Paying the Ultimate Price
Lucien Bunel, or Father Jacques as he was known, was a Carmelite priest and the director of the Petit Collège des Carmes, in Avon, near Fontainebleau. During the German occupation, Father Jacques made the decision to open the institution’s doors to three Jewish fugitives from German persecution. This decision turned out to be fateful: He and his protégées were arrested and murdered.
Three Jewish youngsters – Jacques Halpern, Maurice Schlosser and Hans Helmut Michel – all fugitives from Germany, became students in the boarding school under false names chosen by Bunel. On 15 January, 1944, in response to an informer’s detailed and accurate information, the Gestapo appeared at the college gates. Without forewarning, they entered the classrooms and arrested the three Jewish students as well as Father Jacques, the school principal. The boys were taken first to Drancy, and on 3 February 1944 were put aboard transport No. 67 to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
Father Jacques was arrested and the college summarily closed by order of the Germans. Colonel de Larminat from Fontainebleau later reported that shortly before his arrest, Father Jacques said:
"I am sometimes accused of imprudence; I am told that since I am responsible for all the children at the Petit College, I do not have the right to expose myself to possible arrest by the Germans. But do you not think that if that happened and if, per chance, I should be killed, I would not thereby bequeath to my students and example worth far more than all the teaching I could give?"
Lucien Bunel was first interned in the prison at Fontainebleau, and then deported to Mauthausen. He managed to survive until liberation but, exhausted by the inhuman conditions of his imprisonment, he succumbed and died several days later.
In 1988 filmmaker Louis Malle, a former student of the boarding school who made a movie about the wartime events, told a New York Times reporter: "This was, for me, by far the strongest impression of my childhood, the memory that remains above all the others in its vividness." He remembered how, as Father Jacques was being led away with his three Jewish students, he turned to the watching students and said: "Au revoir et a bientot!" (Goodbye and see you soon!) Then, recalled Malle, "something very bizarre took place. Somebody began to applaud, and then everybody was applauding, despite the shouts of the Gestapo to keep quiet."
On January 17, 1985, Yad Vashem recognized Lucien Bunel, also known as Father Jacques, as Righteous Among the Nations.