Thursday, June 4, 2015

Jennifer Bohnhoff: Beyond Anne Frank: Saving the Children

 Because The Diary of Anne Frank is taught in middle and high schools throughout the United States, just about everyone knows that people in the Netherlands hid Jewish children from the Nazis during World War II. What is less understood is how common or widespread this occurence was. While there are many resources for Middle School teachers and librarians who would like to explore the extent of this issue, this article highlights a few of them.

Hidden Like Anne Frank demonstrates that hiding children was more common than many people imagine. In this book by Netherlanders Marcel Prinz and Peter Henk, translated into English by Laura Watkinson, 14 people share their experiences how, as Jewish children in the Netherlands during World War II, they moved from house to house and city to city. Some were kept by family members and relatives. Others, by complete strangers. They endured boredom and terror, hunger and cramped quarters. Some were just three or four years old. Others were teenagers. But they survived because of a secret network of brave people who were determined to protect them.

Few Americans realize that similar events occured in France. The political situation in France was much more complex than in the Netherlands because France was a divided nation during World War II. After France surrendered to Germans on June 24, 1940, three fifths of its territory, including Northern France and the entire French Atlantic Coast was occupied by the German army. Martial law allowed Germans to round up and deport Jews just as they did in the Netherlands.  Just as in the Netherlands, not all Frenchmen agreed with the anti-semite policies of the Vichy regime or their Nazi allies.

However, the situation was different in the remaining two fifths of French territory, where Henri Philippe Pétain, a World War I General who had become a national hero, helped form a government commonly known as Vichy France. In the hopes of preserving a modicum of French sovereignty, the leaders of the Vichy goverment aided anti-semite parties in the concentration and persecution of Jews, particularly those of foreign citizenship. Vichy France sent 76,000 Jews to death camps. 11,000 of them were children.

The Children of Chabannes is a video that tells the story of Felix Chevrier, who housed Jewish children, many of them German or Polish by birth, in Chateau Chabannes, his school in Chabannes, Creuse. In a series of interviews, these children, now adults, speak about how Chevrier integrated them into classes with the local children. They believe that the rigorous athletic programs he developed were intended to strengthen them for the physical and mental hardships that they would face if ever sent to Drancy, the closest Jewish Concentration Camp, or deported to Germany.

When the Germans occupied the Southern Zone in November 1942, the Chateau began dispersing children to protect them from round-up. When the round-ups came, Chevrier was able to stall and obfuscate records. His deceit and planning saved the lives of hundreds of children.

While the two above resources are nonfiction, fiction can help illuminate this theme.  While researching my novel, Code: Elephants on the Moon, which takes place in German-occupied Normandy during World War II, I found that many Jewish children were sent out to the country and hidden on farms, where they were integrated into farm life. Others were sent to convent schools, where they were given new, Christian identities. Many others were hidden away in attics and basements, much as Anne Frank had been. One of the plot lines in Code is about a network of high-minded individuals who work together to protect the one Jewish family in a small, Norman village.

However, just as not all stories of children hidden in the Netherlands end happily (Anne Frank's, for instance), not all French stories show children saved by brave and defiant action. Steven Schnur's The Shadow Children tells the fictional story of Etienne, an eleven year old boy who visits his grandfather during post WWII in the French village of Mount Brulant.

When Etienne sees the ghosts of hundreds of starving, emaciated, raggedy, forlorn children hiding in the woods, he asks his grandfather and other adults about them. Eventually he learns the sad, tragic, terrible truth: Jewish children who were sent into the country to seek refuge arrived in Mount Brulant, where the people helped them for a time. Yet, when threatened, the townspeople allowed the Nazis to herd the children into trains and ship them to concentration camps.

The true focus of the story is neither Etienne nor the children, but the grief and guilt of the townspeople, who buckled under the threats of the the Nazis. While this story may be fiction, many Frenchmen feel grief and guilt when recounting this dark period in their history.

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