by Simone Veil,
Member of the Académie Française
Sixty years after his arrest and deportation, Paul Schaffer decided to write his story, the one that you are about to read. In many respects it is the story of numerous other teenagers whose lives were turned upside down by events, and who survived the deportations, but lost their families simply because they were Jewish.
Of the 76,000 Jews deported from France, only 2,551 returned, most of them young men and women. Returning from the camps they found neither family members, nor friends, nor money, nor a single memento from their past. Their parents’ apartments had been completely emptied either by the Germans, or by neighbours. The only mementos of these survivors were in their hearts, and in their thoughts. Their childhoods were brutally disrupted when all their loved ones were deported and sent to the gas chambers. Superimposed on their memories of their loved ones were memories of the atrocities, the violence, and the inhuman conditions of the concentration camp hell which they had miraculously survived.
Unable to attend school full-time, too young to have received any vocational training, they had to rebuild their lives, and first themselves by relearning how to live. It was not easy to resume a normal life, or even to give the outward appearance of leading a normal life.
In many cases they immediately started a family, although they knew they could never replace their families that had disappeared in the cataclysm. To regain their desire to live, they needed a loving environment to replace the one they had lost. But the painful past did not cease to haunt them, even though for years they barely spoke about it.
Some preferred to remain silent because of their inability to reconcile the present with the past, or their reluctance to burden their families with their memories. Others were forced into silence by the disbelief or indifference they met upon their return. The truth is that this indifference masked the difficulty experienced by “the others” in confronting the distance and the incomprehension that separated them from the survivors. Thus, a seemingly insurmountable wall was erected between the former deportees who had returned from a world devoid of any semblance of humanity – from the other side of the mirror, so to speak – and the others.
For years, we, the survivors, met together to talk tirelessly, in more or less coded language, about our experiences. Time and again we revisited our memories, rediscovering the camaraderie that had enabled us to survive, often recalling the cruellest moments with derision, which was the only way we could speak about them, even amongst ourselves. The deportation had left us with the feeling that we belonged to another world. However different we were from each other, what we had experienced gave us another perspective on life.
Years passed, times changed. New generations, more willing to listen and more curious to hear our stories because they were less directly involved, encouraged us to speak. As we aged, we became aware of the need to bear witness to what we had experienced in order for it to take its place in history. In this way we fulfilled the promise we had made to our comrades, whom we had watched die in abominable circumstances, to speak out so that they would not be forgotten.
Although the testimony of survivors had long been disdained, indeed, dismissed, by the majority of historians on the grounds that victims inevitably distort the truth and are not credible witnesses, increasingly the former deportees began to speak, or to write. The desire to counter the claims of the Holocaust deniers, as well as to prevent movies and novels from exclusively, and, in most cases, unrealistically, portraying the deportation, made people realize the necessity of collecting the testimony of survivors while there was still time. Various organizations set to work to accomplish this, and publishers were more disposed to publish these accounts.
It was above all Paul Schaffer’s sense of obligation that led him to write this book, despite the pain and suffering that remembering and writing might cause him. It was not just a matter of talking about a particularly difficult period of his life – the persecution in Austria, his escape to Belgium, finding refuge in France, the years of hiding, his arrest, and finally his deportation, along with his mother and sister, who were sent to the gas chambers immediately upon their arrival in Auschwitz. It also meant describing his family – parents, grandparents, and sister – and all the others who were part of his childhood in Vienna before the Anschluss. Throughout his book, he expresses to all of them his gratitude for the happiness they gave him, the memory of which he always kept in his heart, to be sure with great sadness, but with great affection. He describes the delights of a small boy who was part of a loving family – going on vacation, taking long walks and eating pastries from the best pastry shop, going to school and playing with his friends, and his attachment to his stamp collection which he was so important to him that he secretly took it with him when his family was forced to flee Austria.
