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A NEW BOOK: Hunting Down the Jews - Vichy, the Nazis and Mafia Collaborators in Provence 1942-1944. by Isaac Levendel and Bernard Weisz

A NEW BOOK: Hunting Down the Jews - Vichy, the Nazis and Mafia Collaborators in Provence 1942-1944. by Isaac Levendel and Bernard Weisz

The book, with an introduction by Serge Klarsfeld, has been released by Enigma Books, New York, and at the moment, it is available at the editor’s website www.enigmabooks.com and elsewhere.

The introduction by Serge Klarsfeld can be found at: http://www.levendel.com/html/serge_klarsfeld_preface.html

First Chapter

My Libération

by Isaac Levendel and Bernard Weisz

 … How do we react to unadulterated crime, when the foundations of human behavior are at stake? Can we then attempt to isolate the crime from its category, history from morality, and science from conscience?

- François Bedarida - La Shoah dans l’Histoire, Esprit, juin 1997

O

n June 7 or 8, 1944, during the final hours before Libération, I was sitting on the rack of Monsieur Steltzer’s bike. We left Carpentras early in the morning and wound our way through the country roads to the village of Sarrians. Monsieur Steltzer turned right and onto a cart lane. Once in a while, a tire kicked up a pebble with a pop. On both sides of the lane, were fields of tomato plants, and plum trees; at the end of the lane, an old farm with a huge door in the middle – it looked huge to me; this was the shed, and the small door to the living quarters on the right side, behind the well. All around the farm house, hedges of tall fir trees served as windbreaks for the cultivated plots.

 I arrived at the Brès family farm, a few days after the arrest of my mother. I was not yet 8 years ols, and I escaped arrest by sheer luck. During the years that followed, outwardly, I behaved as if none of this had ever happened; until January 1992.

 Shortly after my arrival, Michel Brès, who was two years older than me, led me to one row of fir trees that hid the lifeless remains of a British fighter plane: a cockpit without the wings.  Burnt patches of silk and loose ropes - what was once a parachute – were scattered all around, attesting to the tragic end of the pilot. Although the farm was isolated from the road to the town of Orange and from the village of Sarrians, it was located exactly on the path of waves of bomber and fighter planes on their way north. On June 15, they were targeting the two Luftwaffe air fields – Caritat and Plan de Dieu. On July 18 and 25 it would be the turn of the railroad tracks and the strategically positioned Orange train station that was used by the Germans as a communication hub for supply to the wide southeast area and the eventual retreat to the north, along the narrow Rhône valley. On August 13, a steady flow of bombers converged on the bridges and major roads. It looked like the allies were cutting the essential communication arteries.

From the roof top of the Brès family farm, we can see the devastation. Flames in the distance flared up long into the silence of the night. Libération was now at hand. Everyone was rejoicing, since it would all finally be over. Life would soon be back to normal for everybody. Well, for most people.

On August 26, 1944, the word was out: the Germans have left; they ran away as fast as they could. They took with them their most valuable collaborators; the others would have to fend for themselves. The entire Brès family rushed to the village; I follow.

The square is packed in front of the village hall where a self proclaimed council is in session. The agenda does not include the reestablishment of essential services. First things first: the popular court of justice of Sarrians was in session. Outside, on the square, there is talk of revenge against a doctor and his wife who performed abortions for the benefit of some Sarrians “women of easy virtue”, the grocer who profited from black market and a manufacturer who denounced Resistance fighters. Suddenly, a shot is fired. Everyone looks at the village hall door. A man staggers out and collapses at the bottom of a few steps. He is bleeding at his temple. “Serves him right!” breaks the tense silence, and the people on the square burst into applause. This is what Libération is supposed to be.

For the collaborators who were lucky to escape summary execution, there would be trials and sentencing. For their families and children, shame was to last forever.

My own Libération took a lifetime of waiting. At first, waiting desperately for my mother’s return, and when that hope dwindled and vanished, waiting for the courage to face reality and seek the truth.

On a warm  summer evening in 1994, at the darker corner of a Marseille outdoor café, a kind Marseille archive employee was holding a single sheet of paper, the report of the confrontation[*] that took place before Judge Jean Fabre XE "Fabre, Judge Jean" , at the Marseille Court of justice on July 20, 1945, between Moise Benyacar, an Auschwitz survivor from Le Pontet, my village near Avignon, and Charles Palmieri XE "Palmieri, Charles (Merle)" , a notorious Marseille gangster:

Moise Benyacar:

I was arrested in Le Pontet on June 6, 1944, at half past noon, by 5 men, among whom Charles Palmièri being now present. I was arrested together with my wife and a baby, three and a half months old, we were brought to the village hall of Le Pontet; there several people were brought, first my sister in law Mme Kremer, presently deported and without any news, Mme Levander (sic) from Le Pontet, presently deported and without any news, as well as Mme Bitran who was liberated and is now in Avignon... We were taken by the same people to the barracks of the Engineering Regiment, and then to the Sainte-Anne prison, then to Drancy, Auswich (sic), Bukenwal (sic) and Dachau, where I was liberated. My wife and my child were deported at the same time as me, and I have no news from them.

