Holocaust memories resonate in the French Midi-Pyrenees: travels through Tarn and the Miracle of Moissac.
This flexible freedom, however, did not last long, for when in November, 1942, the US and Allied Forces invaded North Africa, the German army rolled into southern France, and Jews who could not go into hiding were doomed. I also knew of Toulouse as a site where, before World War I, members of the Russian branch of the Leviants came to France to study at the University of Toulouse, when as Jews living under Czarist rule they were denied admission to a Russian university. Even today about one-third of the Toulouse population is composed of students.
Therefore, when we had the opportunity to travel to southwestern France, Toulouse was a not-to-be-missed destination.
In Toulouse we chose the Hotel Riquet, a stunning four-star hotel right in the heart of the Old City, just a few minutes' walk from the train station. Our three-day stay at the Hotel Riquet was enhanced by the amicable welcome and the delicious buffet breakfast. The concierge was also helpful in recommending Jewish sites of interest and told us not to miss the Museum of Resistance and Deportation and the Resistance Monument. And because of our ideal location we were able to walk everywhere, never once having to rely either on public transportation or taxis.
Many classic buildings from the late 19th century are part of the Toulouse skyline, as are the museums, 160, century public buildings and private mansions, all of which give Toulouse its flavor and beautiful European look. Toulouse is also known as La Ville Rose, the Pink City, for its many structures in reddish stucco. And because of its diverse museums Toulouse could also be called Museum City.
In the imposing Toulouse opera house, another one of the great buildings in the city, we saw a program devoted to Stravinsky and dance, featuring his famous Pulcinella and his Symphony of Psalms. With its decorative and ornate 190' century interior the opera house was reminiscent of similar grand houses in Paris and Italy.
Some of the beautiful buildings in the city and its great open squares include the Capitole, the City Hall, the Saint-Sernin Basilica, built from the 11th to the 14th, centuries, the Saint-Georges Square, the largest in the city, and the Saint-Etienne Cathedral, dating back to the 13th century. Fascinating as well are views of the Garonne River from the bridges.
The Tolouse Tourism Board also has a Pass Tourisme, a card that offers free access or reduced rates to several tourist attractions, museums, places of entertainment and shopping, and unlimited use of bus, metro and tram. For further details go to their website: Toulouse-tourisme.com
Toulouse, with its 23,000 Jews, is now the third largest Jewish community in France, after Paris and Marseilles. Most of the Jews are from North Africa, part of the wave of Jewish immigrants from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, who left those three countries once they gained political independence. Feeling uncomfortable with a rising Arab nationalism the Jews left en masse for France, enriching Jewish life in various parts of France, where Ashkenazic Jews had only a tenuous hold on Jewish traditions.
Jews have lived in Toulouse from the 8th century; but over the hundreds of years suffered humiliations, expulsions, onerous taxation and pogroms. A synagogue was built in the 11th century, but after the Jews were massacred in 1321 no Jewish community existed in Toulouse until the beginning of the 19th century.
Now twelve synagogues stand in the city, many kosher restaurants and butcher shops, three dozen Jewish organizations, and three day schools. In one of them, in March 2012, a rabbi/teacher and three students were murdered by a Muslim fanatic, who himself was killed after a day-long siege. For a recent memorial ceremony, the Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, and the President of France, Francois Hollande, participated.
As a counterpoint to the recent tragedy in Toulouse there is the story of the decency of the Cardinal of Toulouse, Jules Gerard Saliege, who was the first to speak up in defense of the Jews and to criticize the Germans and the Vichy government for their policy of persecution. Cardinal Saliege wrote directly to the Vichy authorities and circulated a pastoral letter about "Christian morality ... that imposes duties that come from God." He condemned the "dreadful spectacle of fathers and mothers being treated like cattle and family members separated and sent to an unknown destination." (Cardinal Saliege did not yet know about the death camps.) He continued, saying that "the Jews are our brothers and they cannot be abused."
This letter was circulated and read from 400 pulpits in France in August 1942 and was an overnight sensation. The Vatican Radio aired it for four days in a row and BBC also broadcast it. Hundreds of thousands of copies of this courageous manifesto were made and distributed by the French Resistance. This letter also caused the reputation of the German puppet regime, the Vichy Government, to plummet. Although the Cardinal was persecuted he refused to withdraw his remarks, saying it was his duty to teach morals to his diocese and, if necessary, to government officials as well.
