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The Righteous Mayor of Vibraye

The remarkable story of how Huguette Martel survived the Holocaust turned out to have quite the dénouement—for the version she’d known for the first eight decades of her life was significantly incomplete. The full history was even more inspiring.

via the Comité Français pour Yad Vashem

The elderly Aristide Gasnier, mayor of Vibraye, with two US soldiers and some of the Jewish refugees he helped save during the Nazi occupation; Huguette stands directly in front of Gasnier; her older brother Maurice is the boy at the far right. Sarthe, France, 1944

Our friend Huguette Martel is an artist and French teacher. When she was younger, she drew cartoons for The New Yorker, and also gave language lessons to staff there. Not long ago, she moved into the same building in Manhattan where my wife and I live, and, seeing her more frequently than before, I learned more of her history—not something that she, a compulsively modest person, naturally presses upon one.

So it was that I heard the miraculous saga of how she, a child of French-Jewish refugees, had survived the Holocaust; and the Daily subsequently published her pictorial memoir, “Growing Up in Wartime France,” which relates the main elements of her story. But the tale turned out to have quite the dénouement, for that version—the only one she’d known for the first eight decades of her life—was significantly incomplete. The full history was even more remarkable.

Huguette was born in Paris in 1938, the second child of Mendel Fajwelewicz and his wife, Ryvka, immigrants from Lithuania. She also had a brother, Maurice, who was five years older, and together the family lived in the Marais district of central Paris, where Mendel was a wholesaler of workmen’s clothing. After the Germans invaded in 1940, the family fled to the countryside. They never made it to the “free zone” of Vichy France, but instead found shelter in a rural area under occupation called Sarthe, named for a tributary of the Loire. They settled in Vibraye, a village about a hundred miles southwest of Paris, not far from the city of Le Mans, famous for its motor-racing circuit.

Huguette was a two-year-old at the time, so the precise circumstances have always been murky to her, but somehow she and Maurice were placed with a peasant family, while their parents found similar refuge nearby. Her father paid the family for the children’s upkeep, but at a certain point he was running out of money. So, in July 1942, the Fajwelewiczes undertook the risky journey back to Paris, taking Huguette with them, so that Mendel could turn some of his stored drapery stock into cash.

It was a fateful venture—and very nearly fatal. They arrived back at their old apartment only hours before French police began the roundup of Parisian Jews that became notorious as the Rafle du Vel’ d’hiv, when more than 13,000 people, including some 4,000 children, were confined in a Paris velodrome before being transported to internment camps in Drancy, Compiègne, Pithiviers, and Beaune-la-Rolande, and thence to Auschwitz. The Fajwelewicz family escaped only because the concierge of their building, one Madame Mignon, tipped them off and helped them hide in the basement for two days and nights, until the coast was clear to flee again to the country.

Back in the village of Vibraye, the family succeeded in evading detection for another two years, until their part of western France was liberated by the Allies sometime in August 1944. Huguette recalls dancing in a field with Maurice, chanting “Nous sommes juifs! Nous sommes juifs!” (We’re Jews! We’re Jews!)—scarcely knowing what it meant, having lived most of the last four years in disguise in a Catholic household, but knowing that it was at last safe to say those words.

The family’s reunion was bittersweet, for Huguette’s mother, Ryvka, had never fully recovered from a wound sustained when the house they were in was hit by a bomb during the fighting in 1940; she died in 1947. As soon as Huguette was of age, she emigrated to the United States, leaving behind her brother. For his part, Maurice—who as a boy had painstakingly plotted on a map the advances of the Red Army on the Eastern Front—became a renowned left-wing filmmaker in France (known by the version of their surname the family adopted after the war, Failevic).

Their father never spoke about the wartime experience—as Huguette told me recently, “People didn’t want to talk about the war.” She and Maurice, with whom she remained close, did once revisit Vibraye, in 1989. On that occasion, they met up with a local woman who had later been adopted by the same family that had sheltered them. Huguette asked what had happened to the schoolgirl of her age who had bullied and terrorized Huguette by threatening to betray her to the Nazis. “That bitch!” the woman said, much to their amusement. “She’s still here.”

And that was the whole story as Huguette knew it—until last year.

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By then, Maurice had died, in 2016. The following year, a film-festival organizer in Carcassonne, in southwest France, had wanted to put on a season of Maurice Failevic’s films. In the course of researching his program, he’d contacted Maurice’s widow (and Huguette’s sister-in-law), Micheline, and passed on some new biographical details he’d dug up. Among them was a weblink to a site that showed a digital image of a handwritten document dating from 1944 and signed by, among others, Huguette’s father, Mendel.

It was a letter from the Jews of Vibraye to the prefect of Sarthe attesting to the courage and kindness of the mayor of the commune of Vibraye, and of his secretaries, for “risking everything” and saving them “from the claws of the Gestapo” (Huguette’s translation).

Huguette had heard one story about this mayor from her brother: that he once ran all the way to the farm where their parents were hidden to warn them that the Germans were looking for them. But she’d had no inkling that this local official, who also ran the village grocery, had orchestrated an underground operation that sheltered not just the Fajwelewiczes but some two dozen other Jewish refugees. (Evidently, Huguette had been too young to recall being assembled for the photograph that appears at the head of this article.)

The man’s name was Aristide Gasnier. He’d already been mayor for fifteen years and was nearly seventy when the occupation began, in 1940. No doubt, this length of service gave Gasnier the moral authority in the community to carry out his bold conspiracy against the occupiers; even the local gendarmerie went along with it. Gasnier ensured that the hideaways got food tokens, and issued them with new identity papers—Huguette learned that hers listed her “occupation” as schoolgirl—removing the word “Jew” and, where necessary, changing telltale patronymics such as Zilberbaum to a more French-sounding “Vilberbaun.”

It was an extraordinary undertaking. I found a reference in The New York Times to a village named Pontlevoy, not far away in the Loire Valley, where a Resistance cell run by a local restaurateur had tried to do the same thing. Four men were caught by the Gestapo, deported to the camps, and killed. Over the four-year occupation, Gasnier received several “denunciations” from locals hostile to the refugees or those sheltering them. When he got a letter like this, he tossed it in the trash.

That last detail appears in Aristide Gasnier’s citation from the French Committee for Yad Vashem, the Israel-based Holocaust Remembrance Center. For, in 2006, the mayor of Vibraye was posthumously named one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” Yad Vashem’s official honor for gentiles who aided Jews in World War II. For Huguette, to learn at last—and in these times—that her family’s escape was not just a random act of kindness from a couple of strangers but a concerted act of communal resistance has been deeply heartening.

“This [moment in US history] is maybe the worst period of time I’ve known since I was a child,” she said. “This is why finding out that example of goodness among the people of Vibraye is such a solace.”

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