Henri Reder, born in Antwerp on December 25th, 1937
The "visiting-card" I had in my pocket, in 1942
LIFE IN

SAINT-MARTIN-DE-BIENFAITE - LA CRESSONNIERE

A village in Normandy



In french

Bienfaite, presentation

Bienfaite on 1900 Photos

Lanquetot's camembert

The provincial dialect

Links to other sites

Home policy

Historical pages

SOME PEOPLE


Return home page

 

Last update :
september, 6th 2006
11h30

Enjoy your visit

 

Translation of a speech by Ariel Eder, delivered at the Caen Memorial on the occasion of the posthumous award of the "Righteous among the Nations" decoration to the French couple Georgette and Pierre Lefrançois, on February, 14th 2006.

Mr Schot - Préfet [Prefect] of the Calvados
Mrs Brigitte Lebrethon - Députée-Maire [Deputy Mayor] of the city of Caen
Mr Barnéa Hassid - Spokesman the Embassy of Israel in Paris
Dr. Prasquier - Chairman French committee from Yad Vashem to Paris
Mr Quuperminc - Representative of the Committee Yad Vashem in French
Mr Lalou - Chairman of the A.C.I. of Nantes
Ladies Goldenberg and Sebag and all Yad Vashem Representatives
Mr Stéphane Grimaldi - Manager of Caen Memorial
The Jacquot family
My dear Pierrette, & Henriette, Andrée & Gilberte,
Dear families Lefrançois, Langlois & Guérin;
My dear family
Dear friends,
Ladies an gentlemens,

We have gathered here to honour the memory of the couple Georgette and Pierre Lefrançois and to award them posthumously the title of "Righteous among the Nations" for having rescued, protected, nourished, cherished, and cared for me unstintingly, at risk of their lives, during the tortuous days of the German occupation. They gave me the most precious assets I possess: my life and my family.

Last July, when I received the letter from Yad Vashem (1) confirming that it had approved the title of "Righteous among the Nations" for Georgette and Pierre Lefrançois, I gathered all our children together and suggested that the entire family, including grandchildren, should participate in the ceremony. They all gave their approval on the spot. Stav, our daughter-in-law, said to me on another occasion: "I consider it a great honour to take part in this ceremony, since it is to Georgette and Pierre that I owe what is to me the most precious thing I have in life: my husband and my daughters.

Our daughter-in-law had expressed in her own words the Talmudic quotation: "He who contributes to the saving of one human being, has as much merit as if he had saved the whole of mankind."

My story begins in the summer of 1942, in Antwerp, Belgium. At that time my parents had decided to seek safety by trying to flee to Switzerland. Being aware of the danger of this perilous enterprise, they decided to risk the trip without their four-and-a-half year old son - this, without a shadow of doubt, in order to safeguard their son's life. My parents, therefore, decided to leave me in the good hands of our neighbours and escape, a move which saved their lives.

Try now to imagine this small boy, happily returning home from a bicycle ride with a neighbour, eager to tell his parents about the tour he had just made, rushing up the stairs to the apartment and finding himself standing before a locked door. Try to visualize this child, less than five years old, knocking on the door with his little fists, crying and begging his parents, who he presumed were still behind it, to let him in. The terrifying silence which was the only answer I received clearly seemed like a bad omen. This traumatic event left me with a wound so deep that it has never healed.

Andrée, Pierre's sister (88 years old and present at the ceremony) has several times told me that I was so furious at my parents for having left me behind without any warning, that at that time (between 1942 and 1945), the possibility of eventually returning to them never crossed my mind.

In December 2005, through the Internet, I succeeded in tracing Elza Buyens-Mortelmans (94 years old), wife of the late Hugo Mortelmans, who died in 1970, that same neighbour who in 1942 took me on a bicycle ride the day my parents fled from Antwerp. Through the Internet I also succeeded in tracing four nephews (Mortelmans'), all several years older than me and all of whom remembered me. I had the opportunity to meet with all of them two days before the ceremony. Together, they helped me to fill in the missing link of my story: namely, why, in 1942, I was sent to France, since I was apparently meant to stay with our neighbours, the Mortelmans family, until the end of the war.

According to Elza Mortelmans, a few days after the bicycle ride with her husband, the Gestapo conducted a house-by-house search for Jews in our street. Hugo Mortelmans quickly grabbed me and hid me in the loft. I can imagine that the Gestapo raid must have frightened the Mortelmans family. As a result, a few days later I was on my way to the Belgian-French border with the goal of being smuggled by a ferry-man (passeur) to France, more specifically to Marseille.

