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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
“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,”
—Jill Walker Robinson