My name is Rochelle Sameroff and I was born Rachel Kokotek on December 27, 1931 in Paris, France to Wolf & Bronia Kokotet. My parents, both Polish, met and married in Bendzin, Poland. Shortly after they were married in 1929, they moved to Paris in search of work. My father came to France “stateless” and I’m not sure why. It could have been because he refused to serve in the Polish army or because he was a socialist or just because he was Jewish. He was a furniture refinisher and came home after work smelling of paint thinner, lacquer and turpentine. Home was a small 3rd floor walk up apartment not to far from the Bastille at 19 Rue Beccaria in Pais XIIem. My sister Fernande was born on June 26, 1938.
When the Germans invaded France in 1940, my mother, sister and I had to evacuate Paris and my father was sent to work at an ammunition camp. France capitulated and we all returned to Paris. By 1942 the Vichy government and the Germans were randomly picking up men for deportation. When they started the roundups, my father began to sleep in a vacant apartment on a different floor as not to be taken.
In France, school ends the week before Bastille Day, July 14th. I went on the last school trip of the year to Napoleon’s Tomb sometime before the end of the school year and shortly after that became ill. I was hospitalized at the Trousseau Children’s Hospital and placed in isolation for scarlet fever. My mother came every day to visit and waved through the glass partition. The last time my mother came she was carrying my sister, Fernarnde, who had also been in the hospital for an ear infection. My father came only once, on Sunday, his day off.
For on July 16 and 17, 1942, the Vichy French police followed German orders rounded up the Jews of Paris taking them to the Veldrome stadium known as Vel D’Hiv. My mother’s screams must have brought my father out of his hiding place for they were all taken away. Through my mother’s terror of what was going on around her she had the mindset to let a neighbor know where her daughter was. As a child I was in the hospital a number of times, usually at the Rothschild Hospital. I don’t know why my mother brought me to the Trousseau Children’s Hospital but it was fortuitous since the French police canvassed the city including the Rothschild Hospital picking up Jews and taking them to the stadium. They overlooked the Trousseau Hospital.
From Vel D’Hiv my parents and sister were separated. My parents were sent to Camp Pithiviers and my sister was transported to Beaune La Roland, both were French internment camps. Documents from Camp Pithiviers survived and through those meticulous records I know that my parents were questioned separately and one of the questions they were asked were how many children you have. My father replied two and my mother knowing that she had only one child with her when she was rounded up said she only had one. She didn’t want the authorities finding me.
From there they were all sent to Auschwitz on cattle cars. My father was the first to go on Convoy 13 on July 31, 1942 and arrived at Auschwitz on August 2nd where 693 men and 350 women were numbered, only 13 survived. My mother was next on Convoy 16 on August 7, 1942 and arrived on the 9th. 197 men and 871 women and children were on that Convey, only 63 men were selected for work detail and the rest perished immediately. The children at Beaune la Rolande were the last to be sent and deported from Drancy. It wasn’t until three weeks later that my four year old sister, Fernande, left on Convoy 25 on August 28, 1942 arriving on the 31st. Documents show all perished.
I was transferred to a regular ward and couldn’t understand why my mother stopped visiting. I was scared and lonely but two neighbors from my apartment house came to visit me, Madame Registel and another woman. One time they told me, my mother couldn’t come because she had a headache. Another time it was because she had a problem with her leg. When I was to be discharged, Madame Registel came to pick me up. My clothing had a Yellow Star sewn on the breast and Madame Registel told me to follow her, but to walk behind her so it did not look like we were together.
Upon arriving at my apartment building, Madame Registel took me to her apartment which was located to the right of my parents. The door to my family’s apartment had a big police seal on it. Madame Registel had some of my things- my bed, some clothing, a doll, my roller skates and some family pictures. I don’t know if my mother gave Madame these items or if she went into the apartment afterwards and took them. At some point Madame Registel told me my parents had escaped with my sister to Switzerland. She didn’t want to tell me the truth because she thought it would be easier for me to think that they might be okay. That lie haunts me to this day because I still dream my mother didn’t love me enough and abandoned me. In reality Madame Registel was the women that my mother asked to look after me and my mother’s last thoughts that terrible day in July were of me.
