1914-1944 | Birth: | Arrest: |

Paulette LEVI

Paulette Lévi was the first cousin of my mother, Simone Crémieux née Lévy. Paulette’s mother, Marguerite Lévi née Lévy, was the younger sister of my grandmother, Hermance Lévy née Lévy. (I point out that I have made no error in the names or the spellings; Marguerite Lévy did in fact marry Arthur Lévi, and her sister, Hermance Lévy, married Ferdinand Lévy.)

Paulette was born in Paris on November 12, 1914. She lived for several years in England with her parents during the 1920’s.

In 1936, when she was 22 years old, she lived at her parents’ at n° 35 rue du Pré-St-Gervais in Paris’s nineteenth district. She was a kindergarten teacher on that district’s rue de Palestine.

In 1937 she worked in another kindergarten on the rue St-Denis in Paris.

In October, 1940 she taught in an elementary school on the rue Condorcet in Paris.

On December 12, 1940 she was notified that she was dismissed as of December 19th, under the terms of the Law of October 3, 1940. The decision was confirmed in a letter dated March 27, 1941, which specified the financial conditions.

Paulette Lévi then became the director of the UGIF’s (General Union of the Israelites of France) children’s Home known as the ” Zysman boarding house” in La Varenne (Val-de-Marne department), from no later than October 16, 1942.

She was arrested there on July 22, 1944, interned at Drancy for several days, and then deported to Auschwitz in convoy n° 77 with the ten children in her care.

Information on the conditions of Paulette Lévi’s deportation – and of her death – can be found in a book entitled “Les Orphelins de La Varenne – 1941/1944”.

The work, prefaced by André Kaspi, was published by the “Société d’histoire et d’archéologie : Le vieux Saint-Maur”. In 2015 it could be found in three clicks on the Internet. On the first page is a photo of the plaque put up in La Varenne to the memory of the 28 children, ten of whom were with Paulette, the others in a neighboring orphanage, and to the six adults, including Paulette Lévi, who were “rounded up” on July 22, 1944 and deported in convoy n° 77 on July 31, 1944.

In the 1930’s La Varenne was in the country, easily reached from the Marais neighborhood by the “little Bastille train”, whose station has been torn down and replaced by the Bastille Opera House. It was thus natural for a little Jewish community to gather there (slightly fewer than 500 people, including a hundred or so children according to the 1940 census). There was a synagogue and various institutions, one of which was the “Pension Zysman” (Zysman Boarding House) aka the “Maison des enfants heureux” (Home for Happy Children), in Yiddish “Beiss Yessoïnim”, which means “Home for Orphans”, in tribute to the institution in Warsaw directed by Janusz Korczack, whose fate was similar to Paulette’s.

The home was under the direction of Isaac and Sarah Zysman, who lived there with their own children, Pierre and Louise. Pierre Zysman  joined the Free French in England.

The first roundup took place on July 16, 1942 (the Vel d’Hiv roundup), but only Monsieur and Madame Zysman and their sixteen-year-old daughter Louise were taken away.

Louise Zysman was immediately dismissed by the Saint-Maur commissaire (“Take your suitcase and get the hell out of here”). Finding herself alone with a dozen children, she contacted the General Union of the Israelites of France (UGIF), which will be the object of further discussion below. Madame Zysman returned from Drancy several days later.

Paulette is mentioned (on page 77, with her name misspelled as “Lévy”)  by Salomon Cukierman, who was not at the boarding house, but rather at the Orphanage, a different institution in La Varenne that Paulette also directed for a short time in 1942, before taking over the boarding house.

Paulette is also mentioned by M.P. Descoux (page 78), a woman who was one of her colleagues: “I remain very faithful to her memory, and I think she was for me, who am Catholic, a saint. She willingly chose to die with her children (…). She was a teacher at the la Boissière kindergarten in Montreuil, and I was a colleague. (…). Mlle Lévi was subsequently ousted from teaching because she was Jewish, and shortly thereafter she took charge of the “Beiss Yessoïnim” orphanage. (…) She was very devoted and set herself a goal: when the hostilities were over she would seek out the families and make sure that each child would be lovingly taken in. One day in July, 1944 she phoned me from her parents’ home (strange that Paulette’s parents, my mother’s aunt and uncle, had not had their telephone cut off like my grandparents did for being Jewish). “I’m going back to la Varenne, because there is going to be a roundup tonight and I want to be with the children. Call me tomorrow; if I don’t answer, it will be because we’ve been arrested.” Thus, she had come back, as her cousin Yvette (Yvette Lévy, who was to become Yvette Salavize after her marriage) confirmed, from a week off. Louise Zysman (later Louise Lemberger) also warned her on the very day of her arrest.

Even though it has nothing directly to do with Paulette, I want to mention the testimony of Marcel Butler, who left the boarding house in April, 1943 and was placed with M. and Mme Boutonnet near Coulommiers. The authors of “Les Orphelins de La Varenne” learned from them of the existence in the area around Coulommiers of a group of Protestants and a police captain who helped to save many Jews, including children. The Protestants are clearly overrepresented among those in France who aided Jews during the war, much more than the Police, which I believe justifies this digression.