For reasons unknown, my ferry-man in fact took me to Paris, to a certain Lucien Sigust, the owner of a bar named "Le Rancho" at 58, Ave. de Wagram, and asked him to take care of me for two or three days. Lucien Sigust, not knowing what to do with a young child, then took me to a friend of his, Emilienne Lefrançois. This was my first acquaintance with my new French family.

After a few days with no sign from my ferry-man, Emilienne suggested to Lucien that I should be sent to her brother René, who lived in the village of St. Martin de Bienfaite (Bienfaite). Her reasoning was that in wartime, life in the countryside was, at least to some extent, easier than in town. Since my presence in France was illegal, I was not registered anywhere and therefore had no food or clothing coupons.

A few days after my arrival in Bienfaite village, René's brother Pierre appeared. I can still picture him approaching, sitting atop a horse-drawn cart. I even remember the horse's name: Bichette. Pierre had just come from a neighbouring village, Notre Dame de Courson (Courson), to move into the house next door to Rene's, where he and his family planned to live. I fell in love with his smile, the warmth that emanated from him and the way he spoke to me, even though I did not yet understand a word of French. As a result of his charm, within a few days I started to call him "Papa".

Pierre and his little family, his wife Georgette and their daughter Pierrette, moved into their new home and within a few days I joined my new family.

If Pierre was my "hero", Georgette was without a doubt my "good fairy". From my first day with them, in the autumn of 1942, until my departure from Bienfaite in February 1945, they showered me with nothing but love and warmth. For me it was as if I had found my parents again, with the added bonus of a sister, who to this day remains very dear to me.

I wonder if Georgette really knew what was going on during those dark days in France, or was she perhaps merely guided by common sense? Was she aware of the discriminatory edicts against Jews in France, or of raids against Jewish children, such as those David Knout (poet, historian and Jewish resistance leader in France) describes in his book "Resistance in France"?
Quote

  • On the streets of France, one might encounter strange deeds by members of the peace guards (gardiens de la paix), busy with strange occupations: standing near schools, they were on the look-out for children leaving school. Dreadful screams would often pierce the air on a peaceful, mild evening. Little boys and girls with wide open eyes, wearing a yellow star, were desperately running in all directions. They were caught and thrown into buses which were parked behind school buildings. Where were they taking these children? What did they intend to do with them? Where were the trains heading with these small children on board, some not even knowing their names, who had not yet had an opportunity to discover they were Jews…?
End of quote

"Where were they taking these children?" wonders the author of the above lines.

Where would I have been led away to if Georgette and Pierre had not given me shelter?

As I mentioned before, Georgette and Pierre loved me like their own child: they pampered me and cared for me without differentiating between their daughter Pierrette and me, which certainly can't always have been easy for her. It is not simple to change from the status of an only child to one where you are obliged to share your parents with an unexpected older brother.

I am more than just grateful to Georgette and Pierre; I also have boundless admiration for their bravery and courage in taking me into their midst.

Georgette, Ariel, Pierrette, 1945 February

As the years pass I become increasingly aware of the tremendous risks they took upon themselves and the predicaments they had to cope with. Among other difficulties: when I arrived at Bienfaite I did not speak or understand French; I had no identification papers whatsoever and therefore no legal status in France; my Jewishness had to be hidden at all costs.

One of Pierre's brothers, the Abbé (Abbot) Paul Lefrançois, contributed his share by finding a temporary solution to the problem of my legal status. He was active in the resistance, a man who was always prepared to defend a just cause, sharp minded, always ready with an answer and the author of strongly-worded articles in "Le patriote de l'Eure" (the clandestine leaflet of the Resistance).

He prepared a false certificate according to which: "Pierre Lefrançois, when marrying Georgette Suzanne, agreed to adopt her illegitimate son Henri, who was born before her marriage". This document in effect legitimised a "bastard". And by whom? By an abbot! Oh, my Lord, my Lord!

Georgette and Pierre were fully aware that should there be even the slightest threat of having to authenticate this certificate, the entire family would have to move and go underground.

And what does one do with a child of Jewish origin, in a small French village, during Sunday mass at church? Georgette and Pierre decided to teach me some prayers and basic religious practices so that I would not stand out from other children of my age.

However, this solution apparently tormented Georgette for many years and it was only in 1982 that I became aware of what she considered her "bad conscience".
During one of my visits to my dear Georgette, she felt the need to relieve herself of a burden that had troubled her conscience for so long. She was afraid that my parents, during all those years, were convinced that she had intended to convert me to Catholicism.

