By Linda McK.Stewart
Izieu, population 208, in southeast France, some 50 miles south of Lyon, is so small it rates not even a dot on most road maps. It’s located amidst a tangle of roads that wander vaguely through the bucolic countryside. Two lanes lapse into one and one into dirt paths where hoof prints outnumber tire tracks. Best not to hurry. The summer landscape is lovely. This remote corner of France is watered by the Rhone and by its rich network of tributaries. Farmers prosper. Cornfields and vineyards, vistas of sunflowers, fat cows and contentment enfold the landscape. Only the yellow butterflies working the roadside Queen Anne’s lace seem purposeful. Serenity prevails.
Small wonder in 1944, the seven teachers and 46 Jewish children, ages 3 to 15, who lived in the solid stone farmhouse on an Izieu hillside felt safe, or reasonably so. Elsewhere in France the populace suffered under a brutal German occupation. But Izieu lay in the small wedge of southeast France occupied by Italy. In the Italian zone no Jews were deported, or obliged to wear the hated yellow star. Mussolini, for all his faults, was no anti-Semite. The Italian military steadfastly refused the German request to round up all Jews for deportation. Consequently, many thousands of Jews moved to the Italian zone to escape persecution.
Some of the 46 children who lived in the big white stone farmhouse were orphans, their parents having been deported or executed. Others had been sent to the refuge in Izieu by family or friends in hopes that they would be safe. But on Sept. 8, 1943, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies. The very next day Germany assumed command of the Italian zone. The Italian occupying forces departed. Within five months more than 5,000 Jews were rounded up and deported to the Nazis death camps.
The morning of April 6, 1944, dawned clear and sunny. It was just after 7 a.m. The children and their teachers were at their breakfast of hot chocolate, bread and jam. Suddenly the roar of engines shattered the calm. Two canvas-covered trucks and an official sedan pulled up. Out leapt uniformed Gestapo. Amidst the screams and cries of the children and the shouts of the intruders all the children and their teachers were herded into the trucks. A 3-year-old, paralyzed at his breakfast, too terrified to move, was scooped up and tossed, as unceremoniously as a sack of potatoes, into the truck. One 8-year-old took to his heels but a soldier gave chase, caught him, knocked him unconscious with his rifle butt before throwing him into the heap of crying, screaming children. In less than 15 minutes it was all over. In a cloud of exhaust fumes, the vehicles spun around and departed. Within a week, all the children and their teachers were gassed in the German extermination camp of Auschwitz. Just two months later Allied forces landed in Normandy and the liberation of France was under way.
Today Izieu receives a small but steady trickle of visitors who find their way up the dubious roads to where the farmhouse still stands with its lovely view of forest and valley and just a glimpse of the far-off south-flowing Rhone, glinting through the trees. It’s a scene of absolute serenity. Approaching the farmhouse one sees the outdoor fountain/cistern/well, the only facility available for washing. Hot water was an unknown for wartime privations were harsh. Not infrequently the children went to bed hungry when food throughout the countryside was scarce. Just beside the front door of the farmhouse the names of the children and their ages are inscribed on a plaque. Within, simple benches are aligned to long worktables in makeshift classrooms. Preserved under glass are examples of the children’s schoolwork as well as their letters. Some are addressed to long-absent parents, many of whom, unbeknownst to their children, had already been executed. Mother’s Day, Le Fete des Meres, inspired an outpouring of drawings and carefully penned assurances of love and promises of good behavior… mes meilleurs voeux du fond de tout mon petit coeur (best wishes from the bottom of my small heart). An 11-year-old pens a letter addressed to God that reads in part, “…how good You are. I ask You one thing only. Make my parents come back. I have such faith in You. I thank You in advance.”
Some 20 years elapsed after that fateful day in April. It was as if the people of Izieu were stunned. No official mention of the tragedy appeared in the countryside. But finally in April 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, President Francois Mitterand presided at the official opening of the Memorial of Izieu, thus assuring the preservation of the farmhouse, plus a museum where visitors can view biographical material of the children and their caregivers. A film covers the 1987 trial of Klaus Barbie under whose command the raid took place. He was found guilty and died in prison.
The Memorial at Izieu and the museum are open to the public with guided tours in both French and English, scheduled throughout the year.
IF YOU GO: For additional information see www.memorializieu.eu.