In October, 1943, when Paulette had directed the boarding house, apparently with no trouble, for over a year, she informed Louise Zysman, who was still working there but prudently lived somewhere else, that “they” had come to pick her and her mother up the previous night. She did not say “the Germans”.

An anecdote: At the end of 1943 Paulette, who was out on a walk with the children, was hailed by Charles Trenet, who invited them home to a musical afternoon snack. The children sang in chorus the current popular hits with their host at the piano…

At that time there were at the house certain children classified  as “free” and others classified as “blocked”. The latter had been arrested and indexed before being released and were being watched, liable to “summons”.  Some of their parents had been arrested in the Vel d’Hiv roundup, while others had been entrusted to the home by their parents or by an institution. Some of the “blocked” children were sent from the camp at Pithiviers.

Hanoukka and Pourim were celebrated at the boarding house.

Chapter VIII is entirely devoted to the arrest that took place on July 22nd. Between the 20th (the day of the failed assassination attempt on Hitler, but the coincidence is not mentioned) and on the 22nd of July, 1944 two hundred fifty children were rounded up in the UGIF centers in the Paris region, ten of whom were from the Zysman boarding house (eighty-eight at the avenue Secrétan center!). Only thirty or so were to come back. The Zysman boarding house was raided on the night of July 21-22. A few “free” children had been evacuated the previous day, one of whom was Paul Curtz (cf. below). The ten children who were there with Paulette on July 21st were most probably all “blocked” children.

Louise Zysman has testified that she came to forewarn Paulette on the 21st. She had heard from a member of the FTP-MOI network (Irregular Partisan Fighters- Immigrant Laborers, a Communist resistance network) that a roundup would be taking place the next day, but Paulette was skeptical and phoned the UGIF, who told her that it was a “bunch of Communist claptrap”. Paulette found reassurance in the fact that the children were all French and therefore not at risk. The arrest, which a neighbor lady related to Louise Zysman, was carried out by two uniformed Germans and some civilians (Gestapo?) under their orders. They were transported by bus. There is no information on the nationality of the civilians or the bus drivers. Could there have been only two Germans?
Here is the list of the ten children rounded up with Paulette LEVI and Lucie LITHUAC (the cook):

Jacques HOPENSZTANDT (10 years old)
Isaac RACHOW (7 years old)
Raphaël BENDERSKI (6 years old)
Justine FRIEDRICH (6 years old)
Paul JAKUBOWICZ (6 years old)
Suzanne STERBER (5 years old)
Bernard TATTENBAUM (4 years old)
André KANE (4 years old)
Edouard WAJNRYB (4 years old)
Michel WESTREICH (4 years old)

They were all born in France.

There is nothing special about Paulette in the chapter on the sojourn at Drancy. Nor is there anything about the departure for Auschwitz. Denise Holstein, arrested later at the orphanage after her return, told how upon arriving at Auschwitz she had avoided immediate execution by obeying a French prisoner who ordered her twice to let go of the child’s hand she was holding.  Her testimony ends with these words: “…all the children had gone toward the trucks, as well as the older women and everyone holding children in their arms”.

Other information is found in “Le Calendrier de la persécution des Juifs en France 1940/1944” (the Calendar of Jewish Persecution in France 1940/1944), published by Serge Klarsfeld in 1993.
The conjunction of the beginning of the deportation of Jewish children on July 21st and the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler is pointed out (page 1056) and explained as follows: Brunner had got away by the skin of his teeth, and his superiors, including Oberg, had their minds on other things.

In the “Calendrier” are also found memoranda written by the deputy head of the Drancy camp (a Jew) who recommended “the highest degree of helpful compliance” and in which after the departure of the convoy he expressed his “satisfaction” with the conditions of that departure.

Finally, it contains Denise Holstein’s complete testimony.

So much for what I have gleaned from these two works. Several days after my conversation with Serge and Beate Klarsfeld I also met with three former boarders at La Varenne: Paul Curtz, Betty Ertel and a certain Olga whose last name I don’t know. Betty Ertel invited my wife Colette and me to tea at her home near the Bastille. I also phoned Louise Lemberger (née Zysman), who was living in Cannes in 1997. In addition to confirmation of what is written above I also picked up some knowledge of the atmosphere that prevailed at the time and some details about Paulette herself.

The atmosphere was one of fear mixed with strict legalism. The German and French laws and regulations were scrupulously applied. It must have been hard, despite the evidence, to realize that one could be arrested although innocent. The approach of the allies triggered no scattering (except for certain resistance activists who got children out to safer places). Paul Curtz removed his star only after the Liberation. Most Parisian Jews had no acquaintances with whom they could seek shelter, and then the material and financial means were simply non-existent. A children’s boarding house might well have seemed a safe place.