"I want you to know", said my mother from Bienfaite on that meeting, "that if I taught you prayers and some basic Catholic practices, it was only to save your life and avoid attracting the attention of other inhabitants of the village, to keep up appearances with some of the neighbours. All the time I kept wondering how I would dare look your parents in the eye at the end of the war, if I had inadvertently caused you to embrace the Catholic faith."

Once again Georgette gave me proof of her extreme sensitivity, her honesty and unfailing integrity.

The Lefrançois brothers and sisters all contributed to my rescue.

It was Emilienne who had the original idea of sending me to her brother René and his wife Paulette in the village of Bienfaite, which brought me into contact with my good fairy Georgette and my hero Pierre.

It was the Abbé (Abbot) Paul who "legitimized" my "illegitimacy".

At the farm of our beloved Andrée, at Notre-Dame-de-Courson, we always received a warm welcome, notwithstanding the absence of her husband Roger, who was a prisoner of war in Germany. It is worth pointing out that "warm hospitality" can be quite a relative thing, especially in cold Normandy winters, when we had to drop our trousers in the open field behind the house because there was neither an indoor nor even an outdoor toilet.

I will never forget the love of our wonderful Henriette towards her nephews, of whom I became one, whenever she came to visit at Courson.

I would also like to mention the vivacious Gilberte who, behind the counter of her bakery at Glos, would provide us with some extra bread or pasta to add to the official ration the family was entitled to receive. Her actions earned her the right to the honorary title: "Official supplier to the court of the Lefrançois Dynasty".

I cannot close this list without extending my gratitude to the Maestro of this wonderful ensemble, the Lady (with a capital L) who was the glue that kept this wonderful family together: who else if not Mémère?(2)
I remember her so clearly. I cannot forget the warmth she showed me. If Mémère can hear us, wherever she may be, I would like to say to her that she can be proud of her children. She succeeded in instilling into them, among other things, human values that, in my opinion, make not only Georgette and Pierre but her entire noble family worthy of the award of "Righteous among the Nations".

For me, the Lefrançois family will always remain my family.

I consider this journey a pilgrimage to the place where I spent two and a half years of my childhood and which marked me for the rest of my life. It is important to me on this day to have my entire family near me, in order that each one of them may hear the story of Georgette, Pierre and the entire Lefrançois family and to give them all the honour they deserve.

Today, I would like also to extend our gratitude to all Frenchmen and women who contributed to the rescue of Jewish children by quoting Sabine Zeitoun, at the end of her book "Ces enfants qu'il fallait sauver" ("These Children Who Had to be Saved", edit. Albin-Michel, 1989):
Quote
  • Due to the dedication and inestimable help of many volunteers of different political, social and religious backgrounds, over 70,000 Jewish French children, out of a total of 84,000, escaped deportation.
    . . . Christians, agnostics and secular people played a decisive role in this battle… Women, mothers of families, Protestant ministers, intellectuals, and peasants in Paris and everywhere throughout France, took part in the distribution of false papers or in giving shelter to the persecuted, if only for a few hours, a few months or sometimes a few years. Risking their lives, these men and women dared to ignore the orders of Vichy, to defy the monstrous Nazi projects.
End of quote

Nobody can or will ever forget these humanitarian acts of courage and heroism.
---------------------------------

According to the Jewish calendar, the New Year for trees and nature (Tu Bishvat) fell this year yesterday, on February 13th, 2006, one day before today's ceremony. On this special day pupils in Israeli schools go out into nature to plant trees.

As a gesture of gratitude to the entire Lefrançois family, the Eder family has decided to plant 100 trees in one of the KKL forests in Israel, under the names Lefrançois, Laugier, Langlois and Guérin.

Henriette, as Pierre's sister and as the veteran representative of the family, you are kindly invited to accept this certificate on behalf of the Lefrançois, Laugier, Langlois and Guérin families.
_____________________

A warm thank you to all our guests, to all the families, friends and acquaintances, to the pupils of the schools in Caen and all the people present at this ceremony.

Our thanks also to Yad Vashem and its representatives, and in particular to Mrs. Goldenberg and Mrs. Sebag for organising the ceremony.

Our hearty thanks to Mr. Grimaldi, the manager of the Caen Memorial, to Mr. Pottier, to Mrs. Bornier and to the entire Memorial team who agreed for us to hold this ceremony here, which without a doubt contributes to its solemnity.

