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2005 blog


Encounters with the Righteous

San Diego Jewish Times, July 1, 2005

By Donald H. Harrison

Having heard presentations by numerous Holocaust Survivors, I have been struck by an interesting and possibly important phenomenon.  Often without showing a trace of emotion, the Survivors are able to relate the horrific treatment that they and their families suffered. But their seeming matter-of-factness gives way to quavering voices, even tears, when they recall the instances during their ordeals when they were treated with kindness or dignity.

With the Holocaust a standard part of the curriculum in many schools throughout the nation—and with movies, books, television and museums further spreading knowledge of that terrible era—I believe that non-Jewish audiences also are beginning to steel themselves emotionally against the all-too-familiar tales of Nazi inhumanity. However, like us Jews, they still are affected, even overcome, when Nazi brutishness is contrasted with human goodness.

I saw evidence of this recently at Montgomery High School, whose students appeared to be primarily of Hispanic background. Gert Koppel, a native of Hamburg, Germany, was discussing his book, L’Enfant Clandestin, with the students of French-language teacher Roberta Greene. The students were polite, but a little restless, as Koppel began reading from the English version of the book, titled A Vanishing Act: My Flight From Germany. 

The opening selections dealt with his boyhood experiences of Nazis coming to his apartment building to arrest his neighbors. But there was a shift in the students’ mood—their attention seemed to become riveted—when Koppel told about a Protestant in Charleroi, Belgium, who brought food to families who were sheltering Jews. As “illegals,” the Jews were ineligible for government-issued food stamps, meaning their host families had to stretch their already meager rations of food.

  Koppel read this from his book:

  Everyone knew Madame Bougard; everyone trusted her. She went from one community member to the next to collect food and money. “Don’t ask me for what purpose,” she said to everybody. “I need it for God’s work.  You just have to help me; there are very hungry people among us.”  All of the families gave as much as they could spare.  Nobody asked further. Madame Bougard took it upon herself to deliver the food where it was needed.  This afternoon she had to make another “visit”’ and left shortly.  From then on she appeared regularly every month; always kind, always in a hurry, always with some good things; never without hugging me as if I were her own grandson—a delicate lady full of energy and trust in God.  What would we have done without her?

Thanks to Koppel, we can add the names of Madame Bougart and Koppel’s shelterers—Alexandre and Elmire Douliere—to the esteemed ranks of Righteous Gentiles, from whose examples all of humanity may profit.

Another local author, Philip Pressel, in They Are Still Alive: A Family’s Survival in France During World War II, provides us with a sketch of some other remarkably courageous warriors for decency: Alfred and Renée Sabathier and their son, Jean—a Roman Catholic family who then lived in Vourles, a suburb of Lyon, France.

Whereas Koppel went from Germany to Belgium to hide; Pressel, a native of Belgium, was secreted in France. When taking on invented identities, it is best to go places where as few people as possible know contradictory information. Pressel’s wartime story was less dramatic than Koppel’s. He did not know that he was Jewish—his parents keeping that information secret from him until after the war. The young boy therefore could never accidentally betray himself, nor was he subject to the excruciating tension that other Jews in hiding felt whenever Nazis were in the vicinity.  After he and other children were evacuated for their safety from Lyon, where his parents had been masquerading as Christians, his most intense emotion during his separation was overwhelming homesickness.

Pressel and his wife Pat visited the Sabathier family in 2003. Renée was still healthy at age 91.  Jean seemed unchanged.  Pressel asked his wartime playmate whether his family had known that he was Jewish. Sabathier replied in the negative but, “he also said his father told him many years later that he suspected that we might be, but did not want to say anything for fear of being found out,” Pressel reported.

As part of their reunion, the families visited Vourles, seeing the apartment building in which they had lived and the schoolhouse where Pressel had attended classes and Mrs. Sabathier had served as an administrator.  At the new Town Hall, approximately 40 people waiting for them burst into applause on their arrival.  A television news crew recorded the proceedings.

Jean Sabathier told the crowd about Pressel’s unsuccessful efforts to find him during a 1993 trip to France and how Pressel eventually met success by writing letters to everyone with a name similar to Sabathier in the area surrounding Lyon.

“On my side, in July 1969, during a trip to New York I tried to find you in the New York telephone book but there was no Pressel there who had lived in Vourles!” Sabathier said. 

After expressing the hope that he would someday visit Pressel in San Diego, the man, who had been his playmate 59 years earlier, said touchingly:

“… (T)ell your fellow citizens that if our respective presidents and governments have had divergent opinions on how to handle the conflict in Iraq and create a cold barrier between our two countries, know that the French people consider the American people friends and allies… You will always be welcome by Frenchmen and Frenchwomen.”

We can inure ourselves to brutality, like that practiced by the Nazis and their collaborators. We can build our defenses against indifference like that shown by many “bystanders” during the Holocaust.  But decency, kindness, honor and love—the qualities shown to Survivors by the Sabathiers, the Bougards and the Doulieres—penetrate to the core of our beings and overwhelm our emotional reserve.