 Charles Palmieri:

 I do not contest having made the arrest in company of Billartz who was the boss ; he belonged to the Gestapo of Marseille under the orders of Bauer XE "Bauer, Willy" ; also were present Bergeron XE "Bergeron, Louis (aka Toto)"  and Blanc XE "Blanc, Lucien" ; Bride XE "Bride, Rodolphe"  was with us that day, I do not know whether he stayed at the village hall or went to the house of Benyacar. I want to make it known that one member of our team told to the wife of Benyacar not to come, this happened after the departure of the German Billartz, but the woman said that she did not want to separate from her husband and she came with her child…

 This was the first time I became truly aware of the fate of my mother; fifty years later. More than a year has passed since Gaston Vernet, our long lost next door neighbor, had told me over the phone that the men who had arrested my mother were not Germans, since I had accepted Madame Steltzer’s statement “C’est les Allemands qui l’ont fait!” (The Germans did it). “They spoke French with the accent of Marseille,” said Gaston. He tersely explained: “Mme Levandel had run away from the Marseille men through her back door and taken refuge in my home across the street. They were on her heels. In our kitchen, she seized a knife and tried to cut her veins. Then, they dragged her bleeding to their vehicle waiting outside…”

“They spoke French with the accent of Marseille.” It was this testimony of Gaston that had brought me to the Marseille archives and to the sympathetic employee seated across the table from me, at the Marseille coffee shop, on this 1994 summer evening. He was holding tight on the document and did not want to let go of it. I would have to send in the usual official request for release… The writing of Un Hiver en Provence3 and its American translation4 put some order in my childhood memories.

I tried to imagine Charles Palmieri XE "Palmieri, Charles (Merle)" . What kind of person would want to do such a job, and why? How did he get from Marseille to Le Pontet and how did he become aware of us? And all the men who are mentioned in the confrontation report: Billartz, Bauer XE "Bauer, Willy" , Bergeron XE "Bergeron, Louis (aka Toto)" , Blanc XE "Blanc, Lucien" , and Bride XE "Bride, Rodolphe" ?

Maybe they were the four or five “Gestapo” men whom I remember from a hot day in May 1944. I was taking a hot bath outside, on the sidewalk in the back of our store; as usual, my mother had set up the water tub to heat in the sun, a few hours earlier. Suddenly, the men burst out of a grey Citroën “traction-avant familiale”    [†] , stopped next to the sidewalk, and rushed into the “Sporting Bar” two doors away. They were all in dark tailored suits, wearing the distinctive “chapeau mou” [‡]  and carrying brown leather brief cases. All the neighbors stopped in their tracks and everyone hurried inside. My mother quickly picked me up, and wrapped me in a towel. In a few seconds the street was empty, although nothing happened that day. The men were just going to a “routine” meeting in a back room of Monsieur Gros’s Sporting Bar; maybe they were meeting with their informers?

I saw those men again a few days later, at the end of May 1944, when, “in spite of the events”, we went to the yearly horse races at the Roberty race track in Le Pontet. They were engaged in a friendly conversation with German officers in uniforms, next to the paddock. As soon as my mother saw them, she turned on her heels, and pulled me away. “We’ll watch the horses later!”

      No wonder I “took the bait” when Bernard Weisz presented me in 2005 with a list of more than 200 deportees from the Vaucluse. The list was obviously incomplete as some names were missing, and could not resist the drive to find all the victims. When we reached together the 400 deportee mark, I asked him a question that each new name would bring up all along in my mind: “Would you want to know who arrested them, how did they do it and why?” He did not hesitate a minute.

            Bernard was born in Marseille shortly after the war, and did not experience the Holocaust. But he lived it deeply. He lived it as a young child, holding the hand of his mother, née Mossé, on her way to errands in their native neighborhood. “This store owner was a collaborator and that one too!” as the boy was learning the local geography of the Holocaust.

            Like many Jews, the Weiszes and the Mossés had lost a significant number of their family members, uncles, aunts and cousins.

       Without Bernard, this book would never have seen the light of day. Tireless in the archives, relentless in clarifying the obscure, persistent in exploring “other angles”, always ready to reconsider when a new fact emerges, he has the mindset of a researcher. I could not have dreamt of a stronger partner.

 Neither of us is a detached observer of the Holocaust. We are both irresistibly engaged.

Isaac Levendel


* In the French judicial system, the confrontation is a procedure which takes place under the supervision of an investigating judge and during which a witness testifies in the presence of the defendant who is asked to react.

[†] A Citroen family-size front wheel drive car, that was popular with the police and the mob, among others.

[‡] Fedora


 
   
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