Thursday, 03 Jan 2013

Written by Rene Pfertzel

In the spring 1940, a Jewish Lithuanian family settled down in a small village in Normandy called Les Ventes. Ephraim and Emma Rabinovitch, born in the 1890’s in Eastern Europe, came there with their three children aged 23, 19 and 16. They bought a farm, with poultry and food-crops. As foreigners, they had to register at the Prefecture de l’Eure, the local administration, where they were granted a temporary residence permit for foreigners. This was in April. Two months later, the Germans invaded France, split the country into different zones, and Normandy was part of the occupied France.

The civil servants changed, summoned to take an oath to Marechal Petain, the Chief of the newly established “French State”. It is fair to say that very few of the Prefects, the representatives of the government in the departments refused to take this oath. In the Eure department, the Prefect refused and was immediately replaced by an accomplice of the new regime.

A couple of months later, in October 1940, the French State implemented a new status for the Jews. It was a French initiative, because the government was run by fascists, and also probably to please the German occupiers.

As a lot of Jews living in France at that time, the Rabinovitch family went to the town council to be registered as foreign Jews. I found in the local archives three censuses of the Jews, and their name appeared three times. They would have never imagined that France, the first country to grant citizenship to the Jews, would harm them in any way. From 1942, they also wore the yellow star, as many did. How could an entire family escape this policy?

In July 1942, the Germans took an ordinance summoning all Jews between the ages 16 to 50 to gather in a town called Gaillon, not far from Evreux, a lovely city on the Seine. Two of the children went there, probably feeling trusting, but also worried. They were sent from there to Drancy, and from there, with other French Jews, to Auschwitz. From them, only a name on a wall remains.

A couple of weeks later, Ephraim sent a letter to the Prefecture, anxious to know where his children were. The answer: “You should ask the Germans. We have no idea”. Both were already nothing but ashes.
In October, another round up took the parents. The French police came to their house to arrest them. The two gendarmes, Bernard Picoult and Joseph Burel wrote a police report in industrious school handwriting, disclosing a lot of details: how Mrs Rabinovtich was dressed, what she had in her bag, her pockets. Their journey is sadly well-known: Drancy, and then Pitchipoï, Auschwitz.

The third child, whose name is not recorded, managed to flee. I found her trace in Paris, where she apparently got married.

I lived in this small village called Les Ventes. I had no clue whatsoever that Jews had lived there. I discovered their names when I was working with a group of students at the archives about the Jews living in this part of Normandy during the Second World War. It was not a massive centre, but due to the meticulousness of the French administration, we know that about 120 of them lived there in 1940. Four years later, only a few were left.

I was really intrigued by my students who wanted to keep a record of these names. They copied lists, tried to discover where these people went. Each of these victims was as important as the entire group of victims. They had names, scarce records in the archives, but still a memory. My students did to all of them a yad va’shem: “And to them, I will give in my house and within my house a memorial and a name (a yad vashem) that shall not be cut off” (Is. 56:5). My students, who are not Jewish, responded to this prophetic imperative to give a name, as the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem does today.

In the beginning of our parasha, we read: “These are the names of the Children of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each man and his house went (down)” (Ex. 1:1).

Rashi points out: “although God counted them in their lifetime by their names (Gn. 46:8-27), He counted them again after their death, to let us know how precious they are to him”.

Lechol Ish yesh shem says the poetess Zelda, “every human being has a name”. Every human being is an entire universe, has a mission to fulfil on this earth, before leaving to other lands. Sometime, darkness overwhelms light, and humanity pays a high price to this everlasting fight. But each time we remember a name, each time we preserve a name and the universe contained in this envelope made of flesh, we win a tiny victory over those who wish to destroy the human grandeur. In doing this, we do God’s work, because each of us is dear and precious to God.

Rene Pfertzel
January 2013

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.