The final misfortune that befell his family seems all the more tragic, and memories revisited decades later perfectly reflect the shock and confusion that the Jews of Germany and Austria, who were so completely integrated, must have experienced in the face of persecution. Paul talks about all these events clearly and uncompromisingly, without any personal rancour, but with the anxiety and pain he felt for his family during the ordeals that preceded the final tragedy.
His concern for others, rather than for himself, is astonishing in a teenager. Each time his parents were forced to flee, to hide, and to re-establish a family framework, young Paul never complained, and never allowed himself to become dejected. He took an interest in everything around him, and learned French and cabinet-making because he could not go to school. This made for good relations with the people of Revel, where the family found refuge. Paul attaches more importance to the courageous assistance of the townsfolk in this small village of the South-West in assisting his family, than he does to the attitude of the police who arrested them and took great pains to find him during his brief escape. He prefers to write about the good memories of Revel, rather than the bad ones. Although he spent less than two years in France, he had no hesitation in returning there after his liberation.
Having met Paul while we were both in a concentration camp, I know that his lack of prejudice and hatred is not of recent origin. It was not invented for the purposes of this book. It reflects his true personality which remained intact through all the atrocities, the violence and the humiliations of the concentration camp. And this makes his account all the more valuable.
Paul and I met for the first time at the beginning of July, 1944 in Bobrek, a small camp situated a few kilometres from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the huge extermination camp. There were about 300 inmates, of which only 20 were women. The women were mostly assigned to building and excavation work, while the men generally worked in the factory. Because the camp was very small in area, men and women had opportunities to meet each other, and even to form friendships, despite the fact that these were not permitted. These relationships have endured to this day, especially among those who had been deported from France.
Paul was 19 years old at the time. Although he had already spent almost two years in another camp near Auschwitz, he was able to retain his exceptional human qualities which were in stark contrast to the atmosphere of brutality that reigned in the camp. His dignity, kindness, and his civility, seemed to me the most wonderful victory over the concentration camp system that was designed to humiliate us and reduce us to the level of animals.
Although he suspected that his mother and sister, like most of the deportees on their transport, had been sent to the gas chambers upon their arrival in Auschwitz, he never succumbed to despair. He wanted to survive, and did so without compromising his moral being, and always attempting to help others. Besides his strength of character, he also showed clear-headedness and courage in making decisions that were risky, but that he believed would give him a better chance of survival.
Both of us, like the rest of the inmates of Bobrek, were lucky to have been sent to this camp. Some people got there thanks to the sympathy or pity of someone in authority in the camp, which happened in my case. As for Paul, it was he who created his own opportunity. While most of his comrades, in the hope of avoiding the most difficult work, said that they were students, he had declared upon his arrival in Auschwitz that he had been trained as a metallurgist and was therefore qualified to work in a factory, which, of course, was not true. This took a presence of mind, and also great deal of audacity. He knew that he would have to pass a test, and that this test would not be very conclusive. And that is what happened, but he also had to have something special – his desire to survive and his ability to make his examiner think that he was capable of learning.
When Paul fell in love with a girl who was part of our small group of women, he was willing to forgo an opportunity to escape during the “death march” because he did not want to leave her in danger. She refused to escape with him because she was hoping to find her brother who had also been deported. With great difficulty Paul managed to find him in the Gleiwitz camp, where we stayed before being placed on trains. He himself describes this romantic episode, which permits me to write about it, and to say how inspired we all were by the love between these two young people. It showed us that even in the concentration camp there was room for innocence and altruism. It gave each of us part of a dream that was so lacking in our miserable lives.
In January of 1945, as the Soviet army was approaching Auschwitz, we were all forced to march along the highway toward the West. Paul did not hesitate to take the risk of jumping from a coal wagon with one of his comrades in the hope of hiding until the arrival of the Russian soldiers. He knew that if he were to be discovered by the SS, or turned in by local inhabitants, he would be killed on the spot. After a few days of wandering around in the dangerous combat zone, he was liberated.
