Honor and shame
SANDRINE ESPOUEY AND I HAD BEEN WRITING each other about Uszer Kahan so often that by now we usually referred to him by the abbreviation "UK." And by the time we met, we were already on a first name basis, kindred spirits on a search that had become, for both of us, nearly an obsession.
THE STORY OF USZER KAHAN captivated both of us, becoming a mutual obsession.
Steve and I had left our rental car parked at the bed-and-breakfast where we were staying, and walked for half an hour, through the lovely Jardin Massey, to the municipal archive, located in the former Tarbes arsenal complex.
Sandrine showed us some boxes with police files from World War II, and city files on Jewish people. But the main point of our first meeting was not the documents in the municipal archive. Later, I would return to the archive with copies of documents from the departement archive, which she would help me translate and interpret. But for now, it was important just to listen to Sandrine, to absorb and understand the background of this place.
Tarbes, with its large population of workers, had a strong Resistance movement during World War II, she told us, adding, with evident pride, that her own grandfather was active in the Resistance, though he never spoke of it (she learned of it only through the son of one of his friends).
MAURICE TRÉLUT, the city's mayor from 1935 to 1944, opposed the occupation, Sandrine told us, criticizing the bombardments and the reprisals. He helped make secret arrangements to hide Jews and resistance fighters in the hospital in Tarbes. For these acts of resistance, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Buchenwald where he died.
Yad Vashem had recognized him, as well as the two directors of the hospital, as rescuers -- the "Righteous Among the Nations" -- those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Later, I read their stories on the Yad Vashem site and in the book, The Path of the Righteous.
MAYOR MAURICE TRÉLUT (larger photo on the left side of the panel) is honored in this display of the region's Resistants at the Museum of Deportation and Resistance in Tarbes. A sports stadium in Tarbes is named for Trélut, a rugby player in his youth.
LIKE USZER KAHAN, JOSEPH BEIGHELDRUT was an Eastern European Jew who had long been settled in France. Beigheldrut worked as a secretary to a rabbi in Lille until the war broke out, when he joined the French army and was captured by the Germans. He escaped, crossed the demarcation line, (as Uszer Kahan also did), and found work in Tarbes in a tannery. One day in early November of 1943, after he had left for work, Gestapo agents arrived at his apartment to arrest him. A young neighbor ran to the restaurant where Beigheldrut was eating lunch, to warn him that the police had sealed the door to his home and were waiting in the street for him.
Friends (perhaps at the restaurant) advised him to seek help from the mayor, Maurice Trélut, who told him to go immediately to the hospital and contact the director, Sister Anne-Marie Llobet. Sister Anne-Marie greeted him warmly and hid him, among other "imaginary invalids," in the quarantine ward. Some 20 Jews were lodged in the hospital, many of them officially listed as deaf-mutes (if they didn't speak French) or mentally deficient patients, others posing as employees. Their lives were saved by the deceptions of their brave rescuers.
Shortly after his arrival in the hospital, Beigheldrut heard that a new Vichy-appointed director, was to take charge -- Marcel Billières, son of the mayor of Toulouse. The hidden refugees were terrified that he would be a pro-German collaborator, but they were soon reassured: Billières was a strong supporter of the persecuted, just as Sister Llobet and Maurice Trélut. He appointed Beigheldrut as his secretary in his office, and gave him lodging in a monk's cell, where he lived until liberation.
"THUS I, A MAN HUNTED by the Gestapo. . . a tracked person," recalled Joseph Beigheldrut, "there I was, typing correspondence while the director attended to the Germans who regularly visited the hospital in search of wounded partisans or of hiding and sick Jews."
With the support of Billières, a nurse known as Sister Elizabeth (Marie-Antoinette Ricard) also helped to hide persecuted Jews, camouflaging elderly and infirm as hospital patients and training one young Jewish woman, Anne Frajdenrajch, with the medical skills to take care of her own father. After liberation, Anne Frajdenrajch was admitted to medical school and became a doctor in Paris. She and other survivors recalled that whenever the Gestapo came to search the hospital, Sister Elizabeth hurriedly moved Jews who did not speak French well into the tubercular ward and warned the Germans not to approach their rooms lest they contract the disease.
The hospital provided for the needs of the hidden refugees, including food, laundry and lodging, at no charge. The hospital also served as a base for the local Resistance, and a repository of underground ammunition and weapons.
When France was liberated, it was discovered that the German military command at Tarbes had Marcel Billières' name on a "black list," to be arrested immediately. After the war, Billières was elected mayor of Tarbes; some of the Jews he had rescued remained in touch with him.
Musée de la déportation et de la résistance
SO THERE IS much to be proud of, honneur, in this town's history -- the honorable actions of the mayor, the two hospital directors, the nurse, the Resistance fighters. Maurice Trélut, Anne-Marie Llobet, Marcel Billières and Marie-Antoinette Ricard are all honored as the Righteous Among the Nations, "who stood by the victims' side and acted in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed in the darkest time of history."
And yet, there were also cases like Uszer Kahan's: perhaps a denunciation by a neighbor or coworker, followed by an arrest by French police who turned the victim over to the Nazis for deportation.
There is "honte" -- shame -- Sandrine says, about the French collaboration with the Nazis. She tells us that she feels it, too, despite her legacy of the Resistance.
Sandrine says she has always been drawn to history, from the time she was a child. Her parents wanted her to attend university to study English so that's what she did -- but then found her ideal job in her city's archive. She is especially interested in what went on in Tarbes during World War II, but she doubts that many others in this city share her interest.
As an example, she cites the Museum of Deportation and Resistance, created in 1989 by an association of former members of the Resistance.
"In all the years I was in school, no one in my history class brought me to this museum, only one kilometer away," Sandrine says." I went as an adult."
"Memory here is. . . ," she begins, searching for the word. She pushes the palm of her hand strongly toward the floor.
"Submerged?" I suggest. "Buried?"
Sandrine nods. "Yes."