Yad Vashem of Israel recognized this heroic prelate and made him one of the Righteous Gentiles of the World.
The Sabbath services at the Hekhal David Synagogue on 2 Riquet Street were lively, with many youngsters participating. For the two main Shabbat meals we were invited to the local Chabad rabbi's house, where the festive day was made heimish in typical welcoming Chabad fashion.
Coming home from the Friday night dinner we wanted to be sure we were on the right street on the way back to the hotel. We stopped a man and began chatting with him in French. After a few exchanges he said: "Do you speak English?"
"Then why are we breaking our teeth with French?"
We soon established that we are on the right path and continued talking. He said he was an American professor with a specialty in comparative literature and taught at a California university.
"I too studied comp lit," I told him, "but you don't sound like a Californian."
"I'm not. I come from Brooklyn."
"Me too," I said. "Where?"
"Coney Island," he said.
"Then, like me, you must have gone to Lincoln High School."
"Did you ever have Mr. Lapidus for Creative Writing?"
We continued praising that wonderful college-level high school, which writers like Arthur Miller and Joseph Heller attended, and then said goodbye and Shabbat Shalom, for it was obvious that the man who had spoken with us was Jewish. Everybody was Jewish at Lincoln, even the Italians and the Greek Orthodox. And to continue the coincidences, the next day the California professor was also a guest at the Chabad rabbi's house for lunch.
Toulouse is also a gateway to the Tarn region, with its many picturesque towns and villages, including Albi, Montauban and Moissac.
Have you ever heard of Albi? Montauban? Moissac? We hadn't either. But once we did, and visited, we were delighted. These three places are not towns that an American tourist, or even a an American Jewish tourist, would normally choose as a destination in France, But once we started looking into a trip to Toulouse, we learned about these three nearby towns, each with a fascination of its own, and the two latter with an engaging link to Jewish history and community.
As soon as we left Toulouse with one of the frequent Rail Europe trains, we were in the countryside, seeing plowed fields set against the crystal blue sky, with undulating hills in the distance.
Albi is famous as the place where early in the 13th century an anti-Catholic movement sprang up called the Abligeusian Crusade, which was severely repressed by the powerful Catholic Church. Late in the 13th century some Jews rived in Albi, but the massacres that took place in and around. Toulouse in 1321 affected the few Jews there too. Although some Jews rived in Albi after World War II there is no synagogue there now and no organized Jewish community.
Albi, a World Heritage site, has a grand cathedral, St. Cecilia, with a magnificent collection of murals, including many biblical scenes. It took 200 years to construct (1282-1480) and is considered the largest brick building in the world. Nearby, in the bishops' palace, is the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, which the artist's mother founded after the artist's death (1864-1901), and to which she donated many of her son's works. The city also has the engaging and recently opened Museum of Fashion, covering styles and modes from the 18th century to the late 20th. Albi's historic center has photogenic spacious squares, a covered market, and plenty of cafes and shops.
In Albi we stayed at the riverside four-star Mercure Hotel, a beautiful dark red brick building that looks like a mansion perched above a dam. The comfortable and inviting Mercure is in the center of town and near all of Albi's many attractions.
From Albi we took the train to Montauban and there, with the help of our guide, Christian, we visited several of the small towns and villages in the area. While driving he put on what seemed to be a Jewish radio station. And then he started singing Hava Nagila. Christian told us that he had tuned in to a Jewish radio station from Toulouse that broadcasts to the entire region and he tikes to listen to it. A bit later, one of the shopkeepers in a small nearby villages recognized the American visitors as Jews. He recalled that as a youth he would always be invited to a Jewish friend's house for Friday night dinner and he still remembered the mother's delicious gefilte fish.
In this region of one picturesque town after another, among the most memorable was the hilltop village of Cordes sur Ciel (sky), a place seemingly sculpted out of stone, where one can have a 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside below.
Our lodgings in Montauban were a rather unique hotel--the L'Abbaye des Capucins, a lovely former abbey, which had gorgeous rooms and an amazing buffet breakfast. One of the great attractions in the city the Ingres Museum, devoted to works of the prominent neo-classical artist (1780-1867). Just to see the great open square in Montauban is worth the trip. And having a fish dinner in superb restaurants with world-famous chefs like La Table des Capucins and the equally regarded Au Fil de L'eau was a delight.
