One of the unique phenomena of the Holocaust period was the rescue of Jewish children in France: a network of protective homes established by different organizations, both Jewish and Christian, whose members rescued children and brought them to remote places, in order to protect them from persecution and enable them to live a normal life under abnormal circumstances. Thanks to this rescue endeavor, thousands of Jewish children were saved. This is a story of courage and determination, a story of sacrifice, loyalty and dedication.
This exhibition tells the story of three children's homes: the home in Chamonix, the home in Izieu, and the home in Chabannes.
On the eve of World War II there were approximately 330,000 Jews living in France. Following the German occupation of France in June 1940, many Jews were arrested and interned in concentration camps – initially inside France, but in spring 1942 there started the first deportations of Jews to camps in Germany and Eastern Europe. At first, most of the Jews incarcerated were immigrants without French citizenship who had arrived from Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and refugees who had fled from Nazi Germany. Gradually, however, the French police and the German authorities also started arresting French Jews.
Mass arrests of Jews in Paris and in the German Occupied Zone began in early 1941. From summer 1942, arrests also began to take place in areas of France not under German control but under the authority of the collaborationist "Vichy Regime". By the time that France was liberated in the summer of 1944, some 77,000 Jews had been arrested and deported to extermination camps in Eastern Europe.
In response to the persecution of the Jews, many in France – Jews and non-Jews alike – became active in hiding Jewish children who were at risk of deportation. Several organizations were central to these rescue operations:
The Children's Aid Society - OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants) maintained children's homes with the financial assistance of the American Joint Distribution Committee and French Jewish communal organisations. The directors and staff at these homes were idealistic young men and women, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who treated the children in their care with affection and tenderness. OSE activists would enter the detention camps of their own free will, in order to make contact with the children and their parents, and gain their trust and eventual consent to attempt to smuggle the children out of the camps and bring them to OSE homes and other hiding places. Members of the Jewish Scouts of France - EIF (The Eclaireurs Israelites de France), established by Robert Gamzon, did similar work. Gamzon was active in the Union of French Jews - UGIF (Union Generale des Israelites de France) which was established during the Holocaust. After the roundups of summer 1942, he set up a rescue organization called "the Sixth" (Sixieme) whose members also took Jewish children into hiding in children's homes. The "Amelot Committee" organization (Rue Amelot), founded by David Rappaport, and the Zionist Youth Movement - MJS (Mouvement de Jeunesse Sioniste) operated in the same way.
One of the repercussions of the German Occupation was the abrupt cessation of the hidden children's education – both Jewish and general – and they were forced to start studying clandestinely. In an effort to compensate for this, the children's homes offered a wide range of social and educational activities, despite the meager resources at the staff's disposal. They did everything in their power to continue the children's Jewish and general education, and to enable a sense of routine and normalcy. Staff members even took the children on outings, mainly in rural and mountainous areas where the danger of being discovered was lower. Many of the children who survived thanks to these children's homes remember their rescuers fondly, recalling their efforts to create a loving, supportive and protective environment. In a reality where the children were alone, vulnerable and terrified of being hunted down, and in a world where so many of those around them were either indifferent or actively hostile, there were also individuals who watched out for them and tried to save them. Many of the non-Jewish rescuers of these children were later recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
There were children's homes throughout occupied France, but mainly in the South of France. Some were near the borders with Spain and Switzerland. Many of the rescuers tried to take Jewish children and even babies out of detention camps and other dangerous areas in France to safety in children's homes. From these homes, many Jewish children were eventually smuggled out of France. Thousands of Jews and non-Jews risked their lives to save Jewish children in France during World War II.