A Woman of Valor in the French Resistance

Frida Wattenberg: Remembering the Vél d’Hiv Raid of July 16–17, 1942
By Joanne D. Gilbert

July 12, 2012
As I sat on a hard bench reading a brochure in the crowded lobby of Le Mémorial de la Shoah, the Holocaust Museum in Paris, I sensed a change in the atmosphere and looked up. A sturdy, compact, elderly woman strode purposefully through the lobby. Her alert, intense, brown eyes, strong jaw line, and burst of closely cropped, snowy white hair belied her 88 years. The smiling crowd seemed to both part for and be drawn to her. She nodded back graciously, returning smiles, greetings, and hugs.

memorial-de-la-shoahMémorial de la Shoah, Paris. Photo CDJC

I had exchanged photos with this humble force of nature during the previous year, so there was no mistaking her in the center of the adoring throng. My challenge was to control my own awe as the nationally revered French-Jewish Résistante and Partisan, Madame Frida Wattenberg, made her way over to me. Although she would vehemently deny it, Frida is a national treasure, as indomitable and selfless today as she was as a teenage member of the anti-Nazi organizations: Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants (Children’s Aid Society), and the Organisation Juive de Combat (OJC).

Frida welcomed me warmly and guided me to a room where we could talk about her activities as a teenager in the anti-Nazi resistance when she risked her life on a daily basis to save Jews. She met regularly with a resistance group in dark cellars to gather intelligence information, food coupons, and the anti-Nazi flyers that she would stuff into school lockers and other students’ pockets. Before and after school, she tossed resistance flyers into the air at busy Metro stations and then “ran like hell.” After hours, she snuck into her school’s classrooms and hung forbidden posters of De Gaulle exhorting French citizens to fight the Germans.

When school wasn’t in session, or when her resistance assignments required her to skip school, she became a skilled smuggler, transporting money, medicine, and false identity papers, as well as messages, to and from hidden families. She was also a courier for underground intelligence information that came via secret radio broadcasts from Charles de Gaulle in London. These included his powerful and inspiring June 18th Address, which urged the French to defy the Germans in every way possible.

Although Frida’s responsibilities were primarily in the social services, she also became proficient in physical combat, weaponry, and in safely creating and using explosives. These activities were particularly dangerous because they were carried out under the eyes of viciously anti-Semitic French police, as well as collaborators, bounty-hunters, and of course, the Nazis. Frida, and anyone with whom she was connected, was always under the threat of capture, imprisonment, torture, and execution.

Despite the dangers, Frida Wattenberg evaded capture while saving the lives of countless Jews, including hundreds of children. She did this by finding them, reassuring their frantic parents that the children would be well cared for, and then delivering them to families that would hide them. Even after these children were settled into safe-houses, Frida returned regularly to make sure they were doing well—often making time to play games, read stories, and sing songs with them. On more than one occasion, she even helped some reach safety in Switzerland and Spain.

Frida took me on a guided tour of the historic Jewish Marais District of Paris, where she had lived with her 16-year-old brother, Maurice, and their mother, Alta. Pointing out spots of importance to her activities in the resistance, she recounted stories of danger and daring. The sunny sky, dancing flowers, street musicians, and glorious aromas wafting from numerous markets and cafes, provided both a poignant backdrop and a stark counterpoint to Frida’s memories of German-occupied Paris. Seventy years previously, this lovely neighborhood and its people were just four days away from disaster.

Frida WattenbergFrida Wattenberg, 13 Rue des Écouffes. July 2012, Paris. Photo: Joanne Gilbert.

Despite being twenty years her junior, I had to scurry to keep pace with Frida as she sped across the ancient cobblestone lanes and alleys. A few blocks past Le Mémorial de la Shoah, we stopped in front of 13 Rue des Écouffes, the nondescript apartment building where Frida, her mother, and brother had lived before they had been forced to flee Paris. As we stood in front of the door, Frida told me about the morning of July 16, 1942.