Madame Registel was a sweet older woman who I owe a great deal to. She worked for the railroad, as did her married daughter. She also had a son who was a prisoner of war in Germany. It was through her efforts that I survived the war. Madame arranged for me to go to a convent school in the country. The school was St. Helene run by the sisters of St. Vincent DePaul. During the war many people who lived in the city sent their children to live in the catholic schools in the countryside. I wanted to please Madame Registel and when I was asked by her if I wanted to become a Catholic, I said yes. I still have a picture of myself in a white first Holy Communion dress. I was given the baptismal name of Mary Helene.
I stayed at St. Helene from August 1942 until August 1943. The Germans began searching for Jewish children in the parochial schools. The Mother Superior of the convent contacted my godmother, Madame Registel who made alternate arrangements for me. Through a contact at the railroad, she found a family in the countryside that would take in a child from the city. When they were told that she was Jewish, their response was “she is still a child. We will take her in”.
So in August 1943, I moved to Avrolles to live with the Voinot family at Boulangerie d’Avrolles par St. Florentin, Yonne. Avrolles is a small village in Burgundy, not far from Chablis. Jeanette and Roger ran a bakery in the village and had one daughter, Nicole, who was 5 years younger than I. If anyone asked, they said that I was their niece who was staying with them. At the beginning I did not go to school because they didn’t have the proper papers to register me. But one day Madame and Monsieur La Clotre who ran the small school came to Jeannette and Roger and told them to send the child to school without the proper documentation for they must have figured out I was a Jewish child
I lived in Avrolles for just over two years. When I was at the St Helene convent school, I was always cold and hungry. In Avrolles, I always had enough to eat since it was in the country. During the war, everyone had food ration cards. My cards had Jude stamped on it, so Jeanette and Roger could not redeem them for food. Since the Voinot’s owned a bakery, there was always bread to eat and they had a garden where they grew vegetables.
I loved the time spent in Avrolles and being still so young did not realize the danger all around me. I had friends, went to school, played, climbed the cherry trees in the orchard, did chores and felt very close to Jeanette and Roger and Nicole. I knew that I couldn’t tell anyone that I was Jewish or my real name for everyone in the village called her Renee. I did not fully comprehend the seriousness of the situation. France was occupied by the Germans and like other towns; there were German soldiers living in this village. The ones wearing green uniforms were the regular soldiers and the ones wearing black uniforms were the SS. The soldiers were billeted in people’s homes. Luckily they did not have any German soldiers living with them but the Germans were living right across from the bakery. I was very lucky to be taken in by such loving people. They risked their lives and the lives of their family to protect me. Although I never spoke about being Jewish, some people must have figured it out. There was an older couple who ran a cafe across from the bakery. They had their two grandchildren living with them. All the children used to pick on the granddaughter, calling her names. One day the grandmother called me over and told me if I didn’t stop calling her granddaughter names, she would start calling me a dirty Jew. Obviously I stopped immediately.
When I graduated from grammar school which occurred after Paris was liberated, my teachers put my real name, Rachel Kokotek, on my school certificate. When my name was called, I did not go up to accept my diploma. Everyone knew me as Renee Cocotten and I felt ashamed for them to find out that I was Jewish and had lied to them. I sheepishly picked up my diploma after everyone left the room.
When the war ended, a cousin on my father’s side went to my family’s apartment in Paris to see if anyone had survived. The concierge told her no one had returned, but the lady on the third floor might know something about the daughter. The information she received from Madame Registel was passed on to the Jewish Agency. Shortly afterwards, Jeannette and Roger were contacted by one of the Jewish Agencies. The Agency was gathering all the hidden children so that when the parents returned, the parents would be able to locate their children in one central spot. I was beside myself. I did not want to leave them to live in a children’s home. When the Agency came to take me away, I cried so. I did not want to leave and Jeanette and Roger did not want to let me go but they were given no choice since I wasn’t their child to keep.
In September of 1945 I arrived at Camp Juliet in Normandy. It was run by a young German Jewish couple with a small baby. The old chateau was filled with kids like her, many were even younger. Some had come from the D. P. camps in Germany and didn’t even speak French. I lived at Camp Juliet for a year and four months. During my time there I took classes in Hebrew and like all the other children who were not claimed by parents or family, was preparing for a life in Palestine.
