Kristallnacht and tales of survival
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Kristallnacht and tales of survival

Honoring my family's Holocaust past

Part I: The town that hid my grandparents

Ever since starting a family of my own, I’ve become increasingly interested in my ancestry and the concept of L’dor v’dor, from one generation to the next. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors from France who were hidden by non-Jews in the small remote town of Ceyroux, I wanted to know more about my ancestors. I found myself wondering: Who were the people who perished? What were they like before the war? And how do their ancestral threads connect to the delicate fabric of my family’s past and present? When my brother Carl told me he would be in Paris for a month, I knew this would be a perfect opportunity to search these answers for myself and to visit the town that hid my grandparents. My grandmother, who hid with seven other family members in Ceyroux, is still alive and inspired this amazing and exciting endeavor.

With my grandparents’ blessings and with the help of French-speaking friends, I wrote e-mails and sent letters to establish contact with present-day inhabitants of Ceyroux. I had cousins in Paris, but sadly, no one could find their contact information – an unfortunate consequence of a forced diaspora. Then, to my surprise, a short e-mail from the mayor of Ceyroux, Daniel Daguet, arrived in my inbox. He said it would be his pleasure to meet with my brother and me upon our arrival. We set a date for our visit and the mayor and his staff arranged for someone to pick us up at the nearest train station.

My brother and I arrived by train to La Souterraine, a 20-minute car ride from Ceyroux. We were thrilled to see the mayor’s secretary, Monique Resche, and a local translator waiting for us. They were as effusive and enthusiastic about our visit as we were. As we approached the town of Ceyroux, I saw signs bearing the names of towns that my grandmother had spoken about: Viellevielle (where she bought wool for her father to tailor) and Aulon (where other relatives had hidden). From my grandmother’s detailed stories and descriptions, I felt as if I had already been there. However, when they drove us to the farm where my grandmother had hidden, I thought, “This isn’t the right farm.”

The farmhouse had been remodeled, and the detached single room where my grandmother huddled with four family members had been “adopted” into an adjoining house. It was not until I saw the well outside the room’s window that I knew it was the actual residence of my family from June 1942 to September 1944. It is hard to imagine how four people lived in such a small space (10×10 feet) for two years, without running water or bathroom plumbing. Thinking about those years of fear and struggle still brings my grandmother to tears.

During a tour of the farm, we learned that the previous owners (the descendants of the family who hid my grandparents) live in a nearby town, where they own a winery. We walked around the rest of the farmhouse, including the upstairs, where the current owners reported that other Jews hid as well. I thought they were mistaken, as my grandmother surely would have remembered “other Jews” living in Ceyroux, but then I remembered that my grandmother’s in-laws had lived in a “nicer” space nearby. Since the two locations were now attached, I realized that this upstairs was where my great-grandparents stayed. It was a truly emotional experience to see the actual living quarters of my ancestors during a time of atrocious inhumanity.

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The author’s grandfather, Jack Bienstock, as a young boy with his sister, Clara, and his mother Fanny and father David Bienstock. His father joined the French army when he emigrated from Poland so that his children would be French citizens. Photos courtesy Danielle Sandler Reiffe

I wondered why the family who owned the farmhouse risked their lives. Had they been caught with Jews in their home, they would have been killed or sent to a labor/concentration camp. What impressed me more than their silence was the cooperative effort of the entire town. Many people knew that my grandparents were in hiding. Any of the townspeople could have easily turned them in.

These farm owners and townspeople knew what war meant. They had seen the Gestapo search for guns among resistance supporters within the town. They knew the Germans had locked men, women, and children (all Catholic) into a nearby church and burned them alive in retribution for loved ones the Germans had lost in the First World War.

I do not think the farm owners were trying to save Jews. That was not their ultimate goal. But they were willing to take a risk – a great risk. The townspeople had known that any information could be dangerous and so they spoke little about what they saw and nothing of what they heard. A 12-year-old boy saw my grandfather hiding in the woods. His parents told him never to speak about what he saw and for 67 years (until the day we arrived) he never said a word.

Now in his late 70s, he gave me a picture of himself that was taken for his communion. Under the photo he wrote that the suit he wore was tailored by my great-grandfather. In return for the suit, he remembers giving my great-grandfather eggs, butter, and other much needed food. He said he had felt proud and honored “going before God” in such a fine suit. To actually see a product of my great-grandfather’s handiwork and skill was a real treasure.

