Leon Rucker has that rarity: an upbeat Holocaust story.
Though he was a hidden Jewish child during World War II, his memories are positive, even pleasant. Sheltered by a loving Catholic family in the French countryside, Rucker has no painful recollections of midnight knocks at the door, none of anguish at the possibility of being discovered and betrayed, and no memories of food shortages, deprivations and fear.
“I was treated very well, and I have wonderful memories of those times,” said the soft-spoken 77-year-old Thornhill resident, a retired engineer and a founder of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation.
Even so, dangers persisted for the Langlois family, the French clan who sheltered the young Rucker on their farm in the tiny village of Néret, about 300 kilometres south of Paris, from 1942 to 1944.
That’s why, on Feb. 17, members of the Langlois family will be designated Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and education centre.
Making the journey to Néret for the ceremony to honour his rescuers are Rucker, his wife Patricia (a former editor of The CJN), their son Simon and two granddaughters, one of whom, Shoshana, 10, is named for Suzanne Langlois, who effectively acted as a surrogate mother to Leon. Suzanne and her parents, Eugène and Alexandrine Langlois, are being honoured posthumously.
Accepting the honour on their behalf will be Gisèle Langlois Royer, now almost 90, Suzanne’s last surviving sibling and the youngest of the Langlois’ six children.
Rucker smiles when he says the ceremony is taking place in the village’s “Salle des Fêtes,” which was once the one-room schoolhouse he attended as a child.
Born in Paris in 1937, Rucker has faint memories of hearing air-raid sirens and seeing German soldiers, who marched into the French capital in June 1940. His father, Nathan, was a furrier and was married to Léa. The family enjoyed a comfortable life.
But France was split. The northern zone was Nazi-occupied, while the south, called Vichy, enacted harsh anti-Jewish laws. However, the southeastern city of Nice came under Italian control, which was far less oppressive. As a result, thousands of Jews took refuge there, including the Rucker family.
For two years, “we lived very peacefully” in Nice, Rucker says.
But things became tense when the Allies invaded North Africa in November 1942. “My parents knew that sooner or later, they would have to go into hiding.”
By then, Leon’s uncle had taken refuge in the village of Néret, but the local reeve refused more Jews. So the uncle asked a local family whether they could take in a little Jewish boy from Paris. They immediately agreed, and in late 1942, Suzanne Langlois arrived in Nice to collect five-year-old Leon.
Suzanne was unmarried and in her 30s. “I became like a son to her,” Rucker recalls. He attended school and spent many happy days on the farm. “I kept my name. People didn’t ask too many questions. If they asked, I was ‘le petit Parisien.’ Some of them might have known I was Jewish, but they didn’t want to get involved. Most people were neutral.”
As for the Langlois family, they were firmly on the political left, anti-clerical and opposed the Vichy regime. Leon was never passed off as a Catholic. They fed and clothed the lad, who kept in touch with his parents via mail. Leon remembers hearing the sound of bridges being blown up by the French Resistance.
The situation lasted until September 1944, when he was reunited with his parents, who had narrowly escaped deportation while living in Lyon. The family returned to Paris to find someone had occupied their apartment, which they were then forced to share. But Rucker’s father became a currency trader on the black market, and the family prospered anew. However, all their relatives in Poland had perished in the Holocaust.
Rucker would return to the farm to visit the Langlois family regularly. In 1954, he came to Canada, where he met his wife, and they had three children.
Gisèle Langlois has no children. But members of the family still live in Néret (population 200) in the original farm compound, and a grandson still farms the Langlois land. A number of other grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the area plan to attend the ceremony.
The specially struck medal and certificate will be presented by a representative of the Israeli Embassy in Paris.
Rucker concedes he did not begin the work of having the Langlois family recognized as Righteous until only a few years ago because of other commitments. He also recognizes that his tale is different from those of most others who were hidden as children during the war.
“For me personally,” he says, “it’s a happy story.”