Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Life in France under Nazi rule

This story appeared in a somewhat shorter version and as two columns in the Tri-Valley Herald, published in late October and early November 2006.

On June 14, 1940, 11-year-old Leon Vermont stood on the Boulevard Diderot and watched as German troops marched into Paris. Like most little boys at the time, Vermont was impressed by the good-looking soldiers, their apparent invincibility, even the height of the Nazis, each of whom looked at least six feet tall. Marching to the precise rhythm of a military band, the soldiers were, in Vermont’s young eyes, “a magnificent vision of a powerful and victorious army.”

Vermont, who today lives in Livermore and whose French accent graces his words, sat in a downtown restaurant with his son, Phillip, and recounted his years as a Jewish boy in occupied France.

Vermont’s story is a tale of loss, kindness, sadness, and luck.

“I don’t recall anything tragic happening in the early days of the occupation,” he said. “On the contrary, I recall people saying the Germans were not as bad as we had been led to believe.”

Vermont remembers attending a concert by a German band a few days after the occupation: “The musicians gave the children chocolate.”

As much of France fell under the spell of propaganda, even prompting some citizens to look favorably on the Nazis, the German high command was making plans for its “Final Solution,” the extermination of all Jews.

Today we know that over six million people—two-thirds of European Jews—were killed in the Holocaust, but the world was different then, Vermont said. No one could imagine calculated mass murder.

The first Jews were arrested in May 1941, almost a year after the occupation. The Nazi strategy was to move gradually, first to round up immigrant Jews whom many French natives were persuaded to think of as a nuisance. “Men like my dad, a cabinet maker, and a Polish Jew,” Vermont said.

In fact, Vermont’s father was among the first to be deported to Auschwitz, the death camp from which he would never return.

Careful not to upset the French and their sense of human rights, the Germans waited yet another year before arresting—with the willing assistance of the French police—20,000 Jewish men, women, and children on July 16, 1942.

Though doors were kicked in all over Paris that day, the officer who called at the apartment where Vermont’s family lived must have been “a real human being,” Vermont said. As the children hid under beds, another policeman approached to break down the door, but was stopped by the first policeman. “They walked to another door to arrest another family who opened their door.”

Vermont’s 44-year-old mother, who spoke Yiddish and little French, soon arranged for an escape. She would take her two older daughters and Vermont with her, leaving behind for the time being her two youngest children in the loving care of the apartment concierge.

During the dangerous train trip, the four family members passed themselves off as native Parisians. Babette, the oldest daughter, did most of the talking since she spoke perfect French.

Arriving at the border between occupied France and the southern portion of the country known as the “Zone libre,” they spent a frightening night walking through a forest to cross the border into relative safety, though this didn’t mean they were completely free. “We were immediately arrested and sent to a detention camp,” Vermont said.

After three weeks, Vermont joined a home, or “chateau,” in Chabannes with 60 children. He was allowed to stay in touch with his mother and sisters by mail.

Vermont explained that because the French government had proven itself to be pro-German, a number of homes supporting Jewish children were initially tolerated in the Zone libre.

Soon a letter arrived from his mother, written by one of his sisters, asking if the 13-year-old Vermont would gain permission from the director of the home to be away for a few days.

The director was Mr. Chevrier, a French catholic who years after the war was awarded the Medal of Righteous Gentile, an honor from the State of Israel. This award was granted for his dedication to saving Jewish children under his protection under difficult conditions.

Vermont was being asked by his mother to retrace the treacherous train journey back into occupied France, through heavily-guarded checkpoints, and into Nazi-controlled Paris to retrieve 5-year-old Felix and 10-year-old Regine.

Mr. Chevrier agreed, and so did Vermont. “No doubt, no analysis, no hesitation,” he said. “It was not until years later I realized the enormity of what I had done.”

With Felix and Regine reunited with their mother, Vermont settled into life in Chabannes. Unaware of the fate of his father or the death of so many Jews, Vermont found a way to laugh with his new friends, to play, to enjoy and study classical music performed on a piano and violin, and to read many books. The counselors at the home were professors, musicians, and engineers who fled Germany when Hitler came to power. “I recall many lively discussions on literature, philosophy, theater, art, and social studies,” he said.

Soon Vermont learned of plans to send as many Jewish children as possible to the United States. Because he was not born in France and younger than 15, he was among the first children selected. With his mother’s permission, he was assigned a date to sail from Marseilles for New York on November 7, 1942.

But after a tearful goodbye the day before his departure, the children woke to shouting. The German army had just invaded the south of France. “My life changed instantly,” Vermont said.