For Christmas of 1945, I was able to return to Avrolles to visit Jeanette, Roger and Nicole when they sent me money for a train ticket. It was a long journey by train and I had to change trains in Paris. Since I was in Paris, I decided to try to find my parent’s best friends thinking if they survived maybe they may be able to help me with some money or clothes. To this day, I really don’t know how I found the apartment. I remembered the metro stop and started walking in the direction that I thought was correct. I went into three apartment buildings before I rang the bell to the apartment of Monsieur Schmuel Zonendlich, whom answered the door and was thrilled to see me alive. He survived by hiding in the countryside but his family had perished. He was surprised to see me and wondered why I wasn’t with my grandfather, aunts and uncles in New York. I knew I had family in New York but I didn’t know how to find them since the family name had been changed when they came to the U.S. He told me to go speak to Monsieur Schwimmer, who he thought might be a distant relative to mine. I went and found Monsieur Schwimmer’s notions store. Monsieur Schwimmer was not a relative but knew where my grandfather was. It turned out that his sister lived on the same block as my grandfather in the Bronx. He wrote to his sister and gave my address and information to be forwarded to my grandfather. Soon after, I received a letter with affidavits for the U.S. Consulate to start the process to come to the United States. My family in the United States must have contacted H.I.A.S (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) to assist in the process for I remember making many trips to the H.I.A.S. office which was located in Paris just off the Champs Elysee.
In January, 1947 I left the Children’s Home to stay in Paris and lived with friends of my parents until I could obtain passage to New York. This was also the last time I saw Madame Registel. Every day I would check with H.I.A.S. to see if they had a place on a ship for here. At the time many of the ships were being used to bring the American soldiers home. That is probably one of the reasons it took so long.
March 1947 at age 15, I arrived in New York Harbor after a long boat ride from Sweden. When I disembarked, I was met by my entire family, my Grandfather Jacob, Aunt Sally and Betty, Uncle Reuben and Aaron and their families. It had been almost five years since I last saw family.
Postscript: January 2010
I called France to wish Jeannette Voinot a Happy New Year. Jeannette lives not too far from Avrolles where the bakery was in St. Floretin and is now a widow, 98 years young, a great grandmother and unfortunately caring for her sick daughter Nicole who is also a widow. She lives with her daughter Nicole Chartier at 5 bis Rue Des Chantelops, St Florentin, Yonne France and can be reached at the following phone number (from the United States) 011 33 386351451. I promised Jeannette I will visit for her 100th birthday.
When I convey the phone conversation I had to my daughter she asks if I had ever made Madame Registel, Jeannette and Roger Voinot Righteous People among the Nations through Yad Vashem. I never did because the Voinot’s never wanted any recognition for they never thought they did anything special. My daughter convinced me that time was running out and that especially for Jeannette and for her great grandchild this part of their family history should not be lost.
My daughter went onto the Yad Vashem web site and gave me the information on how to make these three courageous individuals Righteous among the Nations. At the same time she decided to look up her grandparents and aunt under the Names of Remembrance. She had never thought of doing this before because she had always known the story and didn’t think there was anymore to know. My sister’s information was there. Her place and date of birth and the convoy she left on before reaching Auschwitz. All documented because of the research Serge Klarsfeld did in the 1960’s when he wrote the Memorial of Deportation of the Jews of France about the fate of the French Jews during World War II.
But, when she clicked onto the names of my parents it read that personal testimony was given about them. She clicked again and a name appeared that I had never heard of, Rivka Degani, cousin. Cousin of whom and another click brought her to the site of every single testimonial this women had given, my entire mother’s side of the family in Poland. Family I knew practically nothing about and thought had all perished in the Shoah. The testimonials had been scanned into the Yad Vashem web site but were all in Hebrew. The mystery of how Rivka is related to me needed to be solved but the most important question was is she still alive and how can I find her. A phone call to Israel to my first cousin, Fela Weiss, on my father’s side brought me the answers. Through the personal testimonial an address was listed. Fela followed that lead and found Rivka in Tel Aviv. She is 87 years old and a first cousin to my mother. She speaks Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish and I speak French, English and very poor Yiddish. A few days later Rivka calls me and with her granddaughter on the line who speaks English we begin to converse and family is reconnected 65 years after the end of the Holocaust. This June 2010 my grandchild who made aliyah is to be married in Haifa. I will be there along with my three children, their spouses and my five grandchildren and we are planning to meet Rivka and her family.