Thank you, Toda Raba and Shalom

---------------------------------

Addendum - supplementary information

My parents found refuge in Switzerland in the summer of 1942.
Shortly after my parents left Antwerp, the Mortelmans family succeeded in sending a message informing them that they had sent the "well wrapped plant" to Marseille and that it could be collected from the restaurant (giving the name and address of the restaurant).

In December 2005, while going through one of my father's books, I came across an envelope in which I found poems written by my father in Hebrew. Among them I found a poem, written in Switzerland some time between the summer of 1942 and the end of 1943, a lamentation in which he longs for his lost son. In one line he asks: "Is he still in Marseille?" which proved he had received Mortelmans' message. The Mortelmans seem to have informed my parents that they had changed my name from Ariel Eder to Henri Reder, together with my correct date and place of birth. I still have this little piece of paper (only 3x9 cm.). I am convinced that this small piece of paper played an important role in my reunion with my parents. While the war was still ongoing, they began trying to find me with the help of the Red Cross in Switzerland, probably asking to check simultaneously under both my real and false names. Georgette and Pierre also tried to find out, via the French Red Cross, who were the parents of Henri Reder, born in Antwerp on December 25th, 1937, the only information they had on me.

At the beginning of 1944, after one and a half years without any information about me, my parents were informed that I was alive and living in a small village in Normandy. I still have the picture the Lefrançois family sent to my parents via the Red Cross.

Georgette & Ariel - end 1943

On the back of it somebody wrote (in French) :
Picture of Ariel Eder, to convey, if possible, to his parents.
Somebody else added :
A. Eder chez
Pierre Lefrançois
St. Martin de Bienfaite
Calvados

And a third person added (it seems to be my father's handwriting):
Received on 2.3.1944
To the best of my knowledge, until after the landing in Normandy in June 1944, the Lefrançois and Eder families had no connection whatsoever.

In May 1944, Georgette gave birth to a little boy, who died a few days later.

On June 16th, 1944, Pierre died. He had been seriously wounded in a resistance action.

From July 1944 to February 1945 (at which time there were no longer any battles in Normandy), Georgette Lefrançois had been literally bombarded with post from the Eder family, sent through the Red Cross: postcards, telegrams and letters from all kind of institutions and organizations, asking to deliver the "child" as soon as possible to his sick mother in Switzerland. According to the doctors who treated my mother, the return of her lost son was the only remedy that might help her.

In February 1945, Eli Sternbuch of St. Gallen (Switzerland) arrived in Bienfaite on behalf of my parents to take me back to them.

Was I glad to return to my biological parents? It took me some time to re-adapt myself to the parents who had left me behind without any attempt to explain the need for separation in the summer of 1942. There were many times when I said to my biological mother: "my French mother would never have acted like that in those circumstances…"

Yes, children can sometimes be very cruel, even with wonderful parents.

I think that some of my reactions towards my mother caused her to develop a kind of jealousy towards Georgette. My parents met Georgette for the first time in the summer of 1947. The second time my mother met Georgette, was in Israel, in 1983. That meeting was, thank G-d, a good one, without any rancour or bad feelings on either side.

My mother passed away in 1989 and "my mother from Bienfaite" in 1998.

Should their soul rest in peace - Amen

N.B. Is the name of the village "Bienfaite" , namely "Good deed", a pure coïncidence?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

On February 15th, 2006 Ariel Eder, former adopted son of Bienfaite, now aged 68, returned to the village in the company of his own family, including children and grandchildren. He asked to visit the church with deputy mayor Christian de Menneval as his guide and in the presence of the parish priest, Father Renouf.

Notes:
1. Yad Vashem (Holocaust Martyrs' Museum) was established in 1953 by the Knesset (the Israeli parliament). The institute's functions included, among many others, the duty to honour non-Jews who saved the lives of Jews during World War II. This is the only civilian award granted by the State of Israel. The title of "Righteous among the Nations" is based on Talmudic origins.
Further to a law passed on July 10th, 2000 - in a unanimous vote by the French Parliament - the annual commemoration of the victims of Nazi persecution is celebrated each year on the Sunday following July 16th, a day which has also become a memorial day for the Righteous of France. It should be stressed that France thus officially recognises a title awarded by a foreign country, Israel.
2. Mémère was an affectionate diminutive form of the name "Grandmother." Hence also Pépère for "Grandfather." This usage survived in the Normandy countryside through the 1980s. Today's equivalent accepted terms are Mamie and Papi, which are used more in writing, though Papi is not spelt with a Y!

Return to Georgette & Pierre Lefrançois
Come back Les gens d'ici