During the previous weeks, there had been a frenzy of rumors about an impending mass action against the Jews of Paris. Tragically, many French Jews chose not to go into hiding because they felt that they were protected by their French citizenship. Frida did not share this belief, and knowing that young Jewish males would be targets, she insisted that her brother be sent as soon as possible to live with their beloved childhood nanny, Madame Gilles, outside of Paris. Frida’s mother refused to leave, insisting that as a French woman, she would never be targeted. Unfortunately, her belief was ill-founded.

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Buses staged for the Vél d’Hiv roundup. July 16, 1942, Paris. Photo: anonymous.

While the French police routinely harassed and arrested Jews individually and in small groups, the arrests starting July 16 would be very different. That day, a massive roundup that had been ordered by the Germans of 13,152 French Jews, including more than 4,000 children, was conducted entirely, and enthusiastically, by the French police. The only objection to the roundup raised by the French police was its original date of Bastille Day, July 14. In a show of their willingness to cooperate with the French, the Germans changed the date of the roundup to July 16.

Starting at 4:00 a.m., Jewish men, women, and children throughout Paris were rousted from their homes and loaded onto buses. Approximately 8,000 were delivered to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor sports stadium. Terrified Jews of all ages crowded into the arena, trying not to be overcome by the oppressively high temperature. What had originally been a beautiful glass dome had now become a brutal lens generating heat from a blazing July sun. Hungry, thirsty, hot, and lacking functional sanitary facilities, the prisoners struggled to breathe through the overpowering stench. They had no idea that this was just an introduction to the nightmare that would soon befall the Jews of Paris. During the next five days, these innocent Parisian Jews were sent to concentration camps, including Pithiviers, Beaune-la-Rolande, and Drancy, from which most were deported to Auschwitz. Of the 13,152 Jews arrested during this roundup, only 811 survived.

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The Vélodrome d’Hiver during the roundup of July 16–17, 1942. Photo: AFP

When the Wattenbergs were jolted from sleep by the pounding of the French police, Frida thought they had come for her. Much to her surprise, the police did not want to arrest her, and even refused to take her. They only wanted her mother Alta. The police had been tipped off that she had been born in Poland. Frida’s heart and mind raced as she helplessly watched her mother being taken away. Then, she slipped out of the apartment and made contact with her resistance group to inform them about what had happened. As the horrific roundups continued, Frida worked tirelessly to find out where her mother had been taken. She was grateful to learn that unlike so many others, Alta was “lucky” to be sent to the detention camp at Drancy, a suburb northeast of Paris, instead of to the Vél d’Hiv. This was lucky because the inmates at Drancy were allowed to have visitors.

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Drancy internment camp outside of Paris, France. Photo: Fédération Nationale des Déportés et Internés Résistants et Patriots.

Frida knew that the Germans sometimes would free imprisoned Jews if their work were deemed necessary to the German war effort. Her only hope was to get Alta’s boss at the garment factory to write a letter to the authorities stating that her work fit this category. If the Germans agreed, they would issue a certificate permitting Alta to be freed. Fortunately, instead of turning Frida over to the police, Alta’s boss supported the resistance, and agreed to help. Risking his own safety, he wrote a letter to the Nazi officials, and after a few tense days, the precious certificate was issued.

While waiting for the certificate to arrive, Frida visited her mother in the filthy, crowded, prison cell at Drancy. Desperate, thirsty, and hungry detainees pushed notes into her hands and pockets, imploring her to find their relatives and deliver the notes. They also gave her food coupons so she could purchase and bring food back on her next visit. A sobbing mother begged Frida to bring milk for her baby.

Seventy years after the event, pain flickered across Frida’s face as she told me that the day she finally was able to gain Alta’s release was one of the worst days of her life. Although her courage, quick wit, and refusal to give up resulted in saving her mother’s life, Frida never stopped feeling guilty that she hadn’t been able to save the other men, women, children, and babies who were soon deported—most to their deaths. She never forgot their voices calling out to her to save them—to at least save their children.

