Strangers saved the lives of Annette Herskovits and her sister in occupied France almost a half-century ago.
And so when Herskovits learned that Muslims in France had kept some 1,700 strangers—many of them Jews—from the Nazi death camps, she began que stioning today’s animosity between Muslims and Jews and discovered that there is a history of the two peoples—cousins, some say—living harmoniously.
Herskovits found a documentary that tells some of that story. She will show Derri Berkani’s 1991 film, T heir Children Are Like Our Own Children, A Forgotten Resistance: The Mosque of Paris tonight (Tuesday), 7:30 p.m., International House, 2299 Piedmont Ave.
At the screening, Herskovits will share her personal Holocaust story.
Herskovits’ parents, Roman ian Jews, came to France in 1923, she told the Daily Planet in an interview in her Berkeley home last week. “They mistrusted Jews in Transylvania (part of Romania),” she said.
Her father worked as a typesetter. With the rise of Hitler, he joined the Fren ch army, even though, as a foreigner, he was refused French citizenship. “He wanted to fight the Nazis anyway,” Herskovits said.
France declared war on Germany in September 1939 and the following year surrendered to Germany. Soon Jews began to be picked up by the occupying forces and the French collaborators. However, Romanian Jews were not rounded up until the fall of 1942, having initially been protected by their Romanian citizenship.
Fearing for their children, Herskovits’ parents sent 3-year-old Annette and her 13-year-old sister to a foster home away from Paris. They found work on a farm for their 17-year-old son near the younger girls.
Though it was so long ago, it’s still very painful for Herskovits to talk about those times. “It still makes me nervous, I cannot tell it,” she said, stopping for a moment. Pushing on, Herskovits shared memories of her father’s last visit: “He came on my fourth birthday. He came to see me and brought me a present, a dress.”
Soon after, both parents were arre sted and taken to Auschwitz. “I don’t know what happened to them after that,” she said.
Life became complicated. There was no one to pay for the sisters’ care at the foster home and their presence there became an increasing danger to the caregiver. Herskovits’ brother was hiding in a hotel in Paris and working at night cleaning presses in the same shop where his father had worked. He did not dare give his employers his real name. He arranged for his two sisters to stay with him.
“He didn’t know what to do with me,” Herskovits said. “He knew very well he didn’t want to entrust me to the orphanages, which were official orphanages run by the official Jewish organization under German control. I was four and a half. He was hiding himself; he had false pap ers.”
Her brother was able to speak with someone he thought he could trust and learned of a well-organized network of communists, Catholics, Protestants and Jews that worked to save children.
During the Holocaust, this group saved some 500 children, H erskovits said. Sometimes they would go and literally kidnap children from the state-controlled orphanages.
Once they got the children, they would place them in safe, clandestine shelters. Herskovits was placed in one of these, a sanatorium for children with tuberculosis run by Catholic nuns.
After finding safe hiding places for the children, the network had to give the child a new identity by procuring false papers; they also had to raise funds to pay for upkeep, and send the payments to the secret hiding place without attracting attention.
“They had to keep records, in code, of the children’s true and false names and whereabouts, bring the children to their hiding places in small groups, and visit them regularly to ascertain that they were well treated,” Herskovits wrote in a winter 2004 article published in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship journal Turning Wheel. “Many who participated in this work—both Jews and non-Jews—perished,”
Once she had papers, Herskovits was able to live more openly in foster homes until the end of the war. She was then adopted by a French family.
Herskovits’ survival had depended on strangers and so she was moved when she learned the story of the Paris Mosque
“In these times of mutual hatred, a hatred that is sust ained by distorted views of the ‘other,’ the story of Muslims saving Jewish children struck me as one Jews and Arabs especially should hear,” Herskovits wrote in the Turning Wheel article. “This history strengthens my sense that mutuality and harmony make up the natural fabric of human relations. Division and cruelty are like torn places in that fabric. Surely, at certain times and places the tearing can be so thorough that it seems the fabric is not there. But that is an illusion.”
The story of the mos que begins in 1926. The French government had it built to thank the half-million Muslims who had fought alongside the French in World War I—including the 100,000 who lost their lives.
During the German occupation, the Paris mosque sheltered French resis tance fighters and North Africans who had escaped from German POW camps—340,000 African/North African troops in the Free French army in 1939 out of 550,000 were there. When the occupation began rounding up Jews, they were also hidden in the mosque—especia lly children, Herskovits said.
French Filmmaker Derri Berkani, whose documentary tells the story of the Paris Mosque, is of Algerian ancestry. While his father was fighting in the Resistance, Berkani was in the south of France, hiding among Jewish child ren.
Herskovits shared a letter to her from the Muslim filmmaker, translated from the French: “My distress about all this [Jewish-Muslim tensions] is made more intense because my own personal history could be that of a Jewish child of my age. I recogniz e the fears and the obsession of the return to the possible nightmare…. I would so much like to be a link between the two communities.”
Herskovits also seeks to serve as a link between Muslims and Jews; showing Berkani’s film is one step toward becoming that link.