The weekend before Rosh Hashana, Michael and I were privileged to join a group from the shul on a wonderful weekend in Saint Martin Vésubie, some 40 miles north of Nice. The south of France was a relative haven for Jews for much of the Second World War, and some 1000 took refuge in this town, where they were given protection, and – as I learned on the walk, supported by the JOINT.
Sadly, as we know from the fate of people like the artist Charlotte Salomon whose story was told at the Royal Academy in 1998, the respite from the Nazis did not endure. Thus, as the vice on Jews in Vichy France – and in the south in particular – was closing in, in August 1943 Saint Martin Vésubie organised an escape route to Italy which had already capitulated.
The route was over the Alps. In fact, there were two routes, and NNLS Trekkies, led by Eric Weigert, had already walked one of the routes last year. This year the walk in the refugees’ footsteps was on the second route, to the Col de Fenestre, at some 2,500 metres. And this year, being the 70th anniversary of the escape, brought a considerable presence, in recognition of both the escapees and their helpers.
Michael and I reached the village by car, via just two turns from Antibes – heading north and upwards along the Var valley, then a contour road along a deep and tall gorge following the course of the River Vésubie. The scenery rating is five star.
On arrival in the charming town with its dramatic arrangement of tightly packed buildings – lying across the steep gradient and backing onto the river, and having checked into the hotel that Eric had kindly booked (the man’s a marvel of organisation, all expertly and generously delivered with the lightest touch), we started exploring. And so begun the delightful sequence of encounters – with Bruce and Joseph Rigal, with Eva Davies, with Judy and David Berle, then Brian Plen and Eric. We all convened on the terrace of a bar for kabbalat shabbat kiddush – Eric producing challah, wine, glasses and candles, like rabbits from a hat. The party was bigger now, with Isabelle and Ivor Sneddon, plus three couples who had joined the NNLS group – Michael and Marilyn Apple from St Albans, Michael and Suzanne Haffner from Pinner, and Sandra and Dale Penem from New York.
The connection to the town is via David and Elizabeth Bernheim, former members of NNLS and since resident in Saint Martin Vésubie for many years. Through their kind offices, we were all invited to a Shabbat dinner in the local Salle Jean Gabin, with the (kosher) hospitality provided by the Or Torah school of Nice, and hosted by The director of the school and his family.
The dinner was a valuable occasion to meet local people who had gathered for the commemoration. What local means in this context is a ponderous issue. I sat with Jews from Strasbourg who work in Nice, and a French woman with Romanian Jewish roots – a relatively recently identified Jew – who teaches in Paris. They foreshadowed others of this diaspora I was to meet the next day, like the daughter of Jewish emigres from Poland, and her husband from Algiers, who live in Grenoble. Clearly the commemoration was an extremely important event for this community, some of whom expressed considerable insecurity regarding current Jewish experience in France.
A walk for pleasure
The next day, Saturday, there was a programme of commemorative events in the town, as there would also be on the Sunday. However, our group all chose to join Eric on a marvellous hike. This followed an entirely different route to walk in the footsteps of the refugees we were to do the following day. Now the terrain was steep and green, with mostly enclosed vistas, and a profusion of vegetation at our feet. The floral display was rich and colourful, the air very fragrant, and we must have seen some ten different varieties of mushroom as we went.
Lunch was at a ski resort – not beautiful, but most enjoyable. From there, some of the party returned to Saint Martin Vésubie by taxi, some walked back down, and a few of us took the ski lift to a higher peak. This is the starting point for the longest summer luge in Europe, which some of the boys in our group – from teen to mid-60s – relished, before we reconvened for a gorgeous hike back down. I think we all felt as I did – elated by the beautiful fresh surroundings, the exercise, and the fellowship.
