French Jews Rally to Aid Town of Saint-Martin-Vésubie, WWII Haven for Refugees, After Storm Alex Devastation
by Ben Cohen
French Jews have rallied to the aid of a small town on the border with Italy that was devastated from flash flooding caused by Storm Alex, which has left a trail of destruction across the south of France and north of Italy over the last week.
The town of Saint-Martin-Vésubie — with a population of under 1,500 — was at the epicenter of the storm, suffering widespread structural damage and losing its electricity and water supply for several days. Four people died during the storm, while a further eight residents of the town remain unaccounted for.
The role played by the people of Saint-Martin-Vésubie in saving Jews from Nazi persecution during World War II is solemnly remembered by many French Jews, who are raising funds for relief efforts in the storm’s wake.
In an email to supporters on Tuesday, the BNVCA — a Paris-based organization that represents victims of antisemitic harassment and violence — asked for donations to a special fund it has created for the town, in recognition of its status during part of the war as a safe haven for more than 1,000 Jewish refugees, as well as other rescue efforts undertaken by its residents.
“The BNVCA does not forget the courage and solidarity which allowed hundreds of Jewish refugees to be saved during the war in St Martin de Vésubie,” the organization said. “We want to show our gratitude by calling for a powerful and quick mobilization to come to the aid of a town that has been struck by misfortune.”
Occupied by the Italian Army in November 1942, Saint-Martin-Vésubie rapidly became a haven for persecuted Jews thanks to the sympathetic attitude of the local Italian authorities. For nearly a year, around 1,200 Jews were able “to live, and to be housed and fed by a close network of cooperation between the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Jewish leaders, the scouts, the [Jewish charity] ORT and the extraordinary population of St Martin de Vésubie,” the BNVCA explained.
“The local population, deeply impoverished by the war, was able to develop solidarity and even an exceptional friendship with these foreigners, a large majority of whom spoke only Yiddish,” the group recalled.
When the Germans took control of the region in September 1943 after the Italian armistice, an alert was sent to each house in the town. Within days, arrangements were made for the Jewish refugees in Saint-Martin-Vésubie to embark on the long trek over the mountainous border to safety in Italy. While hundreds of elderly and infirm refugees perished along the walk, or remained behind where they were captured by the Germans, more than 600 of the Jews of Saint-Martin-Vésubie survived the war as a result.
Four of Saint-Martin-Vésubie’s residents have been honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s national memorial to the Holocaust, as “righteous among the nations.”
Landry Mangon, the town’s police chief, and his wife Adrienne saved a one-year-old Jewish boy — Jean-Claude Dreymann — by presenting him to the Gestapo as their own son during a round-up of Jews. The infant’s five-year-old sister, Cecile, was similarly saved by one of Mangon’s colleagues, police officer Joseph Fougere and his wife Yvonne.