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Part Five Hiding Out

During my second interview with Bea, I asked to see pictures of her family—her daughters, husband, and grandchildren—and pictures and memories from her life after the war. Cautiously, I also asked if she had any pictures or items she somehow managed to save from before the war. Most Survivors lost everything and were left only with a faint memory of what their loved ones looked like. As she led me into her kitchen, I was pleased to see the pictures of her grandchildren smiling at me from within golden and wooden frames. I was even more pleased to see some black and white pictures spread among the color ones, including a group picture of her family members; one of Bea as a four-year-old with a strange smile on her face; and one of her father sitting in front of a desk with a pencil in his hand, his hair glossed back, eyeglasses decorating his face.

Sitting unnoticed beside the photo frames was a plain, shallow, white cardboard box filled with photocopied papers. Bea showed me the contents of the box. There were dozens of letters written in German; letters written by Rosa to her daughter, letters from Moritz, and some of Bea’s replies. I was astonished to see so many letters. I asked her how she managed to save so many as she was transported from one hideout to another. “To me it was always a miracle that I took all my stuff, put it in a bundle and carried it along with me. I don’t know how I did it.” It seems that there are some instances the mind decides to erase from recollection (Interview 2 Karp). Some of the photocopied letters were smeared and blurred, the original ink fading. To preserve these memories, Bea donated the original letters to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. There, they were able to preserve the letters, stopping the ink from fading away and the paper from tearing. [pic of box+ letters]

Bea explained that all the letters entering and leaving Gurs were subject to censorship. I took a closer look at one of the letters from Bea’s mother. At the top I could see the stamp by the Nazis declaring that this letter was read and censored. Any statement that contained information proclaiming the state of the camp or the hardships was covered with black ink. Perhaps that is why most of Bea’s mother’s letters state that she is feeling well and doing fine. There is no mention of the hunger, sickness, or death that surrounded her. Filled with mundane conversation, the letters gave me chills. I couldn’t help but imagine the despair the prisoners of these camps felt, and how to the outside world they had to pretend they were treated well. It reminded me of stories we were told at school in which the Nazis used to put on a show for international-aid spectators (equivalent to today’s United Nations) coming to examine the condition in the camps. We learned how the Nazis would color the prisoners’ cheeks red, so those prisoners looked less famished. They also forced them to put on plays or musical concerts, pretending that the camps were healthy communities where the arts flourished and the Jews lived better than they had when they were free.

I couldn’t understand why the Nazis allowed children to leave the camp in the first place, why they allowed an organization such as OSE to take them away. At the time, Bea didn’t know why either. Being only eight years old, she didn’t ask too many questions. Many years later, after arriving in the United States, she understood after reading Out of the Fire by Ernst Papanek, which described the work of the OSE and how they operated. Bea explained to me that there were three main reasons the Nazis allowed children out of the camps. The first was food rationing. For the duration of the war, even the Nazi soldiers were low on food. Having to feed themselves and the concentration camp prisoners, even though they were fed only scraps, proved hard to manage. Therefore they decided to send the children away—less mouths to feed (Interview Karp 7).

The second reason was to prevent uprisings and escape attempts from the camps. Since the camp was located in the Pyrenees Mountains, a mountain range that separates France and Spain, many prisoners tried to escape and cross the border into Spain. To prevent more prisoner escapes and uprisings, the Nazis allowed children to be freed from the camp in exchange for a promise from the Jewish prisoners to stop attempted uprisings and breakouts (Interview Karp 7).

The third reason was that the OSE was mandated to disclose the location of the children at all times. The Jewish children’s official whereabouts were known by the Nazis at all times. Therefore, even though the children were out of the camps and the Nazis were not financially responsible for them, they still tracked them and controlled their destinies. To outsmart the Nazis, OSE had to transfer the children from one place to another frequently to create confusion. Even in those pastoral and distant Chateaus, Bea, her sister, and the rest of the children weren’t really safe (Interview Karp 8).

Bea, who moved over fourteen times during that time period, learned not to get attached to the place she was calling home. Instead, she created an imaginary world, a world of princesses and castles. [Photo of ten-year-old Bea while with OSE (second to left) ]

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“In one Chateau, I thought I was a princess. It was a beautiful castle. I used to imagine it when it wasn’t used [as a hideout]. They had seats by the window and I had never seen that before. I thought that was so elegant” (Interview 2 Karp 2). She reminisced as she showed me a picture taken forty years later, when she and her husband took a trip back to France and Germany, visiting the places etched in her childhood memories. [Pic of castle]

Toward the end of the war in 1943, the Chateaus where OSE was hiding the children became unsafe. OSE itself was losing its control and power as Nazi Germany sent more and more prisoners to death camps. To save the children, OSE scattered them around France, sending them to Catholic convents. In the convents, they were given different names, were taught to pray to Christ, and were told to pretend to be Christian orphans. Bea loved the convent. The Sisters treated them well. They were well-fed, slept in a nice clean bed, and allowed to be children for a little longer. By then, eleven-year-old Bea had become tired. She was tired of running, tired of hiding her Jewish identity, and tired of being persecuted for her people’s beliefs. She enjoyed the Sisters’ stories about Christ. For the first time in many years, Bea was able to feel safe and protected by adults who took care of her, fed her, told her stories, and put her to bed at night. This comfort made her think of converting to Christianity.

“They [the Sisters] were so nice to us and everything and I thought to myself ‘Heck I’m tired’ of moving all the time and it would be easier to just stay here.’ I mean you know, as a child at that age you don’t think about tomorrow” (Interview Karp 8). As eleven-year-old Bea was thinking of converting to Christianity, she consulted a young Sister, who advised her not to.

“There was this Sister and to this day I still remember her name, Esperance, which means Sister of Hope. She said to me, ‘I’ll tell you what, if you still feel that way when the war is over with, you can come back to us. But in the meantime, I want you to remember your father’s teachings.’  Well, she couldn’t have said anything better to me because it was at that time that I did remember my father’s teachings. I mean, I suddenly realized that I couldn’t give up my Judaism because it would be like giving up my heritage.” To this day, Bea is thankful for Esperance’s wise words and understanding (Interview Karp 8-9).

 

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Part Six Making A Lasting Impact

Bea did not stay in the convent for much longer. After the war, OSE tried to find any living family members for the children they had sent to hideout in convents. Bea’s parents were nowhere to be found. It took several years after the war for Bea to learn that her parents were sent from Gurs Concentration Camp to the death camps in Poland. OSE found Bea’s aunt and uncle in London, and Bea and her sister were sent to live with them. At the age of thirteen, Bea had to learn an entirely new language and adjust to a normal life. Her aunt and uncle sent her to school. Since she only had one year of elementary education, Bea found school to be difficult. She had a hard time sitting in class and paying attention. She earned low test