Deep in the French countryside, Mrs. Ruth Becker stayed one step ahead of the Nazis
t’s possible we won’t return. Du zolst vissen sis meuglish mir vellen nisht zurick kommen. You have a grandfather in Palestine, living on Dizengoff Street, in Tel Aviv. Repeat after me: Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv. Tell them your grandfather lives in Tel Aviv. And look after your little sister.”
These were the words Mrs. Ruth Becker, nee Padawer, heard from her mother as a little girl in southwest France during the Second World War. They were repeated whenever there was a rumor of a Nazi raid, and her parents were forced to leave her and her sister in the care of local French families while they went into hiding until the danger had passed.
“I don’t know exactly how many times my parents left us with gentiles and ran for their lives, but this memory of my mother’s instructions remains with me. I’m no psychologist, but I can tell you that the trauma remains. If someone tells you they went through the war as a child, and it didn’t affect them, that’s untrue. I can never lose the feeling of insecurity I had knowing my parents might not return.”
Mrs. Becker’s vivid memories of surviving the war are a classic tale of the Jew in galus — hunted, wandering, but protected, against all odds, by Heavenly kindness.
Although she raised her own family in London, and despite her decades there and a superb command of English, Mrs. Becker hasn’t lost the distinctive accent, style, and cordial gentility which mark her as French. Her words are soft-spoken and measured as she tells her story.
“I was born in Strasbourg, in northern France. In 1939, the Germans annexed Strasbourg, part of the Alsace-Lorraine region, which they had quarreled over with France in the past. When our area came under German domination, we fled.
“The Jews were not the only ones who picked up and left as the German troops marched arrogantly through their city. French patriots also fled deep into l’interieur — the central regions of their country — believing that the Germans would stop at annexing the border regions.”
Ruth’s parents took their two daughters and chose to put as much space as possible between themselves and the Nazi monster. They traveled down to Périgueux, a small town near Bordeaux, in the southwest region of France, where they felt safer.
“We left everything in our apartment as it was and went. I was a very young child, so I don’t know exactly what my parents took along, but I remember they did have their documents, jewelry, and other personal items,” Mrs. Becker says. Her father owned a clothing business in Strasbourg. “He took some goods with him, men’s clothes, which he tried to sell during the war to make a bit of money.”
Germans quickly occupied the homes which the Jews had left behind.
Several other Jewish families also chose to escape to this small town, and they organized a community there. Mrs. Becker recalls some normative Jewish life like “going to shul on Yom Tov. I also remember the French school I attended there,” she says.
But Hitler’s ambitions for the Third Reich didn’t end with retaking the historically German Alsace-Lorraine territory. In May and June of 1940, Germany and Italy began a heavy bombardment of “the low countries”: France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, followed by a rapid and successful invasion.
By June 22, French leaders had surrendered to Hitler’s forces and France had been placed under German military occupation. The French would live under Nazi rule for the next four years.
The Gestapo Catches Up
For the Jewish refugees in P?rigueux, this meant the Nazis had caught up with them. Mrs. Becker’s tones remain composed and her words precise as she recalls this takeover. “We were under German domination. German soldiers were marching through the town, handing out Nazi propaganda leaflets in French. Somehow the Gestapo got hold of papers, names, and addresses, and they came to round up the Jews.”
The Padawer family, like many others, tried to maintain a low profile, but that wasn’t always possible. “On my parents’ identity papers, the word Juif, Jew, was stamped in thick red letters. My father found a job working for a farmer — which was a good thing, because then we got food. One day, he was walking home after work when two German soldiers met him on the path and stopped him.
‘‘ ‘Papieren!’ they said, which meant he had to show his papers. He wasn’t going to show them papers with the word ‘Jew’ stamped on them, so he made a whole shpiel of feeling in his pockets, searching for them, and apologizing profusely, saying, ‘I haven’t got them, I’m so sorry.’
‘‘They said, ‘All right, but next time we’ll arrest you.’
“My father walked away, shaking. Then he heard a shot ring out. The soldiers had stopped the Jew behind him and shot the man on the spot. I remember seeing my father walk into our house… I’d never seen him look so gray.”
The Jews in the small French town weren’t as systematically persecuted as they were in other areas. Life continued, although it was on the edge of a cruel precipice. From time to time, there was what the French called a raffle — a German raid to round up the Jews.
“I don’t know exactly how my parents heard when the German were planning a raid, but somehow they always knew. The Jews tried to save themselves by hiding, and there were French people who took them in at risk of their own lives. I want to emphasize that, because I’m always thinking to myself, Would I have done that?
“These were simply non-Jewish acquaintances, and they hadn’t known us for long. It was a marvelous thing that they did for us. The more I think of it, the more I think it was min haShamayim. Hashem put pity into their hearts so that they let us into their homes. Otherwise, who would’ve taken such a risk? The Germans were all-powerful and shot people for the crime of harboring Jews.”