Later in the day we made arrangements to meet the local rabbi, Andre Elkiess, a graduate of Hebrew University, who has been serving the Jewish community in Montauban for twenty years as spiritual leader and as shokhet and mohel.
At 7 pm a soldier in camouflage uniform, with a short clipped white beard, wearing a bright red beret, marched into the L'Abbaye des Capucins lobby and asked at the desk for us. It turned out he was the rabbi, and also a reserve officer in the army--and a paratrooper, to boot- Why was this rabbi dressed in military garb? He had just come home from a day's tour of duty. Born in Fez, Morocco, he is a man brimming with good cheer and merriment.
After meeting us he immediately phoned the president of the community and invited him and his brother to meet us at his house, whence he took us. There, over tea and cakes, they told us that about 100 Jewish families live in town and they have services every Shabbat. In the synagogue, the rabbi showed us the Torah that the American Joint Distribution Committee had given them after the war. It is a tradition that every Bar Mitzva boy reads the entire weekly portion from this Torah. The Jews in town are in various professions, doctors (as was the president we met), lawyers and businessmen.
Rabbi Elkiess said that members of the three faiths get along and that his military duties consist mainly of dealing with Arab soldiers who are serving time in army prisons. He fives in a beautiful two-story brick house with a garden and also has an apartment in Israel; in fact, the rabbi said, most of the Jews in Mantauban also have apartments in Israel.
He then told us a touching story pertaining to the German occupation during World War II. In Montauban there was a woman named, Rose Marie Gineste, who made false passports for Jews and, riding on her bicycle, would warn the Jews when a roundup was imminent. The rabbi said that over the years American Jews would come periodically to Montauban to visit her. Rose Marie Gineste died in 2011 at age 99 and during her lifetime was honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Va-shem in Jerusalem, where her bicycle has been deposited.
Marie-Rose Gineste was born in 1911 in a small village near Montauban, France. Later, her parents moved to Montauban, where she learned to sew and got a job as a seamstress. It so happened that in this same workshop there was a Polish Jew. During a visit to Israel forty years later, by sheer coincidence she met that Jew's best friend on a bus, who told her that his friend had died.
By 1942 Gineste knew that Jews were being arrested and taken to Germany. On August 27, when she was a secretary to Monsignor Theas, she volunteered to deliver a letter from him to all the priests within 100 kilometers of Montauban. The letter, which was to be read at Sunday mass, stated clearly that the priests considered actions against Jews detestable and that they condemned anti-Semitism. Gineste rode her bicycle for four days straight to get the letter delivered to all the priests, except one who was known to have denounced an Allied airman and was pro-Nazi.
Monsignor Theas was another high-ranking cleric in southern France who protested the mistreatment of Jews. In his letter he stated that in Paris Jews have been treated with barbarism. "I hereby give voice to the outraged protest of Christian conscience, and I proclaim that all men, Aryans and non-Aryans, are brothers, created by the same God." He continued by criticizing "the anti-Semitic measures as an insult to human dignity." He too was made a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. Later, Theas asked Gineste to become the head of the regional Maquis, the French Resistance, and she became responsible for hiding every Jew.
From Montauban we went to visit Moissac, a town best known for its wine and vineyards. Butjust before we departed for a countryside wine tour we heard a story that made us change our plans at the last moment.
We called the narrative we heard the Miracle at Moissac--a fascinating and heart-warming human interest tale about the kindness and decency of the average folk in Moissac and the surrounding countryside under the German occupation in World War II.
It started with a woman journalist, Annie-Claude Elkaim, who recounted the following:
As the war broke out in 1939 two leaders of the French Jewish Scouts, Shutta and Bouli Simon, took it upon themselves to rescue as many children as they could from the Germans. They obtained a house in Moissac, where Jewish children from France, Germany and Belgium would be placed. We know of non-Jews who were heroic savers of Jews during the war, but this is the only known instance where Jews helped Jews survive.
For a while in Free France, these children had a normal childhood, with the help of the mayor of Moissac and the townspeople. They went to school, played, swam in the fiver, got a Jewish education, and even celebrated Purim in the street.
When the Germans moved into southern France it was dangerous for the children to remain in town. With the cooperation of local farmers, a nunnery, and residents in villages in the area, the 500 children who had been in Moissac were brought to safety. Before leaving the Simons told them that on the first Sabbath after Liberation all of them should return to Moissac to celebrate.
