LA PETITE MAMA:
the untold story of a mother in the Maquis
By Barry S. Willdorf
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There was no way to know whether the orders were genuine or whether it was a clever trap. There was no way to tell who had issued them. The Resistance was in its infancy. It was operating entirely on trust and desperation. The only weapon in the hands of its members was a willingness to die in the cause.
A woman passed the word. There could be no writing, no posters, nothing said over the phone. Rebecca was not to bring her children. No one could bring a child. "We cannot risk our youthful combatants," was the explanation passed by the incipient Resistance.
At a set time on the following day, you will attack the "Judenrat." At first you will appear to be just a group of mothers who came together by coincidence. When your numbers are sufficient you will march on the Coordination Committee offices. You will be instructed further at that time.
Everything would be tentative and dependent upon the situation they found. The women in the leadership had discretion.
On the next day, at the appointed time, in ones and twos, Rebecca, along with other trusted women who were pretending to be shoppers, converged on the Committee offices and lingered. In a short while they were several dozen. Someone cut the phone lines. This accomplished, a handful passed the word for them to enter the building. Some began to shout. "Close the Committee. Destroy the records."
The office staff, those Vertfulle Juden, were startled. They tried to call the police and when that failed some of the braver of them tried to pass through the crowd of women. "Close this place. Destroy the records," the mothers demanded. But the leaders of the Committee refused. Finally, some of them made it out of the building.
Knowing they were risking death if they were arrested, the mothers quickly followed the escaping Committee members out of the building and dispersed as they had come. When the police arrived, they only saw the ordinary pedestrian traffic, people going about their business.
A few nights later, a mysterious fire destroyed the office and all of its files.
Tragically, Cypa's career in the Resistance was short-lived. On March 10, 1942, Cypa was betrayed by an informant and detained with 80 other Jewish women in Tourelles Prison.5
At first, it did not appear that Cypa's plight was serious. She was incarcerated in a dormitory on the third floor. The women there were accused of what might look like minor infractions possession of banned literature or fliers, attendance at suspect meetings, alleged membership in a forbidden organization. Couldn't these things be explained away? Surely one ought to be excused for inadvertence or a mistake. Perhaps she'd taken a political tract believing it to be an ordinary commercial handbill.
Such assumptions can be the only explanation for Cypa's (and Rebecca's) subsequent behavior. For over the next several months, Cypa engaged in reckless correspondence with Rebecca, apparently in denial about the Nazis' true agenda.6 On one occasion, Cypa and Rebecca even collaborated on a letter to Elie in the Vichy zone, in which they suggested that life in Paris was hard and that it would be best for him to "stay on the farm."
Perhaps their initial assessment of Cypa's situation was correct. However, on June 7, 1942, things took yet another turn for the worse. All French Jews were ordered to wear a yellow Star of David. A few weeks later, Cypa, along with the other Jewish women at Tourelles, was turned over to German authorities to be shipped east. Not long after, Rebecca received a letter from Cypa. She'd managed to toss it out of the death train. Miraculously, someone picked up and mailed it. Cypa's last words to her petite mama were:
"One must pay for nourishment. We cannot pay, but do not worry petite mama
I am with Pauline, be of good courage. Soon we shall return to you. A thousand kisses
Now, with her dear Cypa deported and her son in combat, there was no turning back. It was time for Rebecca to leave Rue de Charonne and go underground.
This was not Rebecca's first war. She was born in the Ukraine in 1902 into an Orthodox Jewish family of six. When she was seventeen, brutal civil war and anarchy came to her town of Baranovka, approximately halfway between Kiev and L'vov.
Three armies, the Greens, the Reds and the Whites were laying waste to the fields, forests and meadows of this part of the Ukraine as they vied for power. And in their wake came an untold number opportunistic bandit groups. Each, in turn looked upon the Jews as a source for plunder.
Indeed it was often a matter of hours between one band of marauders leaving a village, having looted it of everything of value, than another would follow, demanding the very same wealth. It was no excuse to claim that the prior mob of plunderers had absconded with everything; the inability to deliver more was punishable by rape, pillage, mayhem and death.7
Things were even worse for Jews who took to the road. Outside of one's village, there was no safe haven. There was no law. The life of a Jew was worthless. To murder a Jew was seen by the anti-Semites as justice itself.
In this terrible time, there was no competent knowledge of when a storm might be bearing down upon your village and no ability to run from it. And so, the Baranovka rabbi hit upon what must be considered an unorthodox solution.
Baranovka being then a small town, the rabbi knew Rebecca's family quite well. One evening he paid them a visit. "Your daughter," he complimented Rebecca's parents, "has extraordinary qualities."
They must have wondered what he meant. She was only seventeen and a plain young woman in every physical sense. She was not even five feet tall, with thin lips, a small nose and a strong cleft chin. She was lean enough to be an embarrassment to her mother. Rebecca did not fit the Ukrainian stereotype of a Jew.
