Encounters with the Righteous
San Diego Jewish Times, July 1, 2005
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
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.
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.