Jakob was born in Wurzburg, Germany, on April 26,1925. When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Jakob was seven years old, and he was thirteen on Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass. Jakob came to Le Chambon when he was sixteen, along with Hanne, Joseph, and four other young refugees. He was twenty years old in 1945, when the Allies achieved victory in Europe. He told us his story in New York when we interviewed him on February 22, 2003, and on May 20, 2003.
Age 10—1936, Frankfurt, Germany
I’m sick and tired of being bullied just because I’m Jewish. Before I started school, I was a happy kid. But now all the Nazi kids call me “Dirty Jew,” and I come home from school bloody almost every day. I might not be the biggest, strongest kid in Germany, but I’m tough, and I know how to stick up for myself. My brother, Martin, is eleven, a year older than I am, but I’m even tougher than he is. Martin and I used to do everything together, but last year my parents sent him to Berlin to stay with our aunt. Before they sent me to school in Frankfurt, Mutter [Mother] was worried about my fighting back. She said, “Look at you! You’re going to get us all into jail yet.” And I told her, “I don’t care, I’ll defend myself. This is my right!”
Frankfurt is a bigger city than Kleinlangheim, my hometown. My parents thought that I would be safer here in Frankfurt and wouldn’t have to fight so much. But there are lots of Nazis here, too, and the kids like me that go to the yeshiva—religious school—have to wear yarmulkes—skullcaps. So now it’s even easier for the Nazi kids to tell I’m Jewish. Yesterday, this guy took me out and beat the living hell out of me, and I went to school crying all the way. This morning, he was after another kid, but there were four of us together, and we threw him through a drugstore window. And then we ran! So far, today, no one else has bothered us.
Age 13—1938, Frankfurt, Germany
I’ve been in Frankfurt now for two years, and suddenly I have to go home. My parents say they can’t afford to send me to school here anymore, because business is so bad. They’re wine merchants. I’m not too sorry to leave. I don’t mind going to school at home again. Besides, I miss Grosspapa [Grandpa] and Gross-mama [Grandma] a lot, and Mutter and Vater [Father], too. And when I get home I’ll get to see my dog, Waldi.
Age 13—Kristallnacht, November 10, 1938, Kitzengen, Germany
Something is going on. I don’t know what it is, but I’m scared. On the way to school this morning, I could see a big fire from the train window. All the other kids were shouting, “Oh, wonderful! The synagogue is burning. Oh, those dirty Jews!” How dare they say that!
I got off the train, but instead of going to school, I went to my aunt’s house. All the way there, I saw awful things: Storm Troopers were breaking windows, beating people, and setting things on fire. People were running everywhere, screaming and crying. My uncle was gone. My aunt told me that they had arrested him and my other two uncles, and I’d better just stay with her. But I don’t care what she says, I’m going home.
Age 13—November 10, 1938, Kleinlangheim, Germany
I snuck out and I went home the back way. My worst fears came true. Everything I had seen on the way home was happening to my family, too. My house was surrounded by Nazis, and all the windows had been broken. I could see Storm Troopers in the basement. They were breaking the wine casks that my parents were going to sell. Wine was pouring out onto the floor, and they were drinking as much as they could. I ran inside. I saw Mutter and Grosspapa and Grossmama, but where was Vater?
Mutter said to one of the Storm Troopers, “Somebody stole my winter coat.” The Storm Trooper looked really angry, and shouted, “Everybody goes to jail!” They took me, too, and even my dog!
They took us to the city hall and made us wait. We didn’t know what they were going to do to us. Mutter told me that they had arrested Vater that morning. She didn’t know where they had taken him. After a while, they let me and my grandparents go. But they didn’t give us back Waldi, and they said to Mutter, “You! Stay!”
Our house was in a shambles. The Storm Troopers had taken everything of value and destroyed everything else. A half hour later, Mutter came home. She was crying, and her mouth was bleeding. It was an awful sight. She told us that one of the Storm Troopers said to her, “A National Socialist [Nazi] does not steal!” and smashed her right in the face and knocked all her teeth out. He was the same one she had told about her winter coat.
That night we slept in the office upstairs. It was the only room that had any windows left. It was freezing in the house.
We’re fixing the windows ourselves. The Nazis took our insurance money. We found out that they killed Waldi that day, and now they just won’t leave us alone. We can’t go to the bakery, we can’t go anywhere. Some nice people who used to work for us come in the middle of the night and bring us food.
