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Volume 41. No. 2.
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In her research, French Professor Monique Saigal interviews women of the French Resistance and unveils her own past, coming to terms with her Jewish roots.

Reclaiming the Past

She was three years old when she left her family in Paris, boarding a train for a village in the south of France. All alone, she remembers standing on the platform in Bordeaux. “No one came to pick me up,” says Monique Saigal.

It was August 1942. World War II raged around her. Nazis were killing Jews. North France was occupied by the Germans; the south, “Vichy France,” was still a free zone.

Her family told her she was going on a “vacation.” As far as she knew—and believes even today—a group called La Maison du Prisonnier (“The Prisoner’s House”) was offering a month’s retreat to the south of France for children whose fathers had died in the war. Her family had just learned that her Romanian father who had enlisted in the French army had been killed two years previously, found dead in a trench.

“It was a vacation,” she says. “I was not sent to the South because I was Jewish. I was sent because my father had died in the war.”

The little girl stood on the platform in her long red dress, crying. A Catholic family awaiting the arrival of a four-year-old boy who was not on the train stood nearby and reached out to comfort her. They decided to take her home with them. Jacqueline Baleste, the 21-year-old daughter who later became Saigal’s godmother, believes: “Angels sent me this little girl.”

As Saigal’s month in Luë neared an end, the family keeping her received a telegram from her uncle. Saigal’s grandmother—who had served as caretaker for both Saigal and her 13-month-old sister while their mother worked—had been taken by the French police. (Saigal’s 18-year-old uncle, she later learned, took part in the Resistance. The grandmother protected him, sacrificing herself.) Her grandmother was sent to an internment camp in Drancy, then to Auschwitz. She was dead two weeks later.

The uncle asked the Baleste family if Saigal could stay longer and if they could help locate a home for her sister. Jacqueline Baleste, like so many other Christians protecting Jewish children during the war, baptized Saigal so she would be safe, becoming her godmother. (To this day, Saigal keeps in touch with her godmother via weekly phone calls and yearly visits.)
In November 1942, the Germans moved into the south of France, forcing families to house officers two per household. “In those days, you had to prove you weren’t Jewish,” Saigal remembers. “They arrested you for anything. You had to have papers to identify yourself.” Her godmother worried that the Nazi officers would discover Saigal’s true heritage. Saigal was fortunate; her ancestry was never revealed. When her mother came to visit, an Algerian neighbor denounced her mother but never Saigal.

Saigal returned to her biological mother as a “good Catholic” in 1950, after her mother remarried an American who had studied in Paris and stayed to work at the American Embassy.

Details of her early years remain sketchy for Saigal, who was too young to comprehend her surroundings. Her mother still won’t talk about the war that brutally took the lives of six million Jews. They believed they shouldn’t talk about it, Saigal says of that generation of parents and grandparents.

The Hidden Children Foundation/Anti-Defamation League estimates Jewish children sheltered by Christians and other non-Jews during the war numbered in the “tens of thousands.” These heroic families took extraordinary risks, facing execution, deportation or camp sentences had their efforts to shield Jewish children been discovered.

“It was dangerous after the war. No one talked about being Jewish,” remembers Saigal, who faithfully practiced Catholicism, not fully acknowledging her Jewish ancestry. “I wanted everybody to know I was Catholic. I did not feel I was Jewish. I had no Jewish upbringing.”
“I remember coming to the states when I was 18 and being told that Saigal was a Jewish name,” she adds, recognizing her own naïveté of the time.

Saigal married a Catholic man and raised her two daughters in the Catholic faith. “I was caught between two religions,” she says.

Her initial self-reflection occurred in the 1990s when she met with a therapist who specialized in the psyches of children who were hidden during the war. Saigal remembers the therapist informing her that she had been living a hidden life. “Why am I ashamed to say I’m Jewish?” Saigal’s journey began to evolve.

Saigal, who has taught at the College since 1965, added a discussion on World War II to her course on Paris. She later added a section on the Resistance, bringing in guests to speak of their personal experiences. Filmmaker Pierre Sauvage made the movie, Weapons of the Spirit, about a Protestant town—Le Chambon-sur-Lignon—in France where 5,000 Jews were hidden, including Sauvage and his family, during the war. Another speaker, Mireille Albrecht, was a young girl working with her mother during the Resistance.

The people of France were bravely responsible for saving the greatest numbers of Jewish people during the Holocaust, said Saigal, perhaps to counterbalance the fact that the French government was the only one of the conquered European countries to collaborate with the Germans.

Her godmother was honored in 1996 when the Baleste family name was inscribed on the Honor Wall in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel.

In 2001, Saigal signed up for a trip to research the children of the Holocaust, with scheduled visits to internment camps in France. Though the trip was cancelled, Saigal made the trip on her own behalf with her husband. While there, she began interviews for her research into the women of the French Resistance.

Lucie Aubrac freed her husband from a Nazi prison three times during the war, once by coordinating an attack on the prison van transporting him. Maïti Girtanner lived near the demarcation line in Poitiers and transported refugees by boat to the free zone. Jeanne Bohec enlisted in the French free army in Britain where she invented explosives, parachuting into France to teach resisters how to manufacture explosives for sabotage. Brigitte Friang joined the Resistance while in high school, later decoding aerial operation transmissions.

“They didn’t hesitate to disobey,” says Saigal. “They felt this was an injustice.”

For her research, Saigal will share the stories of 20 women—six of them Jewish, who served as saboteurs, telegram coders and coordinators of parachuting and weapons distribution within occupied France. Some of them were deported; others were tortured. Many kept their activities secret from their families, not wanting to put them at risk.

“These women risked their lives. They had an ideal,” said Saigal. “The people who saved the Jews—It’s not that they loved the Jews. They were horrified that innocent people were being killed. They were fighting for liberty and justice. They were fighting for honor.”

Saigal now knows that her own mother—who joined the army in 1945—was involved in the Resistance, hiding weapons in baby strollers and employing other tactics. But her mother has pushed that time out of her mind.

“I’m not a historian,” she says. “It’s personal. I want these women to be known. I think I owe it to my grandmother who was killed in Auschwitz. I owe it to my family, especially my uncle.” Most importantly, she owes it to herself—so she too can be freed of past fears and shames.
Saigal is still searching. “It is a way to put my past in perspective,” she says.
—Jill Walker Robinson

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