Dora and Paulette Feiler and their little brother, Michel, were all born in Paris and proud of it. However, their parents, Beirel Feiler and Roche Leja Gimelstein, from Russia and Lithuania, respectively, were not French citizens. Fleeing their home countries because of persecutions and pogroms, they were among the tens of thousands of foreign Jews—economic immigrants and refugees who had entered France from eastern Europe.
Their small apartment building in the 18th Arrondissement was crowded with other proud, hardworking Jewish immigrant families like their own. This created a sense of community and, in the Feiler family, a commitment to observing Jewish holidays and customs. However, with the surrender of France to Germany in June 1940, Dora and Paulette began to sense a growing fear in their parents. Their parents were aware that as foreign Jews they would be especially vulnerable and likely the first targets of Nazi racial hatred, less protected by the French authorities.
It began almost immediately.
Under the terms of the armistice ratifying France’s surrender, the country was divided into two zones: an occupied zone controlled by the Germans, with Paris as its hub, and an unoccupied zone that included much of the south, headed by the nominally “free” but collaborationist government of France, in the resort city of Vichy, near Bordeaux. From both centers of power, anti-Jewish laws and measures were enthusiastically promulgated.
During the early months of the occupation, Dora and Paulette, who were six and seven years old, were away for the summer at a country farm near Le Mans. By the time they returned to Paris, the German military administration and the Vichy government had already, among many other measures, revoked the law banning antisemitic articles in the French press and began requiring the stamping of “Juif” (Jew) on identity cards and the posting of placards identifying Jewish shops. By October 1940, the government adopted the Statut des Juifs, which excluded Jews from public life.
Beirel Feiler was picked up in early 1941 with one hundred others. Among other eastern European Jewish immigrants, Feiler was active in an arm of the French resistance fighting Nazism. He participated in numerous actions against the enemy, notably in May 1941 when he deposited a bomb on rue Martel in Paris in a stock of winter jackets destined for the German army. In her husband’s absence, and with his ultimate fate unknown, Roche Leja began to fear whether she could manage on her own. She was embarrassed by her accent and had Dora and Paulette do what shopping Jews were still permitted to do. The baby, Michel, had been born in July 1940.
The family huddled around the radio hoping for good news, but it did not come. Toward the end of 1941, French police, on their own or supervised by German soldiers, rounded up thousands more Jewish men. Feiler was among the group taken to the transit camp of Drancy, in a suburb northeast of Paris. Then a package with a note arrived at the family’s apartment. Madame Feiler opened the note and read that her husband, Beirel Feiler, had been shot at Mont Valerien on December 15. He was dead. The package contained his effects: a spoon, a fork, a tin plate, and a tin cup.
The girls sensed that their mother was on the verge of collapse. Yet they had underestimated her. Roche Leja now gathered herself to accomplish her next major goal: to find places to send her children into hiding. Like thousands of other desperate Jewish parents, she turned to the small but sympathetic element in the French population willing to help Jews. A Catholic neighbor, dressmaker Madame Jacob, assisted Madame Feiler in finding shelter for the girls. To increase the odds that someone in the family would survive, the Feiler girls were separated from their younger brother, Michel, who stayed with his mother. Dora and Paulette were sent to live in the home of a Catholic family, Mr. and Mrs. Branchereau, in a small village, Seiches-sur-le-Loir.
The place was quiet and beautiful, but Dora was young enough to hope it was temporary and that she would soon return to Paris. Without her mother, her adjustment was particularly difficult, especially in school, where Paulette outshone her, fit in socially, and became popular. Dora, on the other hand, had grown awkwardly tall: she felt unloved in the family, and she tried to assuage her sense of loss by taking long walks alone in the fields. A peaceful feeling would come over her as she cherished her connection to nature.
Although numerous hidden Jewish children in France and throughout Europe had not only their lives protected but their Judaism respected, this, unfortunately, was not the case with the girls. One of the nuns in the school began to give Dora private religious lessons. In her loneliness, Dora became devoted to the worship of the Virgin Mary. The nun told her that if she continued to pray to the Virgin and to be good, her mother would come back. There was some solace for Dora in this belief, but also a powerful conflict, for Dora also knew she was Jewish and was attached to this identity.
Life became suddenly even harsher. Money that had regularly arrived by mail to support Dora and Paulette ceased. One day in 1943, the nuns and priests called Dora and Paulette into an office and told them that their mother “was not here anymore.” In fact, she had been arrested, deported, and killed at the Majdanek death camp. The girls were told that now, in their mother’s absence, they were finally ready to be baptized.
Dora was baptized as Denise, and never used the name Dora again. She saw the act of becoming a Christian as a way to keep praying even harder for the return of her mother. She went to communion and to masses, and she prayed to the Virgin to see her family once again. In time, it was a group of tall, handsome American soldiers who arrived, liberating the girls in 1945. As Denise remembered them, it was as if these liberators had arrived from another planet.
The girls were delighted to discover that their little brother, Michel, had survived. The three children, however, were not destined to live together. From 1947 to 1949, Michel was in a children’s home in Aix-les-Bains. Thanks to an invitation from relatives in New York, Denise and Paulette were able to immigrate to America in 1949. Michel remained in France.
The girls struggled in America, but in time, life began to get a little better. Paulette sent her sister to beauty school, and Denise became a hairdresser. She met a French Protestant; they married and moved to Paris, where Denise was eager to integrate into French life. “I wanted to be French and nothing else,” recalled Denise.
But when her first son was born, Denise suddenly felt very strongly that she no longer wanted to deny her Judaism. She had her son circumsised and began to feel that she was no longer lying to herself. Her marriage broke up, while her connection to Judaism was reborn. Memories of the apartment in the 18th Arrondissement came flooding back: the waxy warmth of the Sabbath candles and the aromas of the family dinners her mother used to prepare.
Returning to New York with her son, she met and married a French Algerian Jew and began to reconnect with her earlier life, reestablishing the sense of belonging that had been shattered when the Nazis marched into Paris. Denise had four grandchildren , one of whom is named after her mother and one after her father, the Russian Jewish immigrant, who is honored at the memorial to the resistance at Mont Valerien, the fort outside Paris that was once used as Gestapo headquarters and where many resistance fighters were executed.