Vater finally came home yesterday after four weeks. He told us he was in Dachau, a concentration camp. The only reason they let him go was because he had been a soldier for Germany in the Great War. That’s the only thing that saved him.
Age 14— 1939, Berlin, Germany
I’m in Berlin with Martin. We both go to school here now, and we’re living with my aunt. My parents think boys aged fourteen and fifteen are too young to live on their own. They had to sell our house, and the Nazis gave them twenty-four hours to leave Germany. They claimed that my parents had been hiding weapons in the house. My parents paid a smuggler to help them sneak across the border to Holland [the Netherlands], and from there they went to Belgium. Grosspapa and Grossmama stayed in Holland with a relative. I really miss them.
Martin and I get letters from my parents sometimes. They’re in a refugee camp in the mountains called Marneffe. I miss them, too. Now that Germany has invaded Poland, and we are at war, things here are even more difficult. Martin and I have agreed that we can’t stay in Germany anymore. We’re going to try to get to Belgium.
Age 14— October 18, 1939, Belgium
We’ve seen a lot of smugglers in the past few days. Our great-uncle gave us the money to pay them. We crossed the border into Holland. All we brought with us was a change of clothes in our knapsacks, nothing else. We had to leave everything else behind. It was important that it look like we were only going away for the day, not leaving for good.
We met the first smugglers at the train station in Cologne. We were told that one of them would have a newspaper under his arm and that’s how we would recognize him. He was a big, tall guy, with blue eyes. Really Aryan-looking. The two smugglers knew exactly where to take us and where the border guards would be. They knew just when it would be safe to cross the border. I asked them who they were. The tall guy said, “We are from the Gestapo,” and he showed us his papers. It was true! They were the Nazi secret police! Why were they helping us? We didn’t dare ask.
One of the smugglers drove us all the way through Holland. We were so close to Grosspapa and Grossmama, but we couldn’t stop to see them. My heart broke. That night, a Dutch smuggler took us to the Belgian border. We were in a cemetery, but we weren’t scared. He told us to climb over the back wall of the cemetery, and he would meet us on the other side. We made it! We’re in Belgium!
Age 14—December 1939, near Liege, Belgium
We turned ourselves in to the police in Brussels, and they put us in jail. That was the first time I ever ate nonkosher food. Martin wouldn’t touch it, but I said, “I’m hungry, I’m eating.” The judge sentenced us to join our parents in the refugee camp. That was exactly what we wanted! Mutter and Vater were so happy to see us when we finally joined them at the refugee camp. And the way we got there was by getting ourselves arrested!
Marneffe is up in the mountains in a beautiful old chateau—castle. There are lots of other Jewish refugees here, from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. My parents had been very worried about us. It’s wonderful to be together again.
Everybody here works. Vater works in the kitchen. Mutter knits socks for the army. And Martin and I are working in the carpentry shop, but I’m not very good at it. Last month, I hit my hand with a hammer, and then when I was painting, some paint got into the cut. I got blood poisoning and it spread up my arm in three red stripes. It hurt. They were going to amputate my arm, but a doctor there, one of the Jewish refugees, said, “Let’s try it without amputating the arm.” Vater stayed next to me day and night, putting compresses on my arm. I was lucky to survive.
Age 15— May 10, 1940, Belgium
The director of the camp has just told us we have to leave. The Germans are invading Holland, France, and Belgium. He said, “We are being bombed by the Germans and we have to be evacuated. We’d better start marching toward France.” We can’t take much with us because we have to walk, so each of us has only one small suitcase. Not that we have very much to bring with us, anyway. It’s very hot today, and we have no water as we walk and walk. Bombs fall all around us, and we have to run and hide when the Stukas fly over us and strafe us with their machine guns. We are all terrified. As we walk, we see the French and British armies retreating.
Age 15—May 1940, Belgium and France
We’re under arrest. The French Army has arrested our whole group. They think we are fifth column—German spies—just because we’re German. They took us to army barracks in Charleroi, near the French border. They took Mutter away. We don’t know where she is. Then they put us in cattle wagons and shipped us to a camp in France called Le Vigiant. Now they want to machine-gun us as spies. But we have a rabbi with us, and he is pleading for our lives.
Age 15—May 1940, Le Vigiant Camp, France
Thank goodness the commander of this camp is a Moroccan Jew. The rabbi has managed to convince him that we’re not spies, but mostly Jewish refugees, so they won’t shoot us. Now Vater and Martin and I are being sent to an internment camp, again in cattle wagons. It’s so hot out.