When Alta was released, she and Frida went back to their apartment to figure out what to do next. Unexpectedly, one of Frida’s contacts in the resistance, who had heard of Alta’s arrest, showed up at the apartment. He offered to take Alta to safety in a friend’s home in Lhommaizé, a couple of hours outside of Paris.

As Frida told me about the Vél d’Hiv roundup, I never dreamed that ten days later, on July 22, I would be a guest at its 70th Anniversary Commemoration. Admission was strictly limited and by invitation only. It would include France’s President François Hollande, the Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, the President of the National Assembly Claude Bartolone, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, along with several ambassadors, as well as rabbis and other prominent members of the French Jewish community. Despite the lack of tickets, Frida managed to acquire one for me.

The solemn crowd of several hundred gathered to listen to the dignitaries. And even though I didn’t understand every word of every speaker, I felt the collective intake of breath as President Hollande took responsibility, on behalf of France, for the horrors of the roundup at the Vél d’Hiver.[1] In the heavy, almost vibrating silence that followed, it seemed as if the entire audience simultaneously inhabited the same vision of the doomed innocent Jews: collectively understanding that seventy years before, those people would certainly have been us.

This silence was suddenly pierced by the shrieks of a woman who staggered up and down the center aisle—shouting out over and over again that her mother had been taken, her sisters had been taken—and that the French people were murderers. Shocked and bewildered members of the audience turned her way, and then looked at each other. No one knew what to do. We felt powerless and did nothing—an eerie and uncomfortable echo of the silent citizens of Paris seventy years before. The woman continued to wail and stumble up and down the aisle throughout the rest of the presentations.

After the ceremony, Frida and I, accompanied by two other former sistantes, went to a cafe across the street. As we discussed the historic proceedings, the crying woman lunged through the door into the cafe and bumped against the tables. Clutching her breast she still screamed about what the French police had done to her family. The woman seemed to be in an unbreachable trance. Just as Frida started to get up from the table to try to help her, two other people arrived to usher her out. Stunned, we quietly picked at the remnants of our meal, and tried to smile for a photograph.

Four days later, as Frida and I said our sad goodbyes, she graciously let me know she appreciated that I would be telling her story in English. I was grateful for the responsibility of conveying it effectively. We emailed regularly for the next three years, and were happy to meet again in 2015, at which time she told me more remarkable stories about her time in the Jewish-French Resistance. We eagerly anticipate our upcoming meeting in August 2018. Ironically, Frida now lives in a senior residence that is housed in the refurbished Fondation de Rothschild, the former Jewish hospital whose Jewish patients were turned over to the Nazis by collaborating hospital staff. Frida was able to save many young Jewish patients before the Germans murdered or deported them, and then vandalized the hospital, rendering it unusable.

[1] Hollande did not cite the institution of the Paris Police, and to this day no official apology by that institution has been made for this crime. See Maurice Rajsfus, The Vél d’Hiv Raid: The French Police at the Service of the Gestapo, and Operation Yellow Star / Black Thursday DoppelHouse Press, 2017.
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Joanne D. Gilbert, M.Ed, was born and raised in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Oak Park, Detroit, Michigan, and now resides in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her life has been profoundly affected by Holocaust survivors’ experiences, as well as her grandmother’s stories of their beloved family members who were murdered by the Nazis in Vilna, Lithuania. Following a forty-year career in education, Joanne became an author whose focus is finding, interviewing, and honoring Jewish and Gentile women who had actively and successfully defied the Nazis. Her first book, Women of Valor: Polish Resisters to the Third Reich, was first published in 2014 (later with Center Point Pub, 2016), and she is currently working on Women of Valor: German, French, & Dutch Resisters to the Third Reich as well as a memoir for young adults, A Victory for Miriam, with Holocaust survivor Dr. Miriam Brysk.