On יומ הזיכרון לשואה תש״פ (Holocaust Remembrance Day in the year 5780) I bear witness. My mother, Margalit bat Mechel v Esther ז״ל with her parents and two younger brothers, fled the invading Germans from Belgium to Dunkirk, following the retreating French and English. Perhaps they hoped the British would evacuate them to United Kingdom. They didn’t. Instead, my Grandfather, a Polish national, was drafted.
From Dunkirk Esther and the three children fled to Paris. As Paris was falling to the Germans the children were sent to a Catholic orphanage in Cabreton. Esther fled south too, ending up in Ligny in what would become the German client state of “unoccupied” France based in Vichy. When France surrendered, the orphanage that my Mother and her two brothers were placed in, for their safety, became part of occupied France.
Because they were Jews they were treated very poorly. My Uncle Samuel, 9 years old, was beaten often. Somehow, at some point, my Grandfather and Grandmother reunited (through personal ads they both placed in a Parisian newspaper which we ran next to each other). They got their children out of the orphanage and headed south to unoccupied France.
The Vichy government passed anti-Semitic laws mirroring the Nuremberg laws. Starting in 1941 foreign Jews, and then all Jews, were deported to a Vichy Internment Camp, Darcy, and, in 1942, on to the extermination camps.
My family was hidden by a farmer in Montpellier. Somehow they managed to contact the US consulate in Vichy. The US wasn’t allowing Jews fleeing the Nazis in because of ingrained anti-Semitism, particularly in the State Department. My Grandmother’s distinctive birthmark saved them.
How did they know she was the same Esther Koten that appeared on the birth certificate? The answer was that distinctive birthmark. And it was enough. Keep in mind during this lengthy process they were in danger of discovery and deportation. Sometime in 1941 they took a train to Lisbon. My Mother remembers the Germans stopping the train at the border with Spain, looking for Jews. Despite that they got to Lisbon. They boarded the SS Siboney and left for New York.
My Mother remembered the Statue of Liberty. She thought New York’s streets were paved in gold. She was 11 years old. She earned her right to be called an אשת חיל (a woman of valor) at a very young age. It is written on her grave in Northeast Philadelphia. She was always grateful to America for the sanctuary it provided. But it was a reluctant benefactor. The vast majority of fleeing Jews did not have American birth certificates let alone a distinctive birthmark to prove it. Most Jews hoping for refuge in the US were turned away, many were murdered in the Extermination Camps.
Thousands upon thousands of Jews have stories like this or much worse. They’re passed down through the generations. Holocaust survivors, refugees, and righteous gentiles are almost gone. It is up to their children to bear witness, and their children’s children. It’s what Jews do.