Age 15—July 1940, St. Cyprien Internment Camp, France.
It was a long trip down here to the St. Cyprien internment camp—four days in the cattle wagons with no water and no food. St. Cyprien is right on the beach and it’s very hot and full of sand fleas. We’re living in tents and there’s no escape from the heat. The food is terrible—Jerusalem artichokes swimming in water. We spend our time killing sand fleas.
Age 15—October 1940, Gurs Internment Camp, France
I thought St. Cyprien was bad, but it’s nothing compared to Gurs. The only good thing about this place is that we found Mutter here. Of course, she’s in the women’s section, so we don’t get to see her very often. Gurs is an internment camp in southwest France, and it’s the most disgusting place I’ve ever seen. When it rains you sink up to your ankles in the mud, and there are rats everywhere. People are starving here. They give us carrots cut up and boiled in water, with maybe a little hunk of meat in it. A piece of bread, always either too wet or too hard. And never enough. Swiss Aid for Children gives us kids halvah, powdered milk, and processed cheese, but we have to take turns because there is not enough for everyone. I’m down to ninety pounds.
Everybody here has lice, which is why Vater and I have set up a little business. We boil people’s clothing in big garbage cans to kill the louse eggs. It’s really hard for me to lift the cans, though, so I’m going to ask to work in the infirmary instead. Martin and Mutter both just got back from eight weeks in the hospital with typhoid. I’m so relieved that they are better.
Last night, a woman from a children’s aid organization, Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, called OSE, asked my parents if they wanted to send me to a village somewhere in France where I could stay in a home for refugee teenagers run by Swiss Aid for Children. She said I would be much safer there. They can only take kids who are sixteen and younger, so I just made it. Maybe Martin can come later. It will really be hard to leave my family behind.
Age 16—September 1941, France
I’m traveling with six other kids: Hanne (see Chapter Twenty-six, “Love in Wartime: Hanne and Max”), Lilli, Mannfred, Willi, and the twins, Joseph (see Chapter Twenty-five, “The Bad Boy of La Guespy: Joseph”) and Victor. We’re all close to the same age. None of them are my friends from the camp, but I know them by sight. We’re becoming friends now. I’m glad not to have to travel alone.
Age 16—November 1941, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France
I’m in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. It’s way up on a high plateau in the mountains. It’s beautiful here. What a difference from Gurs! I’m staying at La Guespy, which is a home for refugee kids like me. Lots of the kids are Jewish, but not all of them. Hanne and the others I came with are all staying here, too. Monsieur Bohny is head of all three Swiss Aid homes for refugee kids in Le Chambon. The lady who is in charge of us here at La Guespy is named Mademoiselle Usach. She never smiles. What a grouch! None of us like her.
So far I’ve learned a few words of French. I have a nice teacher. Most of us don’t know French. A nice Austrian refugee named Elisabeth, who speaks perfect French, is helping us communicate with the people here. She’s only a little older than us.
Age 16— February 1942, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France
I’m not going to school, so I help out in the kitchen here. I help cook potatoes, when we have them. And sometimes I go down to the village and shop for food. I do cleanup work and fool around with the other kids. Now that there’s snow, we make trains with the sleds and go down the hill. It’s a lot of fun. The snow is really deep.
The gendarmes—police—haven’t come to round up Jews for a while because the roads are blocked by snow. It must be at least five feet deep. I’m glad we don’t have to worry right now about roundups. But someone must be looking out for us because Monsieur Bohny always seems to know when there is going to be a roundup, and he sends all of us Jewish kids into the woods to hide until the gendarmes have gone.
This place is practically paradise, except for the roundups.
Age 17— September 1942, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France
I’m so glad Martin is here with me now. We’re in hiding. We can’t even go to the window and look out unless we make sure to stay behind the curtains so no one will see us. We can see the gendarmes marching back and forth on the street below. We’re on the top floor of Madame Riviere’s house, and we’ve been here for four weeks.
We almost got arrested. One night, the gendarmes came for all of us and Monsieur Bohny talked them out of arresting us. But they said they would be back, so we’ve been in hiding ever since. And they’ve been looking for us. We don’t know where Hanne, Mannfred, Lilli, and everyone else is. They’re spread out all over the plateau, on farms and in people’s homes.
