His life resembles those soulless soldiers
Who have been groomed for a different fate
Why should they rise in the morning
When nightime finds them disarmed, uncertain
Say these words and hold back your tears
There is no happy love.
Louis Aragon 1946
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Last update :
september, 19th 2006
11h30

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Photos : private collection

 

PIERRE AND GEORGETTE LEFRANÇOIS

A MOMENT OF HAPPINESS
Surrounded by family and friends, for Georgette and Pierre November 19th, 1938 was a great day: it was their wedding day.

Life looked good and the future promised endless happy times.
The young couple went first to live in Notre-Dame-de-Courson, where their first child, a daughter they named Pierrette, was born in 1939. In the autumn of 1942 they moved to Saint-Martin-de-Bienfaite, Normandy, in order to be near their relatives René and Paulette Lefrançois.

Pierre was recruited into the army at the end of 1939 or the beginning of 1940. Though imprisoned during the rout, he managed to escape and make his way back to Normandy disguised as a vagrant. Since June 1940 Bienfaite had been occupied by a German garrison, with the local château serving as their Kommandantur.
Pierre refused to accept the humiliation of defeat and occupation and he secretly joined the Resistance movement.
It was in 1942 that the couple reached a momentous decision.

DESTINY
It was also 1942 when the Eder family of Antwerp in Belgium decided they must escape to Switzerland. Very aware of the many dangers they would surely face on their perilous journey, the parents chose to travel alone, leaving behind their only son, a boy aged four and a half years old, so as to safeguard his survival. With the help of ferrymen and railway workers, Mrs. Eder reached Switzerland hidden in one of the water tankers of a steam locomotive. Her husband meanwhile made the journey on foot. Once safely in Switzerland, they took refuge there until the end of the war.

Their son Ariel Eder recalls:
"To protect me from danger, my mother and father left me with the Mortelmans, neighbours upstairs who were musicians."
For two months the neighbours took care of the little boy, before sending him away, also headed for Switzerland via Marseille under the false name of Henri Reder.

"A ferryman took charge of me when I left Antwerp, and I found myself in a bar at 58 Avenue de Wagram in Paris. 'Look after this kid for a few days,' the ferryman said casually to the bar owner, Lucien Sigust, who in turn took me to a Parisian lady friend of his, Emilienne Lefrançois. The ferryman never returned."

Life in Paris was too difficult for a child to remain hidden in the home of strangers. Little "Henri" had entered France illegally and hence was not registered anywhere. Consequently he was not entitled to food or clothing ration cards. During the war it was easier to get by in the country than in a big city, so Emilienne Lefrançois decided to send Henri to her brothers in Normandy.
"Like thousands of Jewish children, I was sent to the country. I arrived in Normandy in the autumn of 1942 to take up residence with the Lefrançois family."


Pierre Lefrançois in full-dress uniform.

THE NEW BIENFAITE RESIDENT
Georgette and Pierre did not hesitate for long. Yes, they would take in this little boy, protect him, love him as though he were their own child, at risk and danger to themselves during those dark days of German occupation.
All the Lefrançois siblings, in fact the entire numerous Lefrançois family, contributed to saving little Henri.
"With Georgette I can honestly say that I was in heaven on earth. We lived well and Pierrette, their daughter, became my little sister."

When he arrived at the Lefrançois home, Henri neither spoke nor understood French and had no identification papers at all. It was crucial to conceal his Jewish origins at all costs. One of Pierre's brothers, the priest Father Paul Lefrançois, had been in the Resistance from the beginning. Always ready to defend a just cause, he had written many articles for the Patriote de l'Eure, a clandestine journal published by the local National Front for Liberty in the Eure region. Father Paul came up with a temporary solution to the problem of the boy's identity. He forged a false certificate which claimed that Pierre Lefrançois, on marrying Georgette Suzanne, had agreed also to adopt her son Henri, who had been born out of wedlock.

Georgette and Pierre must have known that should a situation arise where the police sought to verify the authenticity of this certificate, the whole family would be in grave danger and would have to seek refuge elsewhere.

And then there was the question of what to do with a small boy of Jewish origin at Sunday Mass. Georgette and Pierre decided to teach him the rudiments of the most necessary prayers and a few religious customs so that he would not stand out from other children of his age.
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Meanwhile, with the help of the Swiss Red Cross, Henri's parents tried to find out what had become of their son. They suggested pursuing their research under the fictitious name of Henri Reder as well as his real name, Ariel Clément Eder. For their part, Georgette and Pierre Lefrançois also tried to trace the boy's parents through the French Red Cross. The only name known to them, however, was Henri Reder. Some time in late 1943 or early 1944 the Red Cross was able to inform the parents that their only son was alive and well and had been taken in by the Lefrançois family in the small village of Saint-Martin-de-Bienfaite in Normandy. The Red Cross delivered a photograph (see below) of Georgette and Ariel to his parents. On the reverse side of the photograph someone wrote:
Photograph of Ariel Eder, to be delivered, if possible, to his parents.

Someone else added:
A. Eder at the home of Pierre Lefrançois, St. Martin de Bienfaite, Calvados

And yet a third person, probably Ariel's father, noted: Received on 2.3.1944

Georgette and Ariel, 1943 (photograph taken on the Livarot road at Notre-Dame-de Courson, Normandy).

1944 THE TRAGEDY
In May 1944 Georgette gave birth to a son of her own, but the baby died within a week. Pierre was a member of the underground network led by Jean-Marie [Buckmaster] of Normandy, a network which was very active from the time of the Allied landing. On June 13th, in the course of a Resistance operation, Pierre Lefrançois was wounded by a large-bore bullet, although the exact circumstances of the event were never revealed.

Pierre was taken to hospital at Lisieux on a horse-drawn cart. Sadly, Lisieux had been devastated by bombing one week previously, on the evening of June 6th, leaving hundreds victimes. Chaos reigned. So Pierre was moved to Bienfaite where, in the absence of adequate means of care, a nurse of La Chappelle Yvon gave him a single injection of morphine. He died on June 16th in terrible suffering.

Within less than a month, Georgette had lost both her baby and her husband. Thus, a few days before her 26th birthday, she found herself widowed with two children to take care of: her daughter Pierrette, now aged four, and Henri-Ariel, now six years old.

The Liberation made it possible to resume correspondence with Henri's family, who were still in Switzerland. In February 1945, Eli Sternbuch of St. Galles in Switzerland arrived in Bienfaite with a proxy signed by Henri's parents and entitling him to deliver the child to them.

Amid many tears, Henri, who must now revert once again to being Ariel Eder, left his adoptive mother and his home in Normandy to return to his real parents.

In 1961 Ariel immigrated to Israel.


Above: Georgette Lefrançois receiving the Croix de Guerre posthumously awarded to Pierre Lefrançois.
(Third from left.)
The name Pierre Lefrançois is engraved on the monument erected at Bienfaite to those who fell in the war: They died so that France might live.

Georgette died in 1998.

Saint-Martin-de-Bienfaite may be proud to have been the home of two such beautiful and exemplary people, two genuinely simple and discreet heroes.

YB, August 2006 with the help of Pierrette Lefrançois and Ariel Eder. Translation by Ariel Eder. May they be eternally thanked.
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Read Ariel Eder's speech on the presentation of the medal of Righteous among the Nations to Georgette and Pierre Lefrançois at a ceremony at the Memorial in Caen, February 14th, 2006.

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