As a result, he avoided being transported for several days in an uncovered wagon in freezing temperatures, during which many of the deportees died of hunger and exhaustion. His escape, deemed too risky by most of the others, enabled Paul to lessen his period of captivity by a few months, during which typhus and hunger claimed the lives of many of the deportees, just as the war was about to end. Where some people would have hesitated and rejected the idea, he instinctively told himself: “I have a chance now, right now. I must take it.”
Paul’s story does not end with his liberation and return to France. Shortly after returning, he learned of his father’s death at the Revel hospital very soon after the deportation of his wife and children.
Paul writes very little about the difficulties he faced in the years that followed, and about his eagerness to learn and begin a career. However, with no family, no connections, no money, no training and no diploma, he had a long and difficult road ahead. He does not say how much energy and courage it took to integrate into a country that he had only known from the vantage point of one small village.
He trained as an engineer in Toulouse, and completed his training in an ORT institution where he subsequently remained for a few years as a teacher. Highly valued, he could have made teaching his career. But he was aware of his own abilities, and wanted to find more challenging work. After being hired in a small company with twenty workers, he quickly became a partner, before going on to head the company. When he sold that business 30 years later, to everyone’s regret, this factory employed 300 workers and was among the most modern and important in its field.
It is not without some sadness that he decided to part with what he had created through years of hard work with a team that was very fond of him. But he thought of his family, and he wanted to devote more of his time to those causes that were essential to him. Today he is active in the France-Israel Association, of which he is vice-president, promoting friendship between the two countries, thus bringing together his love for his adopted country, France, and his faith in Israel, where he was tempted to settle after his return from deportation.
But it is his work on behalf of the Mémorial de la Shoah that monopolizes his time. Already active in various survivor associations, he speaks increasingly often in schools, to ensure that new generations, which did not experience these events, are aware and informed about what happened.
During these encounters with young people, he is greatly rewarded because he knows how to capture their interest, arouse their emotions, and earn their trust and friendship. It is a very trying task for any former deportee to talk about a past that is still so painful, and to find the right words to describe these atrocious events without traumatizing young minds.
How does one talk about events that seem so distant, while every day the television provides live coverage of all the conflicts and tragedies taking place on this planet? How does one make the students understand the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and help them to draw a lesson from it that is relevant to the present without trivializing the past?
The restraint and authenticity of Paul Schaffer’s account make the message he conveys all the more valuable. There is no doubt that Paul will evoke the same empathy in his readers as he does in the students to whom he has spoken so often. To both, he provides an example of a young man who, despite the humiliations and afflictions he endured in the concentration camp, was able to remain a human being. For the image he gives of the survivors, for his confidence in humanity that he was able to retain, he deserves our thanks.
BIOGRAPHY OF SIMONE VEIL
For over 40 years, one of the most prominent public figures in France and Europe, Simone Veil has been the recipient of thirty-nine distinguished awards and over twenty honorary doctorates from universities all over the world in recognition of her work on behalf of human rights. In 2012 she was distinguished by the President of the Republic with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, the highest rank in this order.
Born in Nice in 1927, Simone Veil was deported with her family to Auschwitz in 1944. She was liberated from Bergen Belsen in May of 1945, having lost both parents and her brother in the Holocaust. Upon her return to France, she received a law degree from the Paris Institute of Political Studies and was appointed as judge in 1956. She began her career at the Ministry of Justice in Paris, and was assigned to the Penitential Administration. May 1974, she entered the political arena as Minister of Health, and obtained the vote of the law for legal abortion in 1975. Upon resigning from cabinet in 1979, she was elected to the European Parliament, becoming its first president until 1982, and remaining a member until 1993. 1993 - 1995, she was appointed as Minister of Health, Social Affairs and Town. In 1998, was nominated as member of Constitutionnal Council till 2007. In 2000, Madame Veil was appointed as the first president of the newly created “Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah”. And in 2010, she was elected as member of the Académie française. At her investiture she was presented with a ceremonial sword engraved, at her request, with the number that had been tattooed on her arm when she arrived in Auschwitz.