Equally as important, she had no especially distinguishing blemishes or physical impairments, nothing that might catch the attention of a casual observer. She spoke Russian and Ukrainian without an accent.
On the other hand, the rabbi knew she possessed keen intelligence, resourcefulness and nerve. He recognized her potential as a spy. "Would you be willing to allow her to travel to the nearby shtetls and cities, to return to us with news?" he asked.
Understandably, Rebecca's parents were not keen that their child-like, young daughter be sent alone on the roads of the Ukraine during a civil war. But the decision was not theirs to make. Rebecca volunteered, and for almost a year, with her dark hair tightly bound and a wooden cross around her neck, she passed unmolested, often unnoticed and without reward from Jewish village to Jewish village bringing and returning with information.
How had it come to this? Upon her return to 120 Rue de Charonne, Rebecca had time to review the events.
At the conclusion of her activities as a spy in the Ukraine, she'd married. She was seventeen, her husband Pinia Gluzman was thirty. The couple immediately moved Rovno with the hope of immigrating to America. It was here, in 1921 that Rebecca gave birth to a daughter, Rachel. But by 1921, it was already too late for the Gluzman family to immigrate to the United States. 8
Then, in January 1923, tragedy struck. Pinia was felled by a heart attack leaving Rebecca seven months pregnant. Now she was alone, pregnant, with a baby and far from home. All but the most intrepid might have become immobilized, might have surrendered to fate. Rebecca though was determined to press on. In March of 1923, she managed to book passage on the French steamer Missouri, bound for Havana.9
She boarded the steamer nearly nine months pregnant. Her son Elie (Charles or Chaim) was born on board in April. Also on board the Missouri was Joseph Kisner, an eighteen year-old labor militant. When they arrived in Cuba, Rebecca married Joseph.
They took up residence in Havana, which was then home to more than fifteen thousand Eastern European Jews, many of whom were creating a flourishing garment industry. Joseph quickly found employment, supporting his new family as a union organizer for Cuba's new garment workers.
But it was not long before another misfortune befell Rebecca and her family. In 1927 Cuba became a dictatorship under Gerardo Machado y Morales. Machado outlawed independent trade unions and barred aliens from working. Thousands of Jewish workers lost their jobs.10
In 1931, the underground labor unionists organized a general strike in Havana. There was an uprising in Pinar del Rio Province. Machado brutally suppressed the opposition. Kisner was jailed and the Kisner/Gluzman family was put on a boat bound for France.
When mass deportations of non-citizen Parisian Jews began in mid-July 1942,11 the Parisian resistance made their number one priority saving the children.
As the wife of a French POW, Rebecca had identification papers that permitted her to travel outside of Paris. Able to speak French without a Yiddish accent, inconspicuous nearly to the point of invisibility and able to pass for French, the Maquis assigned Rebecca to conduct Jewish orphans to the unoccupied zone posing as their mother.
From July to November 1942,12 Rebecca regularly travelled from Gare de Lyon like a latter day Harriet Tubman a conductor on a death-defying underground (as well as actual) railway ushering orphans to the relative safety of the south, one or two at a time. Upon arrival, she'd make contact with sympathetic nuns, lay church people and priests who'd assist her in placing the children with farmers or tradespeople. Then she'd return across German lines to Paris and do it again.
In December 1942, Elie was sent to Paris on a secret mission. Somehow the Gestapo got wind of it. On January 31, 1943, Elie and his entire unit were captured in a raid. On March 23, 1943, he was transferred to Drancy for transport to the east. From there he was sent to Maidenek, one of the Nazi's four major Polish death camps.13 He was never heard from again.
It early February 1943, the Maquis got word that the Nazis were planning to deport the more than one hundred and fifty children at Paris' Rothschild (Jewish) hospital. They put all of their resources into a rescue attempt.
In the early hours of a dreary Parisian winter's morning, when the sky was the same color as the stones of the hospital building, a column of German army trucks rumbled down the narrow street and came to a halt at the hospital. An SS officer in pressed, black uniform, his peaked cap low on his brow, alighted from the lead vehicle and barked his commands in perfect German. His grey-clad squad piled out of the trucks, hoisted their Mausers on their shoulders and formed at attention.
Everything was done with the military precision that Parisians had come to expect from the SS. The sound of boots hitting the pavement in unison caromed off the stone walls as two columns of soldiers entered the barebones hospital. A private opened the door to the administration offices for his commander. The officer clicked his heels to command attention. He held out his orders to the Jewish doctor in charge as if the man were infectious. Without exchanging words, he snapped his fingers and sent his men on a general search to collect the children.
