Following is a story, and like all stories, it is sometimes sad and sometimes happy. This is where and how it begins:
Vienna, Austria, 1938, after the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria to the Third Reich) and I am an eight-years old girl. I remember, how with traumatic suddenness our lives were changed. I was warned not to visit any longer the house of my blond and blue-eyed neighbor and friend Gerda, since she was not one of us. Jewish pupils who had been expelled from Aryan schools were accepted in my Jewish school on Kasteletz Gasse, bordering the Au-Garten. Soon to be closed completely.
Today it is again a Jewish school, with classes ranging from kindergarten to high school.
This was also the place where Vienna's Jews were rounded up before being deported eastward to annihilation. A plaque attached to the school's wall attests to this fact.
I visited there in the fall of 1997. I walked up the well-known corridors, entered into the classrooms, and spoke with the Christian principal, who told me that most of the teachers in the school were not Jews. In her opinion, there were very few good Jewish teachers, and the cost of the teachers sent from Israel was too high, because they came with their families. At the end of my visit, I asked to be photographed next to the plaque referred to, above.
I remember how we - my parents, brother, aunts , uncles and my cousins would spend the summer months together in one of the Austrian villages in order to take us, the children away from the city to the heart of nature. There were also the birthday parties and the very long Seder nights. In our home we read the Haggadah twice - my grandfather in German and my father in Hebrew.
I recall, how in that year our extended family would gather periodically at the train station, to bid farewell to one of its branches - a lucky branch that had succeeded in obtaining entry visas to another country. Thus, two of my mother's sisters and their families immigrated to New Zealand. My mother's oldest brother, Richard, perished in the Izbica extermination camp in eastern Poland, while his wife and daughters found refuge in England. My family, the Rosners, were privileged to arrive in Eretz Israel in February 1939.
My mother's youngest brother, Dr.Fritz Finaly, a physician, and his newly-wed wife Anni Schwartz, tried their luck in Czechoslovakia. When the Germans overran that country, they fled to Grenoble, France, and settled there.
Anni and Fritz acquired, over time, friends among the local Jewish community. In 1941, their first son, Robert, was born followed by Gerald in 1942.
In the beginning of 1944, Anni and Fritz were warned by acquaintances that the Nazis decided to transport Grenoble's Jews to the camps. They did not have time to escape or hide. Fritz was arrested, while walking on the street, returning from a visit of a sick French underground member, and Anni, a few hours later in their apartment. Both of them were on one of the last transports that left on the 3rd of March 1944 from Drancy to Auschwitz - neither survived.
A few days before their arrest, while the earth was burning beneath their feet, Fritz and Anni entrusted to one of their neighbors, the 2½ year-old Robert and the 1½ year-old Gerald. Along with the children, that neighbor was also given a leather suitcase, containing some of my uncle's medical equipment, jewelry, photographs, documents, and the addresses of Fritz' three sisters: My aunts Grete Fischel and Luise Rothbaum in New Zealand, and my mother and father, Yehudit and Moshe Rosner, in Gedera Israel.
A letter was also attached, in which it was requested that if the worst possible scenario came to pass, at the end of the war my two aunts in New Zealand were to be contacted. The boys, circumcised at birth, were to be returned to the arms of their family.
This devoted neighbor was unable to support the children over a long period of time, and asked the sisters of the order Notre-Dame-de-Sion to hide them. The nuns agreed, but fearing that the two toddlers, far younger that any of the other children who attended the monastery's school, would arouse the suspicion of the SS, transferred them to the Catholic day nursery of Grenoble's municipality.
At day's end, almost all the children were taken home by their parents. Seven children, including Robert and Gerald, had no homes. The nursery's headmistress, Mlle. Brun, who lived in a house next to the nursery, saw to it, that her housekeeper would bring these seven children to her private residence.
Mlle. Brun was a very devout, unmarried Catholic, with close ties to the mayor of Grenoble and to all levels of the local clergy.
Immediately at the War's end in 1945, Grete Fischel contacted the city of Grenoble and inquired about the well being of Fritz, Anni, Robert and Gerald. The mayor reported in a return letter about the parents' fate, added that the children were in good hands, and that there is no reason to be concerned about them. My aunt tried in various ways, including using the Red Cross as an intermediary, to have the children transferred to her. But she run up against the absolute refusal of Mlle. Brun, who claimed that the children call her “Mum”, that they were little and ill, and that one could not consider the possibility of their journey to New Zealand, even if their aunt would come to take them.
Mlle. Brun gave various and sundry reasons, for not returning the children until 1948. In that year, she had both, Robert and Gerald baptized.
Now my aunt Grete Fischel asked the help and involvement of my parents to fulfill the request of my uncle Fritz and his wifet Anni: to join together, and help save the children and return them to the bosom of their biological family and to Judaism. My parents joined in the undertaking, but made a condition - if and when the rescue succeeded, the children would live their lives with us in Gedera, Israel and not in New Zealand.
At this point, Moshe Keller, a chemical engineer and resident of Grenoble, joined in the rescue efforts. It was his and his wife Gusta's good fortune, not to have shared the fate of Anni and Fritz. More than once, when playing with his two sons who happened to be at Robert and Gerald's age, he reflected, on what could have happened to them. These thoughts impelled him to help the Finaly family
In cooperation with my parents, who arrived in France in 1951, Mr. Keller attempted to convince Mlle. Brun to relinquish the children. She continued in her obstinacy, claiming to have saved their lives, that she was their mother, that they were Catholics and that she had no intention of being separated from them.
My mother, one-day stationed herself at the entrance of the nursery and attempted to meet her nephews. The police shamelessly evicted her, after standing there in vain for some hours. Mlle. Brun had called the police.
