As Nazis Closed In, Jews Fled Their French Refuge For the Mountains
A small town in France commemorates the terrifying journey of hundreds of Jews who had sought safety there, only to see the Nazis arrive determined to send them to death camps.
SAINT-MARTIN-VESUBIE, France–Ninety-one-year-old Paulette Emerson won’t be here Sunday. She’ll be at home in Paris when a group from this mountain village makes its annual hike to a summit overlooking the Italian border to honor the desperate Alpine crossing of about 1,000 Jewish refugees from France to Italy beginning on Sept. 9, 1943.
“L’Exode Biblique”–or biblical exodus–was a frantic, last-minute attempt by Jews living here in the relative safety of the Italian-occupied zone of southeastern France to escape the Nazis who stormed this valley right after the Italian armistice with the Allies was signed on Sept. 8, 1943.
The Vésubie valley is linked to the Cuneo region in Italy by two mountain passes, both about 7,875 feet high, that the refugees had to cross.
Many of the Jews thought they would escape into the welcoming arms of American troops, whom they mistakenly believed had taken over northern Italy. Instead, they discovered when they arrived in Italy that the Nazis had gotten there first. The Germans were waiting in the towns of Cuneo and Borgo San Dalmazzo to arrest and deport them. Some Jews were hidden back up in the mountains by kindly Italian peasants. But others, at least 330, were rounded up by the Germans and sent to their deaths in concentration camps.
Paulette Emerson was only 16 and had already escaped the pogroms in Poland with her father and brother when the three were assigned by the local government, sometimes in conjunction with Jewish organizations, to live in St-Martin-Vésubie, part of the Italian-occupied zone of southeastern France. It was thought to be the safest place for a Jew during World War II. Her mother and younger sister stayed behind in Poland and Paulette never saw them again.
“If young people today only knew what we went through back then they would never complain again,” said Emerson, who was left behind in St.-Martin-Vésubie when her father, brother, and uncle left to flee to Italy. She hid in a hotel when the Germans came and deported the roughly 40 Jews who had decided to stay in town. Emerson managed to escape to Monaco a few days later. She did not know if her father and brother were still alive until a year later when she was reunited with them in Paris.
“A very nice woman in town hid me in her hotel but she told me that if the Germans found out, they would kill her and me,” Emerson said. “I offered to sleep in the cemetery instead. She said to me won’t you be afraid there? I said I’m not afraid of dead people, I’m afraid of the living.”
Prior to that weekend in September, life in St.-Martin-Vésubie, 40 miles northeast of Nice and the gateway to what is now the spectacular Mercantour national park, had been what survivor-turned-veteran filmmaker André Waksman called a “pause in the Holocaust.” He used the term as the title of his 2009 documentary about the town and the refugees
It was a bittersweet period of about nine months when the influx of Jewish refugees turned the village into a kind of eastern European shtetl complete with synagogues. While the Final Solution raged all over Europe, Jews in St-Martin-Vésubie lived openly and in harmony with the French locals, crushing on the same teenage girl at the local bakery, playing soccer, swimming, and enticing the Gentiles into a Jewish-organized boxing club.
Jews had to report twice a day to Italian authorities in the village but as Walter Marx, who was 17 in 1943, told Waksman in his film, “We didn’t really mind. It was for our own protection. People were talking all sorts of languages there, Polish, Yiddish. But nobody had to be afraid of the French police who were standing around everywhere but couldn't touch us.”
“There was nothing really like it anywhere in Europe,” said Waksman, who was three months old when his parents carried him and his older brother up the rugged and forbidding mountain passes and down into Italy. “You had the occupying Italian army protecting the persecuted people, not allowing the Germans or the Vichy administration in France to arrest and deport them.”
But nobody was prepared when it all came to an abrupt end on Sept. 8, 1943. U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who had replaced Benito Mussolini as Prime Minister of Italy, had agreed to an armistice with the Allies. Prior to the announcement, Axis commanders had already agreed that the Italians would relinquish much of their occupation zone north and west of Nice to the Germans.
Italian soldiers immediately urged the refugees to follow them out of the town and up the mountain.
“They said, follow us or the Germans will kill all of you,” one survivor told Waksman in his film.
Men, women, and children left with little but the clothes on their backs and what few belongings they could carry, much of which ended up dumped on the mountain. The ascent was as difficult as the rocky, steep descent into Italy.
“I never saw my father weep but there were tears in his eyes when he told us about the pregnant women, the elderly, and children who had to cross the pass in the freezing cold,” said Francis Rosato, son of the Italian commander Armando Rosato who was among the Italian soldiers who helped the Jews get out of St.-Martin-Vésubie. “He had to make some of them boots by tying blankets to their feet so they could walk a little more comfortably.”
Paulette Emerson’s father and brother as well as Waksman and his family were among the lucky ones who evaded capture by the Germans in Italy. Waksman’s family were hidden in a stable belonging to Italian peasants in the mountains before eventually making their way to the U.S.
Although the Germans in Italy had posted notices that anyone harboring Jews would be shot, Waksman said the isolated Italian peasants didn’t even know what Jews were.
“We had a joke,” Waksman told The Daily Beast. “When we knocked on their doors and identified ourselves as Jews, they’d ask, were we Catholic Jews or Protestant Jews?”
Susan Zuccotti, the American author of the 2007 book, The Jews of Saint-Martin-Vésubie and Their Flight through France and Italy, said that the refugees who chose to make the tough crossing were probably smart to do so anyway.
“It was obviously a tragedy for some of them when they got to Italy and very difficult even for those who survived,” Zuccotti said. “But at least they were no longer sitting ducks when the Germans came to St.-Martin-Vésubie.”
Since 1999, some 200 to 300 people have participated in the annual Marche de la Mémoire in memory of the Jews of Vésubie on this weekend in September. The idea originated with an Italian organization and the march up the mountain to the Col de Fenestre is done by groups on both sides of the border. They meet and together read aloud the names of the deported. Survivors and the children of survivors are frequently among the marchers and give testimony in events scheduled the day before the march.
Daniel Wancier, 80, one of the organizers of the Marche on the French side, is of Polish Jewish origins and lost many in his family to the concentration camps during World War II. He escaped himself at the age of 14 from an internment camp near Perpignan in 1942. He will walk to the top of the pass Sunday but he also made the arduous climb with the Club Alpin Francais, a local hiking group, two weeks ago alongside a Daily Beast reporter.
Every time he makes the climb, he says, he thinks of the refugees in 1943.
“They were ill equipped, they didn’t have the right shoes or warm clothes, and they had no idea where they were going and if they would make it,” Wancier said. “They suffered terribly. It’s important to remember them.”