It’s Martin and me and my friend Walter hiding here. Mostly we sit around and play cards. After school, Rene Riviere and his cousin Helene Veillith and Jacques Rousseau come home. They’re really nice. Jacques and his mother, Madame Rousseau, are staying here, too. They’re friends of the Rivieres.
Altogether, we’re six kids and two adults. That’s a lot of people to feed, and the three of us who are hiding don’t have ration cards for food. Rene and Jacques have been catching frogs, so we’ve been eating a lot of frogs’ legs. The baker brings bread on the quiet, at night. The farmers bring eggs. There’s always something to eat. I think the farmers must know where all of us are hiding. Everyone here is looking out for us.
We’re lucky because there’s a shortwave radio in the house and we get news from Britain. It’s in French, and we understand enough French now to know what they’re saying. We think they’re sending coded messages to the Resistance here in France. It’s very exciting! We have newspapers here, too, so for the first time since we’ve been in Le Chambon, we can follow the news of the war. Usually, at La Guespy, we have no idea what’s going on in the world. I wonder how Mutter and Vater are.
THE GENDARMES FINALLY LEFT. Thank goodness this roundup is over, and we can go back to La Guespy. It’ll be great to see everyone again, except Mademoiselle Usach. And I can go visit Madame Philip again. She’s so nice, and she reminds me of Mutter.
Age 17— September 1942, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France
Mutter and Vater are gone. They took everyone away. Hanne just got back from Gurs. She got permission to go there to visit her mother. When she got there, they were deporting everyone. We don’t know where they are taking them. Somewhere in Germany or Poland. For the first time, I broke down. We’re all consoling each other, the seven of us who came from Gurs together, and my brother. All our parents were there. Hanne said she saw her mother for an hour that morning through the fence, and then they put them all on cattle wagons. And now they’re gone.
Age 17— January 1943, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France
Martin and I are working in the new carpentry shop now. I don’t really like carpentry, but at least I know how to do it. We wear sabots—wooden clogs. That’s what everyone wears in Le Chambon, and I’ve outgrown my old shoes. Yesterday, Martin and I snuck into the barn of that farm near La Guespy. There’s a big hunk of bacon in there. We cut a piece off and ate it. It was delicious. The farmer’s really nice—he’s the one with the big mustache. I’m sure he knew we were there, but he didn’t say a word.
Age 17— February 1943, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France
There was no warning this time. Martin and I have been arrested. That horrible man came into the carpentry shop and pointed his finger at me and said, “Finally got you!” Now we’re sitting on the bus the gendarmes brought to carry away any Jews they could find. They’ve found fifteen or twenty of us so far. The people here don’t want us to leave. They’ve gathered around the bus, singing “Faut—il Nous Quitter Sans Espoir.” The song says they hope to see us again soon. Now they’re lying on the ground around the bus. They’re trying to stop the gendarmes from taking us away. A minute ago, a boy got on the bus and handed me a piece of chocolate. Then he turned and left. I don’t even know him, but he gave me his chocolate!
They’re starting the bus. They say they’re taking us to Le Puy, which is where the Nazis are. I’m scared.
Age 17—February 1943, LePuy-en-Velay, France
The gendarmes have interrogated me and so have the Germans. I’m really lucky. For some reason, they’ve decided to let me go. But not Martin. There’s nothing I can do.
Age 17—March 1943, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France
I’m going. I can’t stay here anymore. I’ve been in hiding near Le Chambon ever since the gendarmes released me. I’m on a farm run by the Salvation Army. There are other kids here, but I miss Martin an awful lot. I wonder where he is. I work in the kitchen, and do what I can to help out. The people here are nice and the food is good, but I just can’t stay here any longer. Tomorrow I’m going to Madame Philip. I love her and admire her so much, and she’s always been so kind to me. Her husband is fighting the Germans with [Charles] de Gaulle in Algiers. Maybe she can help me get out of France.
I WENT TO MADAME PHILIP and I said, “I would like to go to Algiers. I want to join de Gaulle. I want to fight.” But she said, “No, you’re going to Switzerland!”
Switzerland is a neutral country in the war, so Jews are safe from the Nazis there. Madame Philip sent me to Pastor Theis, and he made me up some false papers. He had the stamps and some authentic forms. Madame Philip and I sat at his dining-room table and watched him make a French carte d’identite—identity card—and a Boy Scout identification card. He took the picture off my German identification card that had the big J for Jewish on it, and he put the photo on my new ID. He had to make sure that the swastika came off. My new name is Jacques Levet, and it says on my ID card that I was born in Alsace-Lorraine. That’s close to the German border, so it might explain my German accent if I’m stopped. Pastor Theis says I can leave for Switzerland in a couple of days.
