Atara Laor’s bat mitzvah last October turned out to be more than a milestone coming-of-age event for a just-turned 13-year-old girl.
It also paved the way for Yad Vashem possibly conferring “Righteous Among the Nations” status on a woman who saved the life of Atara’s great-uncle.
Maybe more importantly, it allowed Atara’s great-uncle, Claude Moskovic, to emerge from the shadows of the Holocaust and come to terms with a past he had ignored for decades.
“Atara made me open up,” Moskovic said in a recent interview with The CJN. “What she did was amazing. It changed my whole thinking about things, made me realize that family is everything.”
Last fall in her bat mitzvah address, Atara recounted Moskovic’s story to congregants at Congregation Dorshei Emet: The Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal.
About a year before Atara’s bat mitzvah, Moskovic lit a yahrzeit candle at a Grade 6 Yom Hashoah ceremony organized by Jewish People’s and Peretz School. It was then that Atara decided she wanted to learn about Moskovic’s life.
“He had never talked about his life during the Holocaust to anyone,” Atara told those gathered at the shul, “but after he lit the candle, he began to talk about his experience.”
Atara discovered that Moskovic, the middle sibling of five brothers, was, in 1943, a three-year-old toddler in Mouscron, Belgium. His family had for three years been paying people to hide them from the Nazis (who had invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940), and they had run out of money.
Atara described how, in desperation, Moskovic’s mother, Regina Friedman, hid his two older siblings, David (now deceased) and Maurice, in an orphanage and the two younger ones, Robert and Albert, in a nursery run by the queen of Belgium, while Friedman and Claude went “on the run.”
Friedman and Claude were confronted in the street by Nazis when an older Catholic friend of Friedman’s, Emma De Maeght, in “a moment of bravery and menschlichkeit,” Atara said, walked up to Friedman, pretended that Claude was her son, slapped her in the face and demanded to know what she was doing with him.
“By claiming Claude as her own, in a split second stroke of genius,” Atara told the listeners at the shul, “she saved Claude from the fate of his mother who was taken to concentration camps.”
While Moskovic’s father, Adolf, ended up perishing in Auschwitz, Friedman and her five sons survived the war. They came to Montreal in 1953 with her new husband, Eugene Herskovitz, and two stepsons.
Moskovic’s memories of his childhood are sketchy, but in some respects still vivid, coming back in fits and starts, and prompted by his wife, Yetta.
In Belgium, Moskovic was raised Catholic. He sometimes refers to himself as a “Juif Catholique.”
Because the household he grew up in was in the yeast delivery business, its scent memory is still in his nostrils, he said. He remembers “big wooden garage doors” and a warehouse. Moskovic knew De Maeght as his “beau maman” but never learned her first name.
That is, until recently. Atara first heard of her great-uncle’s past through his brother, Robert, who maintained contact with his brother Maurice’s daughter, Edith, now 81. She lives in Belgium, and unknown to Claude, she was in hiding across the street from De Maeght during the war and could directly observe him.
Atara and Moskovic learned that Emma was De Maeght’s first name only after Atara returned from a family trip to Israel this past summer and heard from Edith, who had investigated the situation with officials in Belgium.
Edith also found out that De Maeght, who died in 1973, had a living grandson in Belgium, René Jerome Taillard. Atara told the shul that Taillard “remembers my [great] uncle Claude from when he was a child.”
Everybody involved, including Atara’s parents, Cynthia Weinstein and Aviv Laor, have been in regular contact ever since via email and Skype. Because De Maeght’s first name is now known, it allowed her file at Yad Vashem to be completed, with the application for her Righteous Among the Nations status now being considered by officials.
As well, Moskovic and De Maeght’s story is to be deposited with the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem for possible inclusion at the Yom Hashoah ceremony at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Atara has been asked to speak to students about her project at the Akiva School, where Carmela Aigen, the wife of Reconstructionist synagogue’s rabbi, Ron Aigen, teaches.
Should De Maeght be named a righteous gentile, Moskovic said, plans are for her grandson to come to Canada to accept the honour on his grandmother’s behalf.
“If she had been caught, she would have been shot,” Moskovic said. “What this woman did without regard for her own life was an amazing thing.”