Soon the French national police—the Gendarmes—began making visits, and one day three gendarmes arrived to arrest the home’s head counselor, Ernst Jablonski. “He was a brilliant scholar with a Ph.D. in philosophy,” said Vermont, “a warm human being, funny and very kind.”

As Jablonski was escorted to the gate, 25 teenaged boys walked alongside him. “We gradually formed a chain around the three gendarmes,” Vermont said. Then, on a wordless cue, the boys grabbed the three policemen as Jablonski sprinted 50 yards to the forest and disappeared.

As the boys released their grip, the police slapped and screamed at two of the oldest boys. “Had they been German soldiers, they might have shot us on the spot,” Vermont said. “But they were Frenchmen, and weren’t conditioned like the Germans to shoot defenseless women and children.”

It was only a matter of time before everyone would be rounded up. “And we knew we had to do something,” Vermont said. “What to do was the question.”

To avoid arrest, the counselors and older children established a 24-hour watch. The chateau was in the country, so anyone approaching could be immediately spotted from the roof.

“And that’s exactly what happened,” said Vermont. “The gendarmes came back in the middle of the night.” Hearing the signal, the children dropped from the second story window and ran into the forest. “The same operation took place two or three times until the gendarmes threatened to close the chateau and arrest the director.”

In light of increasing pressure, the children—with the help of the French Underground—were given instructions to escape to other locations. Vermont was to go to Grenoble in the Italian-occupied section of France, and was given a false identity and a story that he was going to visit his grandparents.

The trip by train took three days, and he encountered both German soldiers and French police. “I had the easiest time with the Germans,” said Vermont, explaining that they couldn’t tell he was from Paris, and therefore out of place. “To this day I firmly believe that the French cops who interrogated me immediately knew my story was phony.”

Like most teenage boys, Vermont was constantly hungry, and to avoid starving he had to steal food from stores where fruits and vegetables were displayed out front. With the few francs he was given for the trip, he would occasionally purchase half a baguette without the mandatory rationing coupons. “I would wait for the bakery to be empty, then with my most convincing voice and sweetest smile—or saddest eyes—I’d ask the baker to sell me a piece of bread.”

Arriving in Grenoble on a rainy April day in 1943, Vermont was exhausted and hungry as he made his way to a convent. During his two-week stay, no one tried to convert him to Catholicism, yet he enjoyed attending services and reading books about religious and spiritual ideas.

From Grenoble, Vermont traveled by bus to a remote mountain village called La Compote where he lived for five months with a married couple who were peasant farmers. He rose at five every morning to feed farm animals, haul manure, chop wood, and do other chores. Like most teens, he resented the work, and was scolded when he neglected his duties.

On Sundays, Vermont took a sponge bath to clean off the week’s accumulated dirt. Then he accompanied the couple to church, where he enjoyed the music and met other children.

In fact, one Sunday after church Vermont noticed two girls walking along a street. As the adults talked, he ran over to meet the girls, and could tell, after a few words, they were from Paris.

“On the spot I did what I was strictly not supposed to do,” he said. “I told them I was from Paris, I was Jewish, and hiding in this village.” The girls confessed they were also Jewish and hiding with their parents. The three teens immediately became friends.

“I soon found out I was attracted to the younger girl,” said Vermont, adding that like him, she was 14. “But I didn’t know what to do.”

Eventually resolving to put his arm around her, Vermont couldn’t find the courage. But one day the sister brought a camera and said, “Let me take a picture of you two birds.” Vermont was in heaven. Then she added, “Leon, put your arm around her.”

To this day, Vermont has the picture.

A few weeks later he was relocated by the underground and never got to say goodbye. “I only hope with all my heart they survived the war.”

Happy to leave the difficult life at La Compote, Vermont found himself reunited with his mother, his oldest sister (Babette), and his two youngest siblings in a detention camp in Italian-occupied France, in a town called Annecy. (His other sister, Agnes, was being hidden in a convent.) The five family members shared a single room, and the children attended school. Life felt somewhat normal.

Still, Vermont said, “All we wanted was an end to the war and a return to Paris to be reunited with our father.”

They didn’t know, of course, that Jews were being exterminated and that their father, who was among the first to be arrested in Paris and deported to Auschwitz, was likely already dead.

Then, on a sunny fall day in November 1943, a truck full of Germans with machine guns arrived. “My sister Babette had been authorized to go into town, and I was outside in the backyard,” Vermont said. “The Germans surrounded the building, but not before I jumped over the fence and ran a hundred yards.”

Vermont hid among bushes and watched helplessly. Then it happened. His mother and his 6-year old brother Felix and 11-year-old sister Regine were forced with the other women and children into a second truck.

He would never see them again.

“For me, this is the most striking memory of the war, and a nightmarish symbol of man’s worst inhumanity to man,” he said.

Now alone, Vermont set off for the address he was taught should this happen. He walked for two days to Chambery, 40 miles away. He was given a Christian identity and attended a Catholic school for six months in Pont de Beauvoisin.

Then in April 1944, an underground worker came to the school. Vermont was excited to learn he would be crossing the border into Switzerland. What the worker didn’t say was that many people had been shot trying to cross the same border.

In spite of the risk, an underground guide, around midnight, quietly led Vermont and nine other children into Alps. After two hours, the man gave directions to the older boys, and turned back. “On we went and not a single word was spoken,” said Vermont, “until we reached a river.”

As they entered the freezing water, some fell in, including Vermont. “We started laughing as if this was the funniest thing that ever happened to us.”

Shivering, the children pressed on until a searchlight and a German “halt” stopped them. Three Germans in their distinctive helmets approached. “I thought this was it, “ said Vermont.

But the soldiers turned out to be Swiss from the German-speaking part of Switzerland. “At six in the morning our adventure was over, “ Vermont said. “A new life was about to begin for us.”

Vermont kept this story private for more than five decades until ten years ago when his sons began asking many questions about his younger years. As he sat in the downtown restaurant, he shared pictures, his own writings about the events, and copies of historical documents. He also drew maps to describe the distances he traveled and the location of various French cities.

Vermont said he respects the German people, and appreciates their great contributions to music, philosophy, and literature.

But about the Nazis and those who supported their evil campaign, he has a different feeling. He was happy, of course, to learn after the war that his sisters Babette and Agnes had survived. But with the loss of so many innocent lives, including the deaths of his mother, father, and his little brother and sister, Vermont experiences to this day an intensity of emotion and anger that makes him want to scream.


Anonymous said...

jim ott,

you have done it again!

i am so grateful YOU have shared leon vermont's story with us!

i am filled up and spilling over with thoughts and emotions

i realize in order for you to be able to write his story, he first had to be in a place, mentally, emotionally, spiritually; to share it.

and his family, they had to be in a place, mentally, emotionally, spiritually; to receive it.

not an easy task on either side, but i'm sure this contributes to his healing, and to their bonding, and to greater love and understanding all the way around.

and i'm lifted to consider that what is happening on a micro scale for this family, is also, and continues to happen on a larger scale for countries.

as horrific as the times were, there are so many lessons

and we need most importantly to APPLY what we learn; GLOBALLY.

i believe we've shown some progress but by no means have accomplished the greater goal

freedom for everyone. world wide respect.

every single individual story and human experience matters exponentially

and i'm switching pages somewhat abruptly, but i am quite taken here also by leon's mention of the music, philosophy and literature

in eric kandel's book, in search of memory, he speaks quite highly about the arts also. about the irony of such rich and vibrant art resulting from such an oppressive and authoritarian political system.

and we see quite extraordinary, original and stimulating architecture from daniel libeskind; he also comes to mind for me having read this story; his book, breaking ground.

i'm intrigued on so many levels..

this story and all it conjures up will float around in my consciousness for some time. on the whole i am so happy for this survivor and happy to know his children will not have to realize such loss of life; such fear; such horror and oppression

but the trauma continues in other parts of the world

there is no time for rest until all humans can live in a non-violent world; until ALL humans know freedom.

and how important that we use our anger to fuel compassionate action.

thank you! ~s.

Jim Ott said...


Thanks for your reflections on Leon's story. Very thoughtful...

I appreciate your comment, "there is no time for rest until all humans can live in a non-violent world; until ALL humans know freedom."

Leon expressed similar feelings as we spoke, and cautioned that in spite of the lessons of the holocaust, humans are still easily influenced by charismatic leaders, and we need to be on the alert.

By the way, I asked him about whether he went back to Paris after the war (yes, he did) and how he got to America. He came just before his first son was born. His wife is also a survivor of the war.

He also told me that after he started opening up about his life, he did a lot of research. He even went back and visited sites with his sons, including the farm at La Compote where--believe it or not--the same couple lived. They recognized Leon and cried with joy when they saw him. He always assumed they hated him because they were very strict. Leon's son, Phil, said he remembers seeing his father's face turn pale when they came upon the couple, and then saw their reaction.

Leon made my task of writing much easier by providing a lot of written material about his experiences.

I am priviledged to be able to share Leon's story. It gives me chills to think that I've met a man who stood along a boulevard in Paris when the Nazis marched in.

Thanks again for reading and for responding.


Melissa said...

love the pictures - they add a lot