It is clear that Paulette, who is systematically described by those who knew her at the Zysman boarding house as being “upright”, was also a strict adherent to the law, neither prepared for a clandestine existence nor intent on hiding.

That she was forewarned of the imminent roundup the day before July 22nd by Louise Zysman, who was close to the FTP-MOI network, was confirmed by Louise Zysman Lemberger herself during a phone conversation in 1997, and is to be collated with M.P. Descoux’s testimony and with what Yvette, a cousin of Paulette and my mother, wrote in her memoirs:

“We talked about it, my cousin Paulette Lévi, Aunt Margot and Uncle Arthur’s daughter, and I. She was the director of a UGIF outdoor center in La Varenne, where some thirty children were given quiet, love, health, a regular existence, decent food, but there was a shadow hanging over those homes. Part of the children had been placed there on German orders, as an annex of Drancy (they were certainly “blocked” children). The others were gradually restored to their families if they still existed and were willing, or else hidden away, often through parish channels, but my cousin didn’t reveal them to me, so that if I were to be arrested and interrogated a bit brutally, I could never reveal what I didn’t know.

The dilemma all through the month of July was whether to hide the children who risked deportation, but then how to save the rest, what to do? I wouldn’t like to have been in the shoes of the directors of the UGIF who had to decide.

The result was that at the end of July (on the 22nd) they were all arrested, children and personnel. Deported on the 31st, they no longer existed a week later… My cousin had taken a few days off; her work was grueling, what with very hard-to-manage children, unqualified personnel, difficulty in getting supplies, and tricky administrative tasks that had to satisfy the German administration and yet allow for the indispensable slippage and fraud. So my cousin who never took any vacation had taken off a few days on sick leave (Her blood pressure was 7 (52.5 U.S.)) but was worried about the rumors that were circulating and, unwilling to leave the home unmanaged, she came back to La Varenne on July 30th, expecting a green light to hide the children still there. Too late, she was arrested on July 31st. Transferred to Drancy, she was deported a week later, two weeks before the liberation of Paris. From the cattle car into which she had been herded with children aged 3 to 10 and several monitors she managed to get out a paper written in pencil in which she kept her hopes up and asked her parents to forgive her the suffering she was causing them… she was hardly 30 years old.”

There are obviously some (very small) discrepancies in the dates.

Betty Ertel has told me she was informed of the conditions of Paulette’s arrival at Auschwitz by a member of the convoy who came back.

“She got off the car with a child in her arms. The officer in charge of selection asked if it was her child. She answered yes. Some prisoners signed to her to reply no and the officer repeated the question. She answered yes again and went off with the children to Birkenau.”

The information sent me in October, 1978 from the Auschwitz Museum indicates that the train arrived from Drancy on August 3rd (having departed on July 31st), and that the execution of 560 of the 1134 arrivals took place the same day.

Written on various dates, from 1997 to 2016.

Alain Crémieux

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Alain Crémieux
2 Comments
  1. TERRAIN Christine 5 years ago

    Quelqu’un peut-il me parler de Melle Fanny qui a travaillé à la Pension Zysman, je pense depuis son ouverture? Dans l’ouvrage que vous citez, on dit qu’elle est partie fin 1943 pour se cacher car étrangère. Elle nous racontait autre chose, mais nous étions enfants, mes soeurs et moi, et n’écoutions pas toujours, d’autant plus que notre mère, dont la propre mère avait été déportée en 1942, avait institué une sorte de “black out” sur le passé. Melle Fanny était ma grand tante (la soeur de ma grand mère) et a vécu chez nous de 1946 à sa mort en 1967.
    Je suis surprise que personne ne semblait connaître son nom de famille.
    Merci si vous pouvez m’apporter des précisions.

  2. Serge Jacubert 5 years ago

    Madame,
    je sais qu’il peut sembler incongru de tenter de réagir un an après, mais nous sommes gênés de ne pas avoir repris contact plus tôt.
    Votre question était :
    Quelqu’un peut-il me parler de Melle Fanny qui a travaillé à la Pension Zysman, je pense depuis son ouverture? Dans l’ouvrage que vous citez, on dit qu’elle est partie fin 1943 pour se cacher car étrangère. Elle nous racontait autre chose, mais nous étions enfants, mes soeurs et moi, et n’écoutions pas toujours, d’autant plus que notre mère, dont la propre mère avait été déportée en 1942, avait institué une sorte de « black out » sur le passé. Melle Fanny était ma grand tante (la soeur de ma grand mère) et a vécu chez nous de 1946 à sa mort en 1967.
    Je suis surprise que personne ne semblait connaître son nom de famille.
    Merci si vous pouvez m’apporter des précisions.

    Je ne peux que vous orienter vers Paul Curtz, qui a fait partie de cette pension, et qui a contribué à l’écriture de l’article dont les références suivent :
    http://www.ajpn.org/sauvetage-Pension-Zysman-448.html

    Si vous ne connaissez pas Paul, je pourrais vous aider à entrer en relation avec lui.
    Cordialement
    Serge Jacubert

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