Suzanne Weiss was born in Paris in 1941, during the German occupation. Her Ukrainian father was a prisoner of war. Her mother, a left-wing Polish refugee, was deported from France in 1943 and died later that year in Auschwitz.
Weiss was one of thousands of Jewish children who were rescued by an underground network of Jewish and gentile groups. They placed these youngsters with families and in children’s homes throughout southern France.
A long-time political and social activist, Weiss spoke about her experience as a young Holocaust survivor and her 2017 visit to Auvergne, the region where she was hidden, in Toronto on Jan. 31. The event was organized by IfNotNow Toronto – which is dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, building a Jewish community that values inclusivity and justice, and challenging community support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank – to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
On July 16, 1942, French police arrested 13,150 Jewish refugees. They were herded into the Velodrome d’Hiver (Vel’ d’Hiv) and soon after sent to extermination camps, Weiss recounted. “Almost all of them were killed. Why was I spared? I have pieced the story together.”
She and her mother, Faiga Berliner, escaped the “Vel’ d’Hiv round-up,” and headed south, but they ended up in a German transit camp with other Jewish refugees. Weiss was smuggled out and eventually placed with a family in Auvergne, a region in southern France governed by the Vichy regime.
“Faiga had to entrust me to a left-wing Jewish organization. They placed me with a nursemaid, a non- Jewish nanny,” recalls Weiss.
Jewish parents like her mother “understood that they had to hide their children.… A network of anti-Nazi resisters saved the children by dispersing them.”
Some were sent to live with gentile families, while others were placed in orphanages. “They were hidden in plain sight of all,” she said.
These French villagers and clergy risked their lives to save Jewish children. A network of organizations provided stipends to the gentile families and institutions, to care for the children, Weiss explained.
The Buchners, friends of her father’s who were in the Jewish resistance, also looked out for her, Weiss said, pointing out that an important mission of the French Jewish resistance was to save Jewish lives.
She still does not know the name of the family, or even the village, where she was placed. “I remember nothing. I was on a peasant farm with a family who had wanted to adopt me,” she said. “I owe my life to the hospitality of that family.”
Weiss did, however, recall that after the war, she was located by her father, Aron Itzkovitch. One of her first memories is of her desire to remain with the French family. “They fought to keep me. I was unwilling to go,” said Weiss. “He took my arm and pulled me away.”
He returned her to the Jewish community and died shortly thereafter. She lived in a Jewish orphanage in Paris for five years, until she was adopted by the Weisses, a left-wing Jewish-American couple.
“I was brought up with people in the orphanages who promoted justice, love, peace and solidarity. That was their Judaism,” she said. “That was my Judaism. I believe that was the Judaism of my natural parents. It was the Judaism of my adopted parents. They were against segregation, apartheid, the death penalty and fascism.”
When she visited the French town of Clermont-Ferrand, in the Auvergne region, in 2017, Weiss took the opportunity to thank the people of that area for their bravery, solidarity and generosity.
“During the occupation, they accepted a diversity of refugees. The people of Auvergne saved the lives of thousands of people,” said Weiss.
“They wove a fabric of solidarity and built a long chain to save lives and change the course of history.
“We have to apply the same humanity to refugees and those fleeing authoritarian regimes.”