Left with no alternative, the Courts were approached. The noted French Attorney, Me. Garcon, presented the claim to the court. He was convinced that the family's claim was justified. After endless hearings and counter suits, the court ruled in 1951, that Mlle. Brun was required to return the children to their biological family.
Now - a 'devil's dance' began in all earnestness. France was divided into two opposing groups - one side supported the Church - stating their belief that “once a Catholic (because of the baptism) always a Catholic,” therefore the children should remain in her bosom.
This camp gained the encouragement of Francois Mauriac, who published an article in which he ponders, and I quote: “which covenant will tip the balance, that of the children with their ancestors, who were consigned to the inferno, or the covenant which was made with the son of David who was consigned to the cross for their sake, and whose sign has been engraved on them, and since their baptism He [Jesus] knows them by their first names”.
Those of the second camp, supported the law of the land, and argued, that the Church did not have the right to disregard the decision of the Supreme Court.
There were also arguments on the issue of morality. The question raised was: What should be the determining factor; the blood relationship of the children or the good of the children who had become accustomed to a particular environment.. The older brother, Robert, was already serving as an acolyte. Today, Robert is convinced that if he had remained immersed in that atmosphere, he would be wearing now, the attire of priesthood.
Even in the Jewish community, there was a difference of opinion on the issue. A large number of members feared that, again, as in the days of the Dreyfus trial, anti-Semitism would increase, and voiced their feelings of apprehension. Historians and researchers, who followed the developing events, wrote years later, that not since the days of Dreyfus, was the community as agitated as it was in the days of the “Finaly Affair”.
However, Mlle. Brun had no intention of obeying the law. Being a very devout Catholic, she was convinced that it was her duty to “save” my cousins' souls.
She acted quickly. With the help of her sister and the Catholic clergy of Grenoble, the boys were smuggled into Switzerland under assumed names. When their identity was discovered, they were returned. My parents and Moshe Keller went to retrieve them, but they disappeared again, this time with the help of low level clergy who had the audacity to disregard the order of Pope Pius XII, who insisted that the civil law should be obeyed. The brothers were smuggled in the freezing winter snow, at night across the Pyrenees to the Basque region of Spain. They were separated and each was sent to a different village. At one point, a false rumor, claiming that Gerald had taken ill and died was circulated. Robert was then 11 and Gerald was 10.
The turning point arrived, when it became clear to the Church hierarchy, that there was no escaping their being taken to court, to face charges of disregarding an order of the Supreme Court of France, and of kidnapping. The Church's hierarchy knew, that there are defenitely no chances , to diverse the court's instructions and verdict.
It took several months until the priests who abducted the brothers - and only with the intervention of the Pope - accepted the fact that they had no choice, and must, once and for all, give Robert and Gerald up.
Mlle. Brun and the two priests were tried and found guilty of abducting the brothers. Each was jailed for different periods of time.
On June 26th, 1953, the boys were turned over to the Spanish government and were brought to the French border.
Exactly one month later, on July 26th, under a veil of secrecy, an El Al airplane took off, from the Paris airport to Tel Aviv, carrying my parents and my cousins Robert and Gerald Finaly.
Their flight was El-Al's courtesy.
Everybody in Israel celebrated with us when the boys came home. In Gedera, all the schoolchildren lined the streets and received them with bouquets of flowers.
The boys' adjustment to Israel was not easy. In our family, only our father knew French. Guidance came from the excellent psychologists of “Aliyat-Hanoar”, (Youth Aliyah), whose names I must mention here: Kalman Binyamini z”l, and Professor Reuven Feuerstein, Israel prize laureate, who helped, advised, supported without limits. It was according to those psychologists advice, that Robert and Gerald spent their first weeks in Israel at Kibbutz Neve Ilan, whose members originated in France. At least one family member stayed with them at the kibbutz. In addition, Gabi, a social worker sent by the Jewish community of Paris, accompanied them. Gabi had been with Robert and Gerald since their arrival from Spain.
The next invitation came from the religious French speaking “Poalei-Mizrachi” Kibbutz, Ein Hanatziv, in the Beit-Shean valley One of the kibbutz members, Jacques Schmuel, who was to become a dear friend of the family, had a very good idea: he felt that since the boys came from a strongly religious, albeit Catholic, atmosphere, the traditional-secular atmosphere that prevailed in our house would be difficult for them. So Jacques Schmuel asked: “Perhaps would you like to spend the happy Sukkoth holiday, which is infused with many folkloristic elements, with us at the kibbutz?” On the advice of the psychologists, the invitation was readily accepted and we all went to Ein HaNatziv for Sukkoth.
During the holiday, when attending Synagogue, Gerald took out his camera, also a present, and wanted to record for posterity the progress of the service. One of the members told him that it was prohibited to photograph on the holiday. The answer was quick: “I'm still a little bit Christian!”
From that time, Robert and Gerald have been part of our family, the Jewish people and Israel. Both raised families. Their children reached adulthood, and each went his own way.
Robert and Ann Finaly live in in Omer, by Beersheba. Robert, like his father, is a physician, a senior staff member at Soroka Hospital. Gerald, who insists since his arrival on introducing himself as Gadi, is an army reserve officer and enjoys a pension from the Bezek Telephone Company. Gerald lives with his wife Ilana in Kiryat Motzkin after many years in Kiryat Hayim.
In 1984, a French UN officer purchased a house in Grenoble. In the cellar of the house, which had previously been the city's day nursery, he found an old wooden chest, with an engraved monogram:F.F. The chest contained photographs and documents of the Finaly family. It had been taken/stolen by Mlle. Brun from the Finaly's apartment, when all hope for the return of Fritz and Anni was gone.<>
Sometime later, the photographs in the trunk were of great assistance in helping to discover branches of the Finaly family that lived, and still does so, in Hungary, and until 1997 no one had known of their existence.