There were many special stories like this hidden about the town and uncovered during our visit. I always knew that my great-aunt went to school in Ceyroux for two years while in hiding during the Holocaust but I guess I never really questioned how remarkable that was. My grandfather played soccer every Sunday in another town nearby! The pharmacist (who was also my grandfather’s soccer coach) warned him when they were rounding up foreigners and Jews. At the time, no one really knew where the people were being held or taken after being rounded up. Even my grandfather admitted that he never imagined the mass murdering of Jews happening at the concentration camps.

The townspeople said they felt “liberated” upon our arrival because they could finally speak about the war. They told us that our visit was a “gift” and that their actions (or those of their parents) seemed “natural.” But it was not natural. It would have been easy to turn the other way, to have said, “Here are some Jews, spare us” in a moment of duress.

Do we really know what we would have done if we were in their place? Having two small children, would I take such a risk?

So there I was, a third-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors, sharing stories with the people in a town that saved my family. I am grateful to them for their bravery and silence. My family has a legacy and my children now know their grandparents and great-grandparents. And whenever I think about the evil that still persists in the world today, I remember the people of Ceyroux and I have hope.

Part II: ‘They all perished’

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Danielle Sandler Reiffe and her brother, Carl Sandler, stand next to the well that was their grandmother’s only source of water when she was in hiding.

Many people have asked me, “Why was it important for you to thank the people of Ceyroux?” The short answer is simply because I felt that a thank-you was in order. My grandparents, while happy to be alive, were traumatized and hurt by the Vichy government’s cooperation with the Nazis. They left France for the United States and never looked back. But their extended families (and millions of other innocents) were not as lucky. On the back of an old family photo my grandfather cherished, he had written simply, “They all perished.”

But how did my grandfather know this and who told him? What were the names of the family members who died and who were they as individuals? My Aunt Beverly (my mother’s younger sister) had spent 10 years looking for answers, but my trip to Ceyroux kicked things into high gear.

Both my aunt and I believed in the importance of knowing these family members and taking the time to document their lives. Although my grandfather is still alive, his memory for such family specifics has deteriorated, so my aunt and I became pseudo-genealogists. She mastered document retrieval (with the help of a website called Jewishgen.org, which is like ancestry.com for Jewish genealogical searches) and I began putting together the actual family tree (with the help of a website called Familyecho.com). My aunt retrieved records such as death certificates, marriage licenses, and naval manifests. Many documents were either in Polish, Russian, Cyrillic script, or Yiddish, so we had to enlist the help of friends and agencies that could help with translation.

The records of many of my Polish-Jewish ancestors bear the letters LDS (which stands for Latter Day Saints). In order to access information about these relatives, we had to contact the local Mormon church. We wondered, what do the Mormons want with the records of my Polish-Jewish ancestors? And why have they spent millions of dollars microfilming the records of Jews throughout the world? Sadly, we found out that the Church of Latter Day Saints has “converted” thousands of Holocaust victims posthumously since 1995. And while the church has agreed to stop these conversions, genealogists have found such disrespectful practices continue to this day. These secret “baptisms” angered me a great deal. (Feel free to search the Mormon catalogue online, where you can type in any name into the search engine. Just go to www.familysearch.org.)

Shortly after a posting the names of the family members on the front of the “they all perished” photo on Jewishgen.org, my aunt received an e-mail from a woman named Yael who was searching for her own family history and found a “match” with our own. It was only Yael’s second week on the website. Yael sent my aunt some pictures of her unknown relatives. One of the pictures she sent was of my aunt!

Yael’s grandmother survived Auschwitz, where she lost her husband and two daughters. She later remarried and gave birth to two sons in Poland. When the sons were about 10 years old, the family immigrated to Israel. Yael is the daughter of one of those sons. She has twin boys who are the same age as my oldest son. Today, we videoconference practically every day, using Skype. We are not sure how she obtained the photo that links us, since her father and grandmother are both dead. Nonetheless, the photo confirmed our connection and the existence of a descendant of our family who we thought had perished in the Holocaust. And on Dec. 24, I will be flying with my mother and my oldest son to meet Yael in person.

My aunt and I continue to gather information about our ancestors in order to honor our family’s victims of the Holocaust. We have a duty to pass on the information to the next generation so that their memory stays alive.

Despite everything my grandparents went through, they continue to believe that life is beautiful. I feel blessed to have been given such a gift in knowing them and in discovering our long-lost cousin Yael. Now a piece of our missing lineage can be filled in, and the story can be told. L’dor v’dor.

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