Age 17—April 1943, France
I’m trying so hard not to laugh. I can’t even smile, because then the German soldiers sitting on the train all around me will realize that I understand their jokes. I’m not supposed to understand German—I’m supposed to be a French Boy Scout just sitting here on the train going to Annecy. So I’d better not laugh at their jokes, even though they’re really funny.
I left Le Chambon for Switzerland right after getting my false papers. They gave me a Boy Scout uniform to wear. That was my disguise. I had been in the Boy Scouts while I was in Le Chambon, but I didn’t have a uniform—they were too expensive. Jean-Pierre, Pastor Trocme’s son, and Marco Darcissac, the son of the schoolmaster, took me by bicycle all the way down the mountains to Valence—seventy kilometers! I was scared stiff! I had never gone down such steep mountains before on a bike.
They left me with a lady in Valence. She took me to her brother, who was a pastor. I stayed for the whole weekend, and I even went to church with them! On Monday, another pastor came and we got on the train for Annecy, which is close to Switzerland.
The train is stopping. I reach up for my knapsack, and one of the German soldiers helps me with it! If he only knew who I really was!
Age 18—April 1943, France and Switzerland
From Annecy, the pastor and I went to Annemasse, very close to the Swiss border. We stayed over at a monastery, and late the next night, a smuggler—I think he was a monk—took us right up to the border. We had to hide for a while because of the police dogs. My heart was pounding. When it was quiet, the monk took us across the border. He gave us some Swiss money, and we took a trolley car into Geneva, where somebody else was waiting for us. I thought the pastor would go back to France, but he told me that he was a refugee, too, because he had spoken out in his church against the Nazis. We both turned ourselves in to the Swiss police.
Now I’m in a Swiss quarantine camp for refugees, but it’s nothing like the camps in France. It’s a hotel, and it’s beautiful, and I’m safe here. I miss Martin and my whole family a lot, and all my friends in Le Chambon. I’m sure I’ll make friends here, but for now, I’m really on my own. Yesterday was my birthday—I just turned eighteen.
Jakob Lewin (now known as Jack) was reunited with his brother, Martin, in Switzerland. Martin had been sent back to Gurs, where he remained for some time, until he was allowed to return to Le Chambon. From there, he went to Switzerland in much the same way as Jack.
Over the next three years, Jack worked as a cook in various refugee camps. He liked it so much that he asked to go to cooking school. The Swiss authorities enrolled him in a hotel school in Lucerne.
He and his brother learned that their parents, three grandparents, and most of their aunts and uncles had all perished in Nazi concentration camps. Their other grandfather had died just before being sent to a camp.
In 1946, the two brothers were sponsored by relatives to immigrate to the United States. Jack found work in the kitchen of a hotel in New York City.
In 1950, Jack joined the U.S. Army and was sent to Germany. He was not happy about being back there. After a stint in the army, he returned to his career as a chef in New York City. He is now retired.
He met his wife on a blind date. She was a nurse at a hospital in New York. A German Jew, she had escaped Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport. They have been married now for over fifty years and have three daughters and seven grandchildren. They live in New York.
When Jack was sixty-one years old, he attended a reunion in Le Chambon. At the end of the reunion, a tall man named Christian de Monbrison stood up and spoke to the group. He said that during the war, he had given his chocolate to a boy who had been arrested, and was sitting on a bus in the square in Le Chambon. He asked if anyone knew who that boy was. Jack told him, “That was me! I was that boy!”
Jack says when he was in hiding in Le Chambon, “…we had to make do with what we got … We didn’t go hungry, that’s for sure. “
He says of Le Chambon, “The farmers were very good to the Jews there.”
Copyright (c) 2007 by Deborah Durland DeSaix and Karen Gray Ruelle. Reprinted from HIDDEN ON THE MOUNTAIN: Stories of Children Sheltered from the Nazis in Le Chambon by permission of Holiday House.
Unless otherwise noted, photographs are from Pierre Sauvage’s acclaimed feature documentary about Le Chambon “Weapons of the Spirit,” available from the Chambon Foundation at www.chambon.org.