The Righteous Railway Workers of Lille, France: A Local Connection From Rosh Hashanah, 1942

Written by Ira Brandriss on . Posted in Travel

My mother, Perla Brandriss, often mentioned to us as children that it was Erev Rosh Hashanah, 1942, that the Nazis came to take her parents. They and their two youngest children were rounded up and taken to the railway station in their home town of Lille, France, together with many of the city’s other Polish Jews, to be sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.


Erev Rosh Hashanah that year fell on September 11, the date on which, 59 years later, another enemy of the Jews (and of enlightened mankind) sent airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field, murdering thousands.

On September 11 of last year, four of my siblings and I stood on the same train platform in Lille, 74 years to the day since that Nazi deportation. We had come for an event that commemorated the heroic actions of a group of some 24 non-Jewish railway workers at the station that day, who organized themselves on the spot and rescued 34 Jews, mostly children, right under the eyes of the German military police.

A French historian, Gregory Celerse, learned of the episode only several years ago and resolved to make it known. In his research, he found a report compiled after the Holocaust detailing the resistance in northern France. My father, Rabbi Joseph M. Brandriss, was a signatory to the document. He was captured in uniform as a chaplain in the French Army in 1940, and spent the war years in a German Prisoner of War (POW) camp. On his return, he was appointed grand rabbin (chief rabbi) of Lille, where he met my mother. In 1955, they arrived in Silver Spring, Maryland, where my father became rabbi of Congregation Har Tzeon.

Using my father’s name as a lead, Celerse tracked down my brother David, who became his contact in Israel, and searched through Israeli directories for names of the rescued children. The ceremony at the train station, addressed by a now-elderly French Jew and one of the rescued youngsters, was also attended by descendants David found in Israel, and of the railway workers.

My siblings and I were compelled to attend to show our gratitude, one generation removed. The rescuers represented the Righteous of the Nations. We also came to remember the Jews who were not rescued, including my grandparents. Recalling that the deportations occurred on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Eliyahu Dahan, the rav of Lille, took out a shofar.

He wanted to blow the sounds that those Jews never got to hear the next day, he explained; and it was with the call of his shofar that we assembled to recite the kaddish for them.

But Celerse had more in store for us. The Friday before the ceremony, he took us to the Preventorium de Trelon, about an hour and a half from Lille, to see where my mother was hidden. The founder of the institution, Madame Jeanne Rousselle, and her top aides were recognized by Yad Vashem - The World Holocaust Remembrance Center for having saved 54 Jewish children.

We were welcomed by the staff there as if we were long-lost family members — which, in a sense, we were.

In honor of our visit, they created a booklet, entitled, “Les Secrets du Preventorium de Trelon,” recording the history of my mother, