I have been attending Holocaust Education Week talks at the Toronto Public Library since 2010, but this year was the first time I listened to a program in French. It took place in a full auditorium at the Toronto Reference Library.
Even though I failed to catch about 30% of Edith (nÃ©e Schwalb) Gelbard’s testimony, her engaging, warm presence did not need words to communicate strength. With elegant ease, the 82-year-old grandmother of nine captured the attention and affection of a lively crowd of teenagers from two French-immersion high schools in the city.
For example, when she introduced a surprise guest, a long-lost friend from the 1940’s, the audience let out a long “Awwww!” in unison at the sight of her planting a kiss on his forehead. The teens’ reaction was equally responsive when Ms. Gelbard showed pictures of her family who had fled Vienna in 1938 for Belgium and later from Belgium to France in 1942. Edith and her older sister Therese were joined by a baby brother while the family was in Belgium, and a picture of little Gaston elicited another enthusiastic chorus of “Awwww!” from the crowd.
As narrated in Hiding Edith by Kathy Kacer, Edith and Gaston were sent to a boarding house in the southern French village of Moissac in March of 1943 (p. 30). (Because some details eluded the grasp of my intermediate-level French, I have relied on Kacer’s book to fill in the gaps).
Shatta and Bouli Simon, a couple affiliated with the Jewish Scouts of France, managed the safe residence from 1939 until the post-war years (Kacer, pages 35 and 38). The efforts of the Simons and “toute la ville” of Moissac protected the Jewish children in their care by keeping the safe house a secret, thus saving hundreds of lives (p. 151). During her talk, Edith praised Moissac as a “Ville de Juste.”
While Edith sheltered at the residence in Moissac, she went to school in the village, made friends with other ten-year-olds, performed her assigned chores, and learned camping skills. The lessons in knot-tying and tent assembly were not for recreational purposes; they prepared the children for Nazi raids. Each time the mayor of Moissac warned the Simons that a raid was imminent, the children went to Camp Volant — Flying Camp — to escape to the countryside until the danger passed, moving “to a different location every night, in deep thick woods offering shelter and cover” (p. 80).
By August of 1943, deteriorating conditions in France led to the realization that it was no longer safe for the children to stay in Moissac (p. 89). Heartsick at having to flee again, eleven-year-old Edith was transferred to a Catholic boarding school in Ste-Foy-la-Grande, which meant assuming a new name, pretending she was an orphan, and attending church in the village every week, all the while guarding her true religious identity. In the new hiding place, she suffered from hunger, lice, the constant terror of discovery, and bombing raids. “C’Ã©tait dur,” Edith said.
In the summer of 1944, Edith was moved to a farm to escape the frequent bombing of Ste-Foy-la-Grande. She stayed on the farm with a kind family until she reunited with her mother, sister, and brother in September of 1944. In 1945, she heard that her father had died of dysentery caused by overtaxing his starved body with food after the Americans liberated Auschwitz. Turning loss and grief to social service, Edith continued to help the Simons in Moissac until 1949, and six years later she immigrated to Canada (p. 144).
Listening to Edith Gelbard’s testimony reminded me that the highest call of humanity is the imperative to shelter and protect the vulnerable from brutality. Edith’s willingness to speak about her unspeakable trauma models the courage we need to fight fascism, tyranny, and hatred. Her testimony is a call to create Villes des Justes in our hearts, our communities, and throughout the world.