LA PETITE MAMA:
the untold story of a mother in the Maquis
By Barry S. Willdorf
Rabbi Samuel Zaitchik stood at the bimah in his Lynn, Massachusetts synagogue. It was 1991. He looked out at the sparsely attended funeral for Rebecca Senders lamenting: "If the Jewish community had known the heroine Rebecca was, this place would be filled to capacity."
He might have been speaking directly to me. I was her step-grandson for forty-two years. As she'd done with the Nazis and the Ukrainian nationalist anti-Semites before them, Rebecca kept silent with her family and her congregation about her exploits.
The Rebecca I knew was shy, obsequious and often seemed uncomfortable. She did not talk much about the war, or her experiences in it, though the opportunities to do so in my typically Jewish family were plentiful enough.
I knew that she'd come to America from France after World War II and that she'd lost her entire family in the holocaust. I could only imagine the rest because she did not talk about it. So I imagined the typical a Jewish family rounded up and taken from their home to the inevitable concentration camp. She'd been lucky enough not to have been present at the time of the raid and so survived. I could not have been more wrong. It was only long after her death that I stumbled upon the documents that validated Rabbi Zaitchik's observation.
From 1941 through the liberation of Paris, this diminutive, middle-aged, Jewish mother had been a fighter in the Maquis, rising to command a communications and supply unit. During that time, she saw death close up. She participated in two of the most daring operations undertaken by the Maquis in Paris. She crossed German lines innumerable times, transporting Jewish children to the relative safety of the Vichy zone. She lost her husband and two children who were also combatants. And then, after liberation, she made many more painful trips south to recover these children.
I call this story La Petite Mama because that was the term of endearment used by her children to describe her. But in making my discovery, I came to learn that there are likely hundreds of Jews today, now in their sixties and seventies, who could also justifiably use that term when referring to Rebecca.
Though anonymity may have been Rebecca's desire in life, there is no point in keeping silent now. Her deeds should be an inspiration to us all, as well as a reminder that meekness and heroism are not mutually exclusive. Hopefully, this story will be one small step in rectifying Rabbi Zaitchik's lament.
It was the beginning of September, 1944 less than two weeks since Paris had been liberated. Rebecca Gluzman took the train up from the former Vichy zone. At Gare de Lyon she transferred to a familiar Metro line that would take her to within a few blocks of 120 Rue de Charonne to what was once her home.
All of Paris seemed to be caught up in the euphoria of liberation. It had been four long years under the Nazis. She supposed she should have been in a celebratory mood as well, but there was so much gone, so much taken from her. For Rebecca, liberation was not so much an occasion to celebrate as it was at last a time to be able to grieve. And of course there was still much to be done.
She stood in this surreal new world, holding on to a pole with one hand, a light valise in the other. Around her, passengers pressed in, their bodies adding heat and humidity to the car.
It had been only June when she'd last traveled the Metro, but the circumstances could not have been more altered. The Allies had just landed in Normandy. A bravado that comes of optimism was growing among the French, coupled with lunatic desperation on the part of the Gestapo and their collaborators. Two kinds of madness then. Yet everyone shared a sense that a climactic battle was about to begin. For Rebecca, it would be the conclusion of her war but hardly the beginning of her peace.
In Paris, the Gestapo responded to the Allied invasion with a frenzied panic. This was their twilight their last chance for vengeance against those Jewish terrorists of the Maquis who'd harassed and befuddled them all these years and who they'd never been able to completely eradicate.
Just three days before her flight from Paris, Rebecca had a meeting with her commander, comrade Sevec, a member of the Paris Maquis general staff. The following morning, he was arrested. The very next morning, Rebecca noticed that that she was being followed.
Desperate to evade this Gestapo agent, Rebecca descended into the Metro, repeatedly transferring between trains, going first in one direction, and then another. Finally, after eight harrowing hours, she was able to evade the surveillance. She made her escape to Vichy along a route she'd followed many times before while smuggling Jewish children.
Now, less than three months after that harrowing flight, the Metro was filled with nightmares. She changed trains at Nation. Only two more stops.
As she walked from her station in the 11th Arrondissement, not far from Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, her mood became increasingly apprehensive. Every building, every store, every lamppost and kiosk was familiar yet unreal. Had any of the people on the street collaborated? Who was still here? Who had been taken?
Rue de Charonne had been her home for nearly thirteen years since she, Joe and her two children, Rachel (Cypa) and Chaim (Elie), had been deported from Cuba. But it was not the same. Now she was very much alone. Joe, last she'd heard, was a POW. Rachel, her daughter, whom she called Cypa, was
well her last letter had been tossed from a train somewhere in Belgium. And her baby, Elie, only twenty-one when he was caught, she already knew he'd not made it.1
Rebecca had not been to 120 Rue de Charonne for more than a year and a half. In a stroke of good fortune, she'd abandoned it early 1943 when it looked like the Nazis were starting to deport the Jewish spouses of POWs. Shortly afterward, the Gestapo raided the apartment. After that, she'd not dared to return.
She climbed two flights of stairs to the flat, her heart pounding. Had it been occupied by squatters? Had the Gestapo carted off everything that had been so dear to her? She had returned to Paris as she'd fled it, with only the clothes on her back. Had the Nazis left any mementos of her lost world anything that she could hang on to?
When Rebecca reached her apartment, she found the front door sealed by a large brass padlock with a swastika engraving, a warning that no one was to enter. She summoned a locksmith and a short while later set foot inside the museum that was her flat.
To her amazement, the Gestapo had left it in remarkably good shape. Perhaps they had left it that way in hope that Rebecca might return, and finding it in nearly the condition she'd left it, would not be scared off. Perhaps they had only sealed it after they'd become convinced she'd not fall into their trap.
Shafts of sunlight streamed into parlor at the far end of the long hall reflecting air laden with dust. Moths had been at the curtains. The bedrooms smelled of mildew, the bathroom and kitchen of fungus. Paintings on the walls were ajar. Yet the furnishings were where she'd left them. Photographs were in their customary locations on desks, bureaus and tables. Joe's books were shelved. Clothing, the last tangible evidence of the human dimensions of the family that once lived there, was hanging in closets and folded away in chests. Here were Elie's schoolbooks and childhood playthings. There were Cypa's drawings and the mementos from Jean, her last love.
She sat in her parlor holding a picture of her contented family. Joe, in his best suit, wire-rimmed glasses perched on his nose, his hair carefully combed, his moustache neatly trimmed, smirked at her through that mouth that got them all thrown out of Cuba. Cypa, arrogant, fearless Cypa, who'd gotten expelled from the elite Rothschild school because of her political agitation, looked back at her wide-eyed and proud. And Elie, at sixteen, baby-faced, the only French citizen among them due to Rebecca's giving birth to him on a French flagged ship as she sailed for Cuba, was giving her his shy for-the-camera smile.
She caressed the photograph, closed her eyes and saw them all again as they were on Sunday, September 2, 1939. Joe, reading l'Humanité, then slamming his fist into the arm of his chair and vowing: "Tomorrow will be the beginning of the end for that swine." Cypa helping her in the kitchen as they prepared Sunday dinner of boiled chicken, gefilte fish and lokshin kugel forever pushing her shoulder-length brown hair out of her eyes and away from the food. Elie at the dining room table hunched over his engineering texts, his slide rule clasped in one hand, pencil in the other.
And then, she remembered the next morning, after war had been declared. Joe leaving the apartment but this Monday not for work returning early to announce that he'd joined the army. "There were thousands of us, thousands of Jews, signing up to fight the fascists," he enthused. And how still later, Cypa confided to Rebecca that Jean, her boyfriend, was planning how he might best avoid conscription and pleading with her "petite mama" not to tell Joe.
Soon Joe was away, to return only for a brief leave and then gone again. When Rebecca next heard from him, he wrote that his regiment was incarcerated in a place called Stalag XIII, Kriegsgefangenenlager 383, somewhere in Bavaria. He had been there since June 1940 when, after the fall of Paris, Marshall Pétain (the "Hero of Verdun") signed off on France's surrender agreeing to order more than one million French soldiers to lay down their arms and march into captivity.2
Then in June 1940, the unthinkable happened. Paris was occupied. For French Jews, the holocaust was about to begin. In August came the first attacks on Jewish businesses. In the same month, Pétain revoked the citizenship of 6,000 French Jews. In October, the Vichy collaborators enacted a series of anti-Semitic laws (the Statuts des Juifs) that barred Jews from the army, government and many professions.
But that was only the beginning. In June 1941, Vichy instituted a second set of Jewish laws that stripped Jews of their property and as if to underscore their commitment to the Final Solution, sent three hundred Jewish boys to the Mauthausen concentration camp only a few days later. None survived.
Rebecca recalled how, in July, a member of Pétain's cabinet celebrated the deportation of another 5,000 non-French Jews by boasting, "France is the only country, except for Germany, that persecutes Jews the most."
The enthusiasm of the Vichy French toward destruction of the Jews encouraged the Nazis. Soon they were demanding registration of all Jews. They set up the "Coordination Committee" and imported two shadowy Jews from the Vienna Judenrat to be its "technical advisors." The advisers recruited Jewish informants whom they rewarded with identity cards describing them as Vertfulle Juden (valuable Jews) who would be exempt from deportations in exchange for their service turning in Jews who refused to register with the committee.
Rebecca and her children had no illusions about what was to come. First Cypa moved out to serve in the L'Union de la Jeunesse Juive (l'U.J.J.) - The Union of Jewish Youth a clandestine arm of the French resistance. For security reasons, she could not tell Rebecca where she was living or what she was doing. From late 1941 onward, they could only communicate by message.
Then Elie, also a member the l'U.J.J., quit his job at an aircraft factory and joined a special operations unit of what the Nazis called the "Manouchian Group" under the command of an eighteen year-old Austrian Jew named Julien Zerman.3
Rebecca was now alone. Difficult as it was, she recognized that she could not simply sit on the sidelines and wait for her inevitable arrest and deportation, while her children were fighting. She joined the newly forming resistance.4
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Rebecca had not yet received the official papers but she knew that they would say "Mort Pour La France," that he died for France.
The irony of Jean's decision was exquisite. The surrender documents made no distinction between French soldiers of Jewish extraction and others. The term of incarceration was 'for the duration." The Germans believed the war would soon be over and they could deal with the Jews then. But the British fought on. Thus, unlike Jean, most of the more than ten thousand Jews who enlisted during the first week of the war remained POWs until its end and were not exterminated.
Fighting in the Vichy zone, over the twenty months of its operational existence, the Manouchian Group was held accountable by the Nazis for the death of one hundred and fifty German troops and the wounding of an additional 800. Its exploits were immortalized in a widely-distributed wanted poster, L'Affiche Rouge, that the Maquis soon considered to be a recruiting poster. The poster has been reproduced in France with pride.
By the spring of 1942, small groups of French soldiers who had refused to surrender joined up with former Spanish Republican forces and a smattering of leftists wanted by the Gestapo, to form the first fighting units. Headquartered in Toulouse, the first combat units operated in Limousin and Puy-de- Dôme, where they became the Maquis - the French Resistance. Approximately twenty percent of them were Jewish.
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For more articles on the Holocaust, see our Holocaust Archives
from the February 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine