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Holocaust Memorial Education Center

Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center

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The children’s home in Chamonix provided a safe haven for dozens of children, most of them Jewish, from late 1942 until the liberation of France in the summer of 1944. The home was established by Juliette Vidal and Marinette Guy, later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, with the assistance of the Jewish Scouts (EIF – Eclaireurs Israelites de France) and the OSE.  Both women had been active in the French Scouts movement. In the war period, they ran a clinic for mothers and their children (L’aide la Mere aux Famille) in the city of Saint-Etienne, and were in contact with the Jewish Scouts and with their rescue organization, La Sixieme, set up by Robert Gamzon.  Vidal and Guy eventually converted the clinic into a support center for members of La Sixieme and the OSE, and participated in the rescue of Jewish children and their parents.

In summer 1942, Vidal and Guy ran a summer camp for Jewish and Christian children in a chalet in Chamonix.  When they were informed that most of the Jewish children had lost their parents in the deportations, Vidal and Guy converted the chalet into a children’s home, which was run by Mirelle Levy. The children’s home operated under the guise of a safe haven for children needing a vacation from their dangerous places of residence, and relocated to the Hotel de la Paix in Chamonix.

Credit: Yad Vashem, “THE CHILDREN’S HOME IN CHAMONIX” www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/hildrens-homes/chamonix/index.asp

Most of the staff at the children’s home were Jewish. One of the non-Jewish staff members was Sister Claire Barwitzki, a German anti-Nazi Christian, who was in charge of the boys. She was later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.  In October 1943, sisters Anna and Fella Schmidt arrived at Chamonix to take care of the children, at the invitation of Vidal and Guy. The two sisters, born in Poland, left Belgium for France and were connected to the Jewish Scouts. When Anna and Fella arrived, there were 37 Jewish children and 5 Christian children at the home.

The Jewish children ranged in age from 3-14.  They were given French names, for example Levy became Laroche.  The older children went to school in Chamonix under assumed identities. The Jewish Scouts assisted Vidal and Guy with the falsification of papers for the children.  Locals were told that the children’s parents were atheists, thus explaining why the children didn’t participate in the Christian prayer services, and didn’t go to church.  The children’s home also provided a front for resistance activities, and false papers and ration cards were made there that were then distributed to resistance activists.

Under the guidance of Vidal and Guy, the children preserved their Jewish identity.  On Friday nights – Sabbath eve – they were separated from the Christian children, and lit Sabbath candles, sang songs and learned about Judaism. Vidal and Guy expected the staff to observe the Jewish festivals as far as they were able, and brought festival prayer books to the home, which the counsellors hid in the coal cellar.  On Hanukkah, they lit candles in an improvised Hanukkah menorah (nine-branched candelabra), fashioned by the cook’s husband. Vidal and Guy celebrated the festival of lights with the children, and gave them presents.

The evacuation of the children from the home began in spring 1944.  A group of about ten children was smuggled into Spain, and from there, they made their way to Eretz Israel. On 27 August 1944, two days after the liberation of Paris, the Maquis liberated Chamonix.

“After the liberation, we brought the children back to Saint-Etienne by bus, and waited to see whom they would find [from their families.] It was a very sad moment… Very few of them found their families.”

(A la Libération, nous avons ramené les enfants à St. Etienne en car et avons attendu de savoir qui ils allaient retrouver.  Ca a été un moment très triste…comme très peu d’entre eux retrouvaient leur famille)Marinette Guy

After the war, Vidal and Guy ran a children’s home in Saint-Etienne, under the supervision of the OSE, where they took care of some 50 children. By 1947, all the children had left the home. Some stayed in France, but most left for Eretz Israel.