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Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
Renee Bornstein, née Koenig, was born in Strasbourg, France in 1934. When she was five years old, she moved with her parents, her older sister, Helen, and her younger brother, Joe, to the small town of St Junien, in the south west of France. When the Nazis occupied France, life for Jewish people became more difficult. Daily life was restricted and people started to vanish. Whenever her parents heard the Nazis were about to search the village, they would rush the children from their beds to hide in barns, farms, convents and even the cellar of a local chapel. As the Nazi regime tightened its grip over occupied France, it became clear to Renee’s parents that they could no longer rely on this plan for survival. They made the agonising decision to send the children to Switzerland without them. They were given false papers and joined with other so-called non-Jewish children; the story was that they were going to a holiday camp to escape the bombing. They were hidden in a Catholic convent in France for two weeks. Renee was very frightened and missed her parents desperately. She refused to eat and could barely sleep. She kept close to her brother and sister. From there they were taken by train to Lyon and hidden in another convent, before heading to a secret crossing point at the Swiss border. It was a tense journey. Nazi officers prowled the crowded carriages.
Near the Swiss border, the group was joined by a Jewish Girl Guide and French Resistance worker, Marianne Cohn. She organised a lorry to take them to their destination. Marianne and the lorry driver repeated the story of the holiday camp to the Germans. The group was left alone, but when they arrived at Pas De L’Echelle, a French village near Geneva, German officials returned and the group was sent to Prison Du Pax in Annemasse, France. After a few days, they were taken by the Gestapo chief commandant Meyer and his associate to a big room for questioning. Marianne could have revealed their true identities and saved her own life, but she never took it. Eventually, she was murdered by the Gestapo. In August 1944, about two weeks after their arrival, the Lord Mayor of Annemasse negotiated their freedom. Members of the underground movement ‘Le Maki’ took them to a Red Cross refugee centre at the Carlton Hotel in Geneva and after three months they were returned home to their parents who had survived by going into hiding.
Renee later married a concentration camp survivor, Ernst Bornstein. They lived in Munich and had three children. When he died in 1978, the family moved to Manchester.
In Annecy, we met the main madricha [youth leader], Marianne Cohn. It was so beautiful, around the lake. She reassured us, she did us kind words. Then she said, ‘Children, I have to tell you something. We've missed the train but a lorry will take you to the crossing to Switzerland.’
The lorry, it was very hot. We hardly could breathe. The chauffeur didn’t know that we were Jewish children. I heard that much later. We arrived at this clandestine border in the forest. As soon as the lorry dropped us off, one young boy said, ‘Oh, Monsieur, les Allemands aiment voyager en Citroen.’ A Citroen drove up with 4 officers, Gestapo. They stopped, & behind was a big lorry with German soldiers. We were children. What could we do? They stopped & asked Marianne, ‘Where are you going?’ She said, ‘The children just suffered from bombardment in Lyon. I'm bringing them to a holiday camp in Pas de l’Echelle.’
Off we went to Pas de l’Echelle. The person in charge received us & said straight away to the Gestapo, ‘That’s not the children I expect. I only expect boys, there are girls too.’ We learned later that she was a collaboratrice. We were interrogated. They ask us individually, ‘What’s your name? Are you Jewish? What age? Are you Jewish?’ Each question, ‘Are you Jewish?’ But they knew straight away, because our identity cards were not even finished. We had false names. Mine was Blanché. My parents had given my elder sister a few Swiss francs. She put it in her mouth & swallowed it.
We were taken to the Prison du Pax in Annemasse. The Mayor visited us & tried to help. Marianne came one day. I remember her face: red & swollen. She said, ‘Oh children, you can see everything.’ The most severe torture. In the cell next to us, we heard people. It was terrible. When you are tortured, the last scream before death. So it was a terrible surrounding.