Naturally, the Padawers’ first thoughts were to protect their children. Mrs. Becker was nine years old, her sister only five. “We’d be taken to hide with non-Jewish families or on farms. And before leaving us, my mother would say those unforgettable words to me about not returning, and instruct me to find my grandfather in Palestine.
“I always tried not to think about what she said to me, tried to get it out of my mind. Because if you think about such a possibility, you feel abandoned and lost. When you’re a young child, what is life without your parents? How will you live without your parents?” Even today, from a safe distance of over 70 years, Mrs. Becker says. “I cannot even try to think of what would have happened if they had not returned.”
As the older sister, it was Ruth’s job to look after her little sister. Her sister wasn’t afraid, as she was too young to realize what the dangers were. “I carried the responsibility. In such situations a child matures quickly.”
Fortunately, the families who took Ruth and her sister in were kind to them. “If they were good enough to take us in, they were good people,” she says. After depositing the children with acquaintances or neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Padawer would go into hiding on their own, always returning a few days later when they heard that the raid was over.
Community life in the small town continued to function, going into hiding during raids, and then quietly resuming activity. Yet people could disappear and not be heard from again. “There were friends of mine who disappeared, who never came back once the raffle was over. But you continued your life, somehow.”
What choice was there?
To Run and Hide
One horrific day stands out particularly in Mrs. Becker’s memory. It began with a normal school morning and ended in tragedy. “When I returned to school after lunch, I found my Jewish friends standing in corners, crying their eyes out. What was the matter? They had gone home for lunch, as we all did, and found their houses locked, sealed with the Gestapo stempel. The Germans had taken away their parents. They did not know what to do with themselves, so they came back to school, crying.”
Terrified, Ruth ran to her teacher and asked for permission to go home. The teacher conferred with other staff, and then told her pupil they’d decided not to let her go. “Now your parents know where you are, and you are in a safe place. We don’t want to let you out, because we don’t know what will happen to you.”
“I sat crying until it was four o’clock, time to go home,” Mrs. Becker recalls. “Then I left, and I saw my mother coming to get me. On her face was what I mentally called the aufgereikte gesicht — the anxious face, the face of the bad days. She greeted me with, ‘There is a raffle! Come, we have to run away.’ ”
They didn’t go home. Instead, together this time, the Padawer family made their way to a farmer who’d given Mr. Padawer food in the past. He allowed them to stay the night, but at six o’clock in the morning woke them resolutely. “Allez, Allez! Go, go! If the Germans find out, they’ll burn my farm.”
In the November chill, the family walked through fields and hid on farms and in barns, escaping the Gestapo bayonets which hunted human beings like animals, until they heard from other Jews whom they met that things had calmed down and it was safe to go home.
Summing up that harrowing experience, Mrs. Becker says. “We were lucky. I don’t know what happened to the girls in my class who were crying that day.”
Something else has also stayed with her. “After the war, during peacetime, I shared my impressions with a girl in my class. She told me that whenever her parents left her with non-Jews during a raffle, they told her they were going on a nice excursion, whereas my mother told me that we were running away from the Germans and to remember my grandfather’s address.
“This difference in approach was very interesting to me. I think my mother wanted me to know the truth, and she probably felt that in case she didn’t return, there was more chance of us being returned to her family if we knew where to go. But that gives you an idea of how parents and children had to face the enemy, on all levels.”
Were there any happy times during those grim years? “I think some of my friends celebrated their birthdays, so that was happy for them,” says Mrs. Becker. “And I have a memory of my mother sewing something for my little sister’s birthday. She had no way to obtain a doll as a gift, so she took some shmattehs and sewed them into a doll for her.”
Liberation at Last
The area was liberated in 1944, first by the Maquis, the French resistance fighters, who forced the Germans to withdraw from certain areas by launching guerrilla attacks, bombing railway lines and disrupting supplies. Soon afterward, the French army arrived.
“This did not mean that the war was over, but that our corner of France was free. I remember that we were living on a hill, just outside the town, and all the church bells started to peal. There was singing and music in the town. I remember witnessing tremendous joy. Everyone was happy.
“My mother turned to me and said, ‘This is the second world war I’ve lived through.’ Quite a statement — to live through one such war is a lot, but for a Jewish person to live through two World Wars was deeply harrowing.”
Slowly, the Germans withdrew, defeated. Little by little, one town at a time, France breathed the heady air of freedom. The Padawers waited until the enemy had finally retreated from Strasbourg and crossed the River Rhine back into Germany before they returned to their hometown.
Their apartment was empty, both of its German occupiers and of its furnishings. But on the doorpost was an unforgettable sign: The mezuzah was still there. “I didn’t remember my home when we returned,” Mrs. Becker says. “I was too young when I left Strasbourg. But I still find the fact that no one removed our mezuzah amazing. We knew that Germans had been living there. To me, it was as if the mezuzah left on our door had protected us and brought us safely home.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 651)