The appearance of these large armed men must have terrified the little ones. There were screams as they were plucked from the floor or their beds and carried off under the arms of the soldiers. A sergeant with a clipboard kept careful count of the number as they were placed in the trucks. Other soldiers were posted to restrain any attempt to flee. Then the soldiers returned to corral more of their human cargo.
In all, one hundred and sixty-three children were loaded into the trucks. The officer noted the total and gave the doctor a receipt. Without more formality, he did a smart about-face and they were gone down the narrow stone-lined street from whence they came.
A short while later, several German army trucks pulled up to the hospital. An officer in pressed, black uniform alighted and assembled his squad. He entered the hospital and presented his orders to the Jewish doctor in charge.
"But you have already taken them," said the stunned doctor.
The perplexed officer scowled. "Do not take me for a fool." He ordered his men to search the hospital but there were no children to be found.
Meanwhile, Wehrmacht trucks were individually making their way through the neighborhoods of Paris. From time to time they would halt at a nondescript building where a soldier would leave a few children and then drive on. Much later, the Nazis recovered these trucks but by that time, Rebecca and her colleagues were already in transit to Vichy with some of the children.14
As the weeks and months went on, it became increasingly difficult to travel to Vichy, even with papers. And once there, the zone was not as safe as it previously had been.15
In the spring of 1943, Rebecca was given false papers identifying her as Genvieve, a gentile domestic, along with command of a four-woman underground cell in Paris.
Twice each week, Rebecca would receive assignments. Twice each week, she would get together with her "girlfriends" at a different cafés or restaurants, telling them where to pick up a gun or a grenade or an explosive or where to deliver a weapon they already possessed. None of the women knew the real names of the others, nor where they lived. Each step of the way required a face-to-face meeting. A courier might receive a weapon in one place but not know where to take it until receiving further instructions from Rebecca. In this laborious manner her unit supplied special operations forces throughout Paris almost to liberation day.
It was on one of those idyllic spring days in Paris, perfect for sitting at a sidewalk café, sipping coffee and watching the passers by. Rebecca was alone at a table for two, not far from a Metro stop. She stirred her coffee languidly as she waited for her friend. She watched shoppers. She read a book and over time she became concerned.
Several men were loitering at the Metro station exit. This was France, midday, in the midst of a war. Able-bodied men did not loiter, much less in groups. Curiously, the gendarmes passed them by. They did not disperse them nor did they question their business.
Then she saw her "friend" exiting the Metro, her eyes searching for anything amiss. She saw what Rebecca saw. Were they looking for her in particular or simply women meeting? How had they come to this place?
She knew at once that she could not meet Rebecca. She turned away from the café and began strolling down the street, pretending to shop. But there were other cafés on the street and when she passed them by, the men realized that she was on to them. She would not lead them to Rebecca. They closed in on her.
Suddenly, there was a tremendous roar and she was gone. The men were down. Windows were shattered. Body parts littered the sidewalk. Blood began to puddle. She'd blown herself up and with several Gestapo.
Rebecca put her hand to her mouth and left the café as might any terrified citizen. They had been compromised. It would take time to reform the unit. But they did and continued their missions until Rebecca was forced to flee Paris.
After her return to Paris, Rebecca was quickly drafted into service by its new mayor. Initially she was asked to help displaced survivors regain their apartments and homes. Her success at convincing squatters to surrender living spaces led to a more difficult assignment reuniting Jewish children with their parents. Many of the children had been baptized. Many who had provided refuge had bonded with the children and wanted to keep them. The clergy who had been so helpful in placing these orphans resisted handing them back to non-believers. Allies had become adversaries. But again Rebecca succeeded. By 1945, a great many of the 10,000 children that the Resistance had saved had been recovered.
Rebecca's very success presented another problem. Most of these children were orphans who had no family to go back to. To meet this crisis, Rebecca founded two orphanages for Jewish children in Paris and became the director of one of them.
In May 1945, the French POWs returned. Rebecca received a visit from a member of Joe's battalion, who brought her horrible news.
When he learned of the Allied invasion of Normandy, Joe Kisner became ebullient. Though he was warned by friends to keep his mouth shut, Kisner could not be restrained. "Now you're going to lose the war!" Kisner boasted to one of his guards while being taken on a work detail. A German officer overheard him and stabbed Joe in the back with his bayonet. Kisner was thirty-nine years old.
Kisner's remains were returned to Paris by the surviving veterans of his unit and interred in the special place of honor for veterans at Bagneux. Like his stepson, Elie, Joseph Kisner received the honor, Mort Pour La France.
Later in 1945, Rebecca met a Jewish-American Army lieutenant named Erlich who was from Lynn, Massachusetts where her two sisters had settled. Miraculously, it turned out that Lt. Erlich's parents regularly played cards with her two sisters! Soon she was in contact with them and they convinced her to come to the United States.