Saturday night, the municipality came to the fore again, with a dinner in the Mairie where our party ate amongst the guests. This rather informal and crowded affair afforded more opportunity to engage with French participants. I was touched by the story of my new acquaintance from Grenoble. Her father had gone there from Poland to study engineering. Her mother had followed, they had married and had a son. By the war, her father was working for the electricity company, who – based on his professional knowledge of what was unsafe to touch – permitted him to hide behind a ‘Danger, Do not enter’ screen. Her mother and brother found safety in a Catholic school, their survival attributed to her parents’ staunch Communist belief which had stood in the way of her brother having a brith milah. This poignant irony was compounded when we then went to a concert – two Russian entertainers singing Yiddish heartbreakers without charm or emotional resonance. I think everyone from our group trailed away early – and for the French Jews I talked to the next day, the concert typified some of their concern about the direction of Jewish life around them today.
The commemorative walk
One thing these encounters had done was to attune me to what had brought us here. Saturday’s walk was pure holiday, but as we set off for the memorial walk the next morning, the basis for the event came into conscious focus. We talked about this switch in mindset whilst driving to the starting point for the walk which was at some distance from the town – the refugees had doubtless walked all the way. Whereas we were fit, prepared and suitably equipped, their numbers had included the very young and old, unsuitably dressed, carrying property and supplies, uncertain and frightened. Indeed, as we soon found, our walk started above the treeline, so they were also visually exposed.
A walker I recognised from Hampstead Garden Suburb was there to honour her mother, who had been ten years’ old on the walk. A daughter in a family from Frankfurt, they had come to Nice after Kristallnacht, believing it to be safe. In the summer of 1943, she came to join a young friend in Saint Martin Vésubie, and was there with her host family when the evacuation took place. She walked in a cotton dress and wooden shoes.
The terrain en route to Col de Fenestre was more austere than on Saturday’s verdant hike. Now we had a stony path on rocky terrain. The mountain routes themselves are very old – established over 1000 years ago, and for e period used to carry salt from coastal French saltpans to Italy. Now the entire area is contained within the Mercantour National Park, and the path is well curated and obvious – advancing up the mountain face in an endless succession of S-bends. There were still flowers however, and I was touched to see a long sequence of piled stones – as befits a memorial site, and close to the summit we saw a chamois near an old blockhouse from the war.
Commemoration on the summit
The experience at the mountain top was deeply moving. Many people had walked up from the Italian side, and there was a considerable crowd, but the singular faces were in the named portraits of lost children, placed on rock ledges where we’d assembled. Soon the ceremony commenced, starting with speeches in Italian and French, a roll call of the young lives lost, and an anthology of survivors’ testimonies read by students from a Jewish school in Nice. Then a beautifully crafted and searing piece by Ari Roth from Washington DC, a tribute both to his mother who had also been on the walk, and to the array of good people whose help had facilitated the escape. An exquisite musical rendering in song with guitar accompaniment – Grazie alla Vita – was as profoundly affecting as the previous evening’s soiree had missed the connection. The ceremony concluded with kaddish.
At the summit, our group divided – Eric, Brian, the Seddons and Michael Haffner walked over to the Italian side, where they spent a night in a mountain refuge, returning to Saint Martin Vésubie the next day. The rest of us, in haste for school and Rosh Hashana, walked down the way we’d ascended, stopping at a high level lake for lunch. It was here that I’d heard about the mixed fate of the refugees who’d managed the escape. On arriving on the Italian side, some had heeded a sign inviting them to register for food and shelter without fear. Three hundred and fifty people perished in this trap; those who ignored it survived.
On arrival back at Saint Martin Vésubie, we were in time for the ceremonial close – a very French affair: wreath laying at the town’s monument – lots of tricolores, speeches in a marquee in the town square, and La Marseillaise. Whilst I understand from David Bernheim that the Marseillaise is required for municipal events of this sort in France, one of my new French friends said she felt Hatikva would be more aligned. Another agreed that it’s important and right to recognise the past, but asked who was facing up to the present.
And so I left, recognising again just how fortunate we are to have the freedom and confidence and positive Jewish content that our group so enjoy. Perhaps I would have found the Yom Kippur services at NNLS wonderful in any event, as I have done in the past, but feel that the appreciation of privilege I felt from the weekend at Saint Martin Vésubie added a dimension, and I felt this in yet another way when exchanging smiles across the shul with fellow walkers on this bonding experience.
Ziona Strelitz came for the 2013 Marche de la Mémoire with a walking group from London’s New North London Synagogue. She wrote the article soon after.