"Her story wasn't unique. During a December 1999 visit, I interviewed some of the rescuers from Romans and their families for a book I'm researching. The courageous stories of women rescuers must never be forgotten, for they show that choices can be made during times of conflict.
"Yet I also wanted to understand what spurred some people to risk their lives when so many others didn't. That question seemed to puzzle the rescuers. Saving children from certain death was a perfectly normal thing to do, they kept insisting. I realized that for them, it was an intuitive act stemming from an unwavering belief that justice is more precious than life itself."
This city that came to prominence in the Middle Ages is known for its leather goods and as a center of World War II resistance to the Nazi occupation, themes reflected in its two museums, the Resistance and Deportation Museum and the Shoe Museum, which are both housed in the same building.
The wartime museum pays tribute to armed fighters based in the nearby Vercors mountains until they were massacred by the German army in July 1944, but one story visitors won't find in the museum, perhaps because of lingering embarrassment about official Vichy government collaboration with the Germans, is the role local people played in rescuing and hiding Jewish children from a campaign of genocide.
According to Sabine Zeitoun, a French historian and author of books on the hidden children, 86 percent of participants in the rescue networks of southern France were women.
As with members of the armed resistance, rescuers risked being deported to concentration camps or executed if caught, but this was insufficient deterrent in the fall of 1942 for Germaine Chesneau, who ran a home for children in Peyrins, three miles from Romans-sur-Isère, nurse Aimée Regache and baker Andréa Genthon.
France had surrendered to the invading German forces in June 1940, leaving the southern part of the country in the hands of French Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain and his government based in the small town of Vichy.
With assistance from the French police, the Nazis soon began arresting Jewish men in the north and interning them in camps on French soil before starting to deport them to death camps in 1942. Some Jews managed to flee south, but even there they weren't completely safe. The Vichy government had begun anti-Semitic measures in 1940 and was arresting and interning foreign-born Jews. Some survived; others were deported and sent to their deaths in concentration camps.
When the Nazis began rounding up and deporting Jewish women and children in the occupied northern zone in July 1942 and the Vichy government followed suit in the south, Chesneau knew she had to act.
Seven years earlier Chesneau had refused to be intimidated by a local priest. The day in November 1935 that she had opened her home for children, he had told her he hoped she would only take in Catholic children. Chesneau was incensed, her daughter Andrée recalls. "Catholic, Protestant or Muslim doesn't matter to me," she had replied. "I'm not treating religions, I'm treating children."
Many of the Jewish children that Chesneau hid from 1942 to 1944 were brought to her by members of a rescue network created under the auspices of the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants. This Jewish organization, which opened its doors in Paris in 1933, was forced to operate underground after the Nazis began occupying France. By the end of the war, the group made up of mostly women had managed to save some 5,000 children by getting them over the border into Switzerland or hiding them in Christian homes like Chesneau's.
When two such children, little Hélène and Paul Spielmann, arrived at the Chesneaus' home for children, Germaine carefully buried their torah and prayer tumbler in the garden. "We were worried they would get damaged, so mother later dug them up and hid them inside a box of chocolate," said Andrée. When the youngsters left for Israel in March 1944, they had their religious items with them.
"Although mother was not religious and insisted that everyone was equal, she would just as staunchly defend the right for people to practice their religion," said Andrée. Her mother died in 1983.
Chesneau had a special ring installed on her telephone to alert her to a possible Gestapo raid. When a man on bicycle arrived from Romans one August day in 1944 to tell her that the Germans were on their way, the home was emptied within 15 minutes. Younger children, led by older ones, fled into the nearby woods and hid there until the region was liberated more than a week later.
Young women from the rescue network also brought about 80 children, sometimes as many as five at once, to nurse Aimée Regache, who found homes for each one. For her, rescuing children seemed like a perfectly normal thing to do.
"I realized they were Jewish children and they must be hidden," Regache says. "Sure, there were risks. But I didn't think about it." Families who hid them weren't told the children were Jewish. "I told them they were orphans."
She also used chestnut juice to erase their Jewish names from identification cards and then create false names that allowed them to get ration cards and sometimes even go to school.
One of the first to arrive was 11-year-old Georges Krol, who stayed with Regache and her husband, André, from 1942 to the end of the war. After Krol's father was arrested in Paris and deported to Auschwitz, Georges fled to the south of France with his mother and older sister.
Three days before Krol and about 100 Jewish children were to emigrate to the United States in November 1942, the Germans invaded the south of France and the port of Marseilles was closed. Fanny Loinger, a young social worker with the network, brought Krol to Romans.
Now a Toronto resident, Krol has continued to visit his "adopted family" every few years. In November he spent two weeks with Aimée Regache and visited with her daughters Patricia and Colette. Regache's eldest daughter, Anne-Marie, who lives in Lyons, was born in November 1943.
Regache asked baker Andréa Genthon in late 1942 if she would take in 14-year-old Tony Edelman. "I said yes right away," Genthon recalls. "I didn't ask my husband first." She knew the young girl was Jewish.
Edelman and her family had fled their native Luxembourg and crossed France in hopes of escaping to either Portugal or Switzerland. Instead, they were caught and interned at the Rivesaltes camp in southeastern France.
A social worker from the network got Tony and her younger brother and sister out of the camp and brought them to Romans. Tony's name was altered to Antoinette Edel to conceal her identity.
"If you aren't reunited with your family, we'll adopt you," Genthon reassured a worried Tony one day. Her family survived the war. Edelman later married Louis Laufert and immigrated to Toronto. But she never forgot the couple who saved her life. She paid them a surprise visit in 1992 and was instrumental in having them honored as Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel four years later.
Although few children kept in touch with their rescuers, Georges Krol has clearly become a member of the Regache family.
"Here is the testimony from my brother, Mr. Krol," begins a letter from Patricia Regache to officials at Yad Vashem, the Israeli body created in 1953 to ensure that the horrors of the holocaust are never forgotten. Although she was born more than 10 years after the war ended and Krol had moved to Canada, the bond between them is as close as between two siblings.
"He's my brother and he's so far away," Patricia says, bursting into tears. Krol had flown home to Canada the day before, after a two-week visit with his adopted family.
At the home of Genthon's son, Jacky, he and his wife Simone are preparing for their upcoming trip to Florida. It will be a long plane trip from Romans, but will be worth it. That's where they'll be spending a midwinter vacation with Tony Laufert and her family.