It all happened very fast. By 1946, Rebecca was living in Lynn. She met my grandfather and when my grandmother died in 1949, married him, becoming Rebecca Senders.
Rebecca's inquiries regarding Cypa resulted only in a cryptic report that she had "died under torture."
Rebecca and Megan, 1975
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 it 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 it 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.
In 1942, Tourelles Prison was specifically set aside by the Nazis for Jewish women suspected of Resistance activities. Rebecca visited Cypa at the prison on several occasions until July 1942 when Cypa was shipped east. The Gestapo left the following letter from Cypa to Rebecca at 120 Rue de Charonne, where Rebecca recovered it in September, 1944.
" Ma petite cherie,
My great regret is not to have been able to embrace you before our departure, far removed from my sweet cherished mother to whom I send all my kisses and most affectionate thought; you know that very soon we will have the happiness to be reunited once again and that numberless are the happy years which we are yet to live."
In another letter Cypa asks Rebecca to pass on a "Dear Jean" message to her former lover, chastising him for his lack of resolve in the face of fascism. She asks Rebecca to tell him she finds it impossible to envision a future with a man who does not share her commitment. Again, the Gestapo delivered it to Rebecca. Whether Rebecca did as Cypa asks is not known.
Over 200,000 Jewish civilians were murdered during the Ukrainian pogroms of 1919.
The Russian Revolution and the "Red Scare" at home had changed the political climate dramatically in the United States. 1921 saw the passage of the Emergency Quota Act, conceived with the specific purpose of excluding Eastern European, dark and Jewish immigrants, whom it was assumed were infested with revolutionary thoughts.
There was one loophole in the Emergency Quota Act. It was possible to legally immigrate to the United States if you had been a resident of Cuba for one year. This loophole was closed in 1924 leaving 20,000 Jews stranded in Cuba. By 1930, according to the U.S. consul in Havana, 14,000 of those Jews had entered the United States illegally by boat, affording Jews the questionable distinction of being the first significant wave of illegal immigrants to the United States.
In this, Machado received the tacit support of the U.S. garment industry generally while the American labor movement mostly kept silent.
In two days, July 16 and 17, 1942 nearly 13,000 Jews were rounded up, including 4,000 children. Most were confined without food in the Velodrome d'Hiver, a massive sports complex with only four toilets. After a week in these subhuman conditions, the survivors were sent to Auschwitz. Of the thirteen thousand, only thirty survived to liberation. None of the survivors were children.
When the Nazis occupied the Lyon region.
A French citizen by birth, his death certificate is inscribed in the margin "Mort Pour La France" an honor the French government awards soldiers who die in the service of their country.
The 164 Jewish children rescued in the Rothschild hospital raid were but a fraction of the children that the Paris Maquis rescued. Between 1942 and 1944, a small number of intrepid women, one of whom was Rebecca, shuttled about 10,000 Jewish children to the south of France.
In September 1942, the Gestapo, headed by Jew-hunter Klaus Barbie entered Lyons and began the implementation of the Final Solution in the Vichy Zone. By November, all trappings of an independent Vichy French state were torn away. From January 1943 onward, the Milice, a French paramilitary group, was employed to hunt, kill or deport all Jews in Southern France.
I want to acknowledge:
· The Jewish Historical Society of the North Shore and in particular, Deborah S. Hallett, its administrator for all of their help in locating notes of Rebecca Senders' 1980 oral history. Deborah was tireless in her efforts to locate Rebecca's taped oral history.
· Professor Todd Endelman, for his guidance on the Jewish Council in Paris during World War II and its distinction from the Judenraten in eastern Europe also for his reference recommendations: The Jews of Paris and the Final Solution, Jacques Adler, Oxford University Press, 1987 and The Burden of Conscience: French Jewish Leadership During the Holocaust, Richard I. Cohen, Bloomington IN. University Press, 1987. These books were extremely helpful in corroborating Rebecca's recollections.
· Nathan Gass, for his notes of Rebecca's oral history specifically and generally, for undertaking to obtain oral histories from Holocaust survivors, as well as his son David, for his diligent searching to locate Rebecca's original tapes and for providing me with his father's notes.
· Helen Alev, for providing me with a treasure trove of documents: birth and death certificates, photographs, copies of letters from Rachel and personal accounts of witnesses to the family's life in Paris during the 1930s as well as the account of Joseph Kisner's murder.
· The Journal of the North Shore Jewish Community article Rebecca
A Modern Day Hero provided helpful background.
About the Writer
Barry S. Willdorf is a trial lawyer in San Francisco. He is the author of Bring the War Home!, a novel about anti-War Marines during the Vietnam War. He has written and edited for legal publications and has recently completed a historical novel focusing on women's resistance to Church dogma at the outset of the Dark Ages. For more information, visit www.agauchepress.com.
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For more articles on the Holocaust, see our Holocaust Archives
from the February 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine