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
La Shoah dans l’Histoire,
Esprit, juin 1997
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
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.
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.
collaborators who were lucky to escape summary execution, there
would be trials and sentencing. For their families and children,
shame was to last forever.
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
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:
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.
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…”
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
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!”
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
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.
us is a detached observer of the Holocaust. We are both