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Place of Birth:
Judith Simon was born 1938 in Paris. Her parents’ families had come from the Alsace. She was the fifth child in her family and had two older sisters and two older brothers. Her father Samuel Kohn was a banker and the family was observant. He helped the German/Austrian refugees who had fled to Paris. They attended the synagogue of Rabbi Eli Munk. Judith’s parents helped a family who had to leave their children behind in Slovakia by taking them to Paris on her French passport, while the children had to pretend to be hers.
When war broke out, Judith, her mother and other siblings were sent to Brittany. After the signing of the armistice, Judith’s father moved to Vichy (to be in the Free Zone), where he was joined by the rest of the family. Then they re-settled to Lyon, where Judith started going to school and where her older brother celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. The father regularly went to the camps of Gurs and Rivesaltes to help the foreign Jews who had been deported (with the OSE). The family took on two Jewish brothers from these camps. Her father had an infection and needed to a clinic, where there was a round up and all Jews were arrested and sent to the Drancy camp. Judith’s mother received a letter from Klaus Barbie to get ready for deportation and decided that she had to flee. The mother, grandmother, and six children (one of the boys they had taken in stayed in an orphanage) moved to a small village called Le Flachet near St. Chamon, where they rented the top of a house from a farmer.
Judith states that they did not have to hide their Jewishness and that they kept the Sabbath and the laws of kashrut. They did not eat any meat and they drank milk and ate goats milk (with permission from a rabbi). Each child had a bag prepared in case they needed to flee. In 1944 the American army came to this part of France and the family went back to Lyon where they awaited the return of the father. They found out that he was killed in Auschwitz. In 1945 Judith’s mother was given the position to be in charge of a Jewish orphanage in Villneueve near Paris. When the orphanage closed in 1948, they moved to Paris and she Judith’s mother became a secretary at the Jawne school, the school Judith attended until she decided to go to the Girls seminary in the Gateshead Jeshiva. She returned to Paris for three years to teach at the Jewish school and then got married to Stewart Simons in 1961. They settled in Stamford Hill and had three children and Judith became a teacher at Hasmonean High School for Girls.
Judith talks about the continuity and strength of her religious beliefs and about the importance of ‘joi de vivre’, a sentiment her mother had instilled in her. Her children live in the UK and she has 29 grandchildren and a number of great-grandchildren. Throughout the interview, Judith refers to the memoir her mother has written (Nous, Les Escapes) published shortly after she died.
No we didn’t change our names. We kept Shabbos. We kept whatever kashrut, as much as we could. And people knew we were Jewish. But all these little villages [ in Haute-Loire/ south-central France] were hiding Jews. We weren’t the only ones. We were the only ones in that particular part.
And… they [Jewish refugees from Bratislava who came without their children] were desperate for their children to come over. So they asked my father to do something about it. And the only thing they could think of is that my mother would go with her passport, and four children on the passport, would go to Bratislava, pick up four children, bring them to their parents and go back, backwards and forwards. Didn’t quite work out that way. But she did go to Bratislava. And she took four children, but they didn’t speak a word of French. And they had to cross Austria which was in German hands, and there were all the Nazis. It was a nightmare journey, literally, because the children weren’t allowed to talk. And one was called Jacques, the other one Danièle, the other one Philippe, the other one Francoise. Not a word of …French. And Germany wasn’t like it is today, obviously; it took them forty-eight hours I think… till she got to Strasbourg. And when she got to Strasbourg, her father came, no her uncle came to fetch her at the station, she collapsed because it was too much of a strain. So her parents made my father …swear that he wouldn’t send her again; it was too much. So, four children were saved, and then the war came.
And then… they started the laws against the French Jews. And in February 1943, my father had a…a septic fever. And he had to have it lanced in... He couldn’t go to an ordinary doctor nor hospital because he was Jewish. With a name like Kohn, Samuel Kohn, you couldn’t make it more Jewish. So we had- there was a…a… small surgery for Jews in the Rue Sainte- Catherine, which was very famous. So he went to this Sainte-Catherine. And there was a rafle [a raid] … how do you say it in English? Rafle…You know they took all the Jews who were in the Rue Sainte-Catherine, including my father. And that’s when he was arrested. We know, we know…we knew almost straight away, because my uncle, my mother’s younger brother came to us and told my mother that there had been a rafle in Rue Sainte-Catherine. And he wanted to know whether my father was there. She said, “Yes, he went because of his septic fever!” So he said, “Well, he’s probably arrested as well.” And the next thing we knew, he sent letters from Drancy. …Drancy is near Paris. And… he told my mother that he was in Drancy, that he was fine, he needed- he was a very, very heavy smoker. And he needed tobacco. And she got it. And he needed… other things. And he needed a primus it’s called, you know, to heat your food with.
[ Advice on how to live kosher during the war] One of the main rabbinical authorities in France, Rabbi Ernest Weil allowed us to have goat cheese. So we had plenty of this. And a lot of vegetables - when they were available. And fruits. And… that was it! That was it. Fish. Fish.
Le Chambon-sur-Lignon was very pro-Jewish. They saved a lot of people by simply keeping an ear open. If somebody- And they did come to look for Jews. They knew. And as soon as they knew that they were coming, they went and took all the Jews and hid them in a forest or wherever it was. They were very good to us. That’s why they got their names in such an important name in Yad Vashem...[ asked if there was a plan in case they had to flee] Yeah, for each one of us, my mother had made little rucksacks. And they were there in the cupboard. And ready, with some bit of food and clothes.
No, no…No. We never asked questions such as, “Well, why did God do that to us?” Never ever. You know, you could take two different… attitude. You think of Elie Wiesel, you know. Well, he left Judaism. You can understand it. We understood it. We accepted it. But we felt that we have to carry on Judaism. Because my mother definitely. You know, it was important, despite Hitler, to carry on Judaism. And she was right. At the end of the day, if everybody’d given up, there would be no more Judaism.
So I think that’s the most important – Most important thing is to inculcate in your children a Joie de Vivre.
What do you call a survivor? Do you call a survivor somebody who’s been to a concentration camp? To …To Auschwitz, whatever, and survived? Or do you call a survivor someone who had to go into hiding, and whose father passed away, was taken, went to Auschwitz, never came back? I don’t know.
Don’t let the Holocaust traumatise you. If you have family who went through the Holocaust, don’t let it make you unhappy. But be aware that anti-Semitism is not going to stop despite the Holocaust. When the Holocaust was over, we thought, obviously nobody’s going to be anti-Semite anymore. And we’ve been proved wrong. And therefore, don’t be frightened, but don’t be complacent. Simchat l’Chaim. Very important.