And when that occurred, late in the summer of 1944, all 500 children returned.
This is probably one of the most heart-warming and touching incidents of the Holocaust.
The miracle is that the entire population cooperated in this mission of mercy. Had one person in the area been an informer the fate of all the children and their kindly Christian helpers would have been sealed: death.
At the end of April 2013 there will be a two-day commemorative symposium in Moissac, with as many of the surviving children who are able to come--most would now be in their late seventies and eighties. The Israel ambassador to France will be present, as Hill scholars and representatives from Yad Va-shem. The focus Hill be on this righteous town. Some individuals in Moissac have already been honored by Yad Va-Shem as Righteous Gentiles.
From Moissac we took the high speed TGV train to Paris, where at the end of our stay we would hear a continuation of the Moissac period from one of the participants--in fact, the son of Shutta and Bouli Simon, who initiated the rescue of the 500 Jewish children.
Now the enchantments of Paris do not have to be spelled out, but one of its unmatched joys is a few days at the palatial Hotel de Crillon, at the end of rue de Rivoli, on Place de la Concorde. Soon as you step into the grand interior and see the magnificent high-ceilinged tea room to your right and the grand dining room, with its chandeliers and paintings and mirrors, you know you are in a special place. But besides the stunning accommodations and the superb food, most impressive was the service and the happy attitude of the staff. Our waiter summed it up eloquently. "I love working here. I just love it. In fact, I am studying another two languages now so that I Hill be able to converse with more guests who come from different countries."
From the de Crillon it is a pleasant walk to the famed grand synagogue on the Rue de la Victoire and a quick Metro ride to the Jewish district, the Pletzl, with its abundance of kosher restaurants.
To conclude our stay we moved across the river to a wonderful apartment in the Left Bank, in the midst of the bubbling university district, with markets, bakeries, cafes, Jewish restaurants, nearby synagogues, and plenty of cultural amenities. Tourists who rent apartments say they are more homey and more private, and certainly less expensive, than a hotel. We found this very comfortable and charming residence via France Home Style.com.... Not only do they have a selection of apartments throughout Paris, they also have them all over France.
In this apartment we were honored to have as a visitor the son of Shutta and Bouli Simon, Dr. Claude Simon, a retired cardiologist, now in his mid-seventies, who survived the war years as a child along with the other 499 saved children. When his parents organized the rescue, he says, they were determined and adamant; everything had to pass through them. He is the youngest of the group, but does not know how many of the saved children will return for the commemoration ceremonies in Moissac in April, for most of the surviving children are now in their eighties. Dr. Simon was proud that in addition to receiving a normal French secular education, the children were also taught about Judaism by Jewish teachers who had lost their jobs in Paris and then came to Moissac, where they worked with the children.
Dr. Simon tells a story that once, on a farm where he was hidden, a German soldier visited and picked him up, probably recalling his own child whom he had left behind in Germany. Of course, the German did not know he was embracing a Jewish child; nor was he aware that the other children hidden there were Jews. But, Dr. Simon says, the soldier hugged him so tight that to this day, sixty-eight years later--and here Dr. Simon took a deep, long breath--he can still smell the German soldier's uniform.
The wonder, and the miracle is, that the entire town of Moissac, its citizens and officials, from the mayor down, in fact all the inhabitants, intellectuals and peasants, priests and nuns, in the surrounding area, all cooperated in the rescue of these 500 Jewish children.
These stories of courage and decency help to mitigate narratives of anti-Semitism and place a proper perspective on the people in France. But only by visiting towns like Toulouse, Albi, Montauban and Moissac, can one discover and learn of these untold or little known stories of heroism and mentchlikhkeyt, of decency and humanity.
Our rail travels through France were simplified by using Rail Europe's France Pass, which reduces greatly the cost of the rides and gives you great flexibility in planning your journeys. Not only is the pass a money-saver, but it also saves lots of time standing on long ticket lines. One should remember, however, that this and other Rail Europe passes are available only in the USA and Canada, so arrange a purchase prior to the start of your trip. Visit raileurope.com or call 1-888-382-7245.
CURT LEVIANT, the author of seven widely praised novels, has just published his first short story collection, Zix Zexy Ztories.
ERIKA PFEIFER's essays on travel and art have appeared in various publications.