Jean-Claude Benguigui aged five, Albert Bulka aged four and Paula Mermelstein aged 10 have one thing in common. They were three of 105 Jewish children, rescued by a Polish lady called Sabine Zlatin and bought to a country hideaway high in the hills above Chambery during the war.
Tragically on April 6th 1944 two truckloads of Gestapo soldiers arrived under the orders of Klaus Barbie and rounded up the three mentioned along with 41 other children. “Are you their parents?” they asked the seven adults looking after them. “No, but we will stay with them,” they said. On the journey the children sang defiantly “You’ll never keep Alsace and Lorraine.” They were all in Auschwitz 10 days later, where they were gassed. Out of the adults one survived but the rest were taken to places as far away as Estonia where they were shot.
Our visit to the beautiful house where these children lived their last happy, tranquil weeks before deportation just outside the village of Izieu was prompted by Bea. She saw a picture of a concentration camp in the museum in Chambery and wanted to know all about the war. We told her as best we could, we drew maps showing how the Germans swept through Europe, explaining that it was a little like her taking over Olivia and Leo’s rooms. Hitler was hard to explain. “Is he more evil than Captain Hook?” asked Leo. “Why did he kill all those people?” asked Bea.
I had heard about the house before and always wanted to visit but never had the courage. Once I had children of my own, anything sad involving any children makes me weep. I did weep. I wept at the little innocent letters written by the children to their parents (who were in camps heaven knows where), to their adored teacher, the wonderful drawings they drew. But it was also an inspirational visit. I was inspired that there are people who will risk their lives for others, who rather than hiding from evil fight it. And I loved the idea that whatever horrific fate awaited the children, they had been rescued from certain death (mainly from the Herault, where we live) and had some weeks of security, peace and loving in the most beautiful surroundings beforehand. And let’s not forget the 60 or so, who thanks to Mme Zlatin, did survive.
We walked up the hill behind the house after our visit, still talking about the war. Bea went to bed reading the Diary of Anne Frank. This topic seems to have gripped her like no other. If you are ever in this region then do visit the Maison d’Izieu. And take your children. I think the house rather enjoys the sound of small feet running around it and laughter.
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008