful legacy from a man who never had children of his own.
Generations exist because of what these people did. I hope that we never forget the teachers and children of Chabannes and that we continue to learn from their example of love and compassion.
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