On August 27, 1942, the director of a French orphanage, “La Pouponnière” – Nouvelle Etoile des Enfants de France (“The Nursery”) – sent a short letter to a colleague at the La Mère et L’Enfant (“Mother and Child”) clinic at 36 rue Amelot in Paris, along with the outline of a child’s footprint, cut from a newspaper.
In the letter, the orphanage director requests the clinic’s help in contacting the mother of the child Cecile Beras, so that she can buy her boots in the shoe size of the footprint attached to the letter. At the end of the letter, she confirms receipt of the postal check for 475 francs for the settlement of Cecile’s room and board.
Why did the director of the orphanage where Cecile was staying, send a letter to her colleague at another institution in order to contact the little girl’s mother? And why did she not mention her colleague’s name in her letter?
In the first half of the 20th century, Paris was flooded with waves of Jewish immigrants, many of them from eastern Europe, who crowded into the city’s poorer quarters. Rather than integrating into the French Republic’s melting pot, the new immigrants continued speaking Yiddish and lived their lives largely apart from the rest of French society, much to the chagrin of the official leadership of the French Jewish community.
Headed by electrical engineer Boris Wolski, La Colonie Scolaire was established in 1926 to aid the children of eastern European immigrants. It ran social services and a medical clinic called La Mère et l’Enfant, but the highlight of its activities was its yearly summer camps for the children living in the poor quarters of Paris. The camps were held at Berck-Plage on the Atlantic coast, an area familiar to us mainly from the works of Impressionist painters. These summer camps offered the children a chance to escape the suffocation of the crowded city once a year and breathe some fresh air. The organization’s offices were located in the 11th arrondissement in Paris, at 36 rue Amelot, an address that became the organization’s code name during the Holocaust.
The underground organization “Rue Amelot” was founded on June 15, 1940, twenty-four hours after Paris fell to the Nazis. It was headed by David Rapaport. Like any good third sector organization, Colonie Scolaire learned to adapt itself to the changing reality. The organization took under its auspices existing orphanages and at the same time opened four soup kitchens that operated in secret, through which medical services, food, and additional assistance were provided to children and their families.
The biggest challenge facing the organization stemmed from the mass arrests of Jews, especially of foreign Jews without French citizenship (many from eastern Europe, the organization’s target group). A large portion were incarcerated in detention camps or deported to extermination camps. As a result, many children were left without one or both of their parents, and a framework had to be provided for them. The need intensified in July 1942 after thousands of Jews were arrested and later deported in what became known as the as the Vel d’Hiv roundup (Vel’ d’Hiv was short for Velodrome d’Hiver, meaning “winter stadium”, where the detainees were held).
One of the most significant steps the organization undertook to deal with this challenge was the hiding of Jewish children from Paris with Christian families in rural France, as well as in French monasteries and orphanages. “La Pouponnière” where little Cecile was hidden, was one of these orphanages. Contrary to the familiar stories about children from eastern Europe or Belgium who were sporadically sent by their families to the families of acquaintances, Rue Amelot ran a supervised network that monitored the placement of the children with “caretakers.” Thanks to this network, the director of the institution where Cecile was staying could contact the organization to find the girl’s mother. Because of the underground activity, no names were mentioned in the letter.
The organization did not only manage the hiding of children throughout France. Rue Amelot trained volunteer social workers who visited the children periodically, both to deliver the monthly payments to the “caretakers,” which was usually about 700 francs, and to monitor the children’s health and development. The visits to each child were recorded on a special card file and in personal files, which included references to the child’s rate of development, their relationship with the caretaker, their physical and mental health as expressed in tendencies towards nightmares and bedwetting, for example, as well as comments such as – “beautiful boy.” The activity was organized in such an exemplary manner that viewers of the files must continually remind themselves that all of this was conducted in secret, and at great personal and daily risk. The network’s own activists destroyed much of the Rue Amelot archive after the Gestapo raided a number of Jewish institutions in 1943. Despite all this, a considerable part of the archive has survived, and includes, among other things, about 1,500 personal files, many of them from the post-war period.
One of the files belongs to Isaac Beras, Cecile’s brother. Isaac was born on December 27, 1933 to Sarah (Monique) and Chaklis (Charles) Beras, an immigrant couple from Lithuania. His personal file also includes a document from 1947, in which the then 14-year-old Isaac describes his experiences during the Holocaust. The family had lived in Gagny, a suburb of Paris. In the testimony, Isaac describes how the family was deported from Gagny following the German occupation, and little Isaac was forced to give up his place in the car, and walk on foot to the destination. The walk was difficult for him and the child cried until his mother occasionally put him in the car. His parents were also very tired from the journey.
Eventually they reached a large garage and his mother ordered him to stay calm and quiet while she went out with his father. They were arrested and interrogated for several hours by the Germans. At the end of the interrogation, they were released and allowed to return to their home.
Thus Isaac remained with his parents for two years until one morning he woke up to a knock on the door. When his mother saw the policemen standing on the doorstep she started shouting and crying. Isaac’s father was immediately arrested and two hours later, the police brought him back so that he could pick up his coat. Isaac’s mother wanted to give her husband strawberries and cheese but he refused and gave them to Isaac instead.
It was the last time the two saw each other.
Isaac then underwent surgery and remained in hospital for a month. A nurse who visited their home in 1942, apparently on behalf of Colonie Scolaire, recommended that his mother send him to an orphanage. At the hospital, he was prepared for the transfer, and his mother visited him twice. His mother and one-and-a-half year-old sister Liliane were then deported to the camps.
Isaac remained in the countryside, first with one “caretaker” and then for an additional two years with a different “caretaker.” In a letter preserved in the archives, the caretaker tending to Isaac and his brother Jacob wrote to the organization asking for money for items such as stockings (socks) that she needed to buy for him, due to the costs involved in raising the child. After staying with two “caretakers,” Isaac was sent to an orphanage, where he remained even after the war. His sister Cecile, whose footprint was mentioned at the beginning of this article, had wanted to stay with him but was sent to Switzerland. She later returned to France and was adopted by a family from Alsace.
The card file with the visits of the Rue Amelot activists to the families with whom Isaac was hidden are preserved in the archive. The file mentions the items given to Isaac by the activists, including socks and other items of clothing, and also notes the condition of the shoes in his possession.
Isaac was unable to contact his sister Cecile after the war. He also searched for his brother Jacob who had survived the horrors of the Shoah. Jacob recently passed away in France. Isaac Beras remained at the orphanage until 1949 when he immigrated with the Youth Aliyah to Israel. He eventually started a family, and now lives with his wife in Zichron Yaacov. Cecile also survived and lives in Strasbourg.
The Colonie Scolaire Archive includes documentation of thousands of Jewish children in France during and after the Holocaust who were cared for by the organization. Each such child is an entire world with a complex background that remains mostly hidden away in the archive files. Like the tale of Cinderella, we set out in search of a small footprint left behind, and discovered the story of the Beras family’s children.
The Colonie Scolaire Archive is now preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel.
We are grateful to Dr. Miriam Caloianu, who devoted herself to cataloging the Colonie Scolaire Archive with all its children, and drew our attention to this story; Tami Siesel for the background research; Nachman Fahrner for the translations from French; Germain Choukroun for the introduction to Isaac Beras and his thorough research on the Beras family; and especially Isaac Beras, who has allowed us to tell his story. Due to privacy restrictions, the Colonie Scolaire files at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People are closed to the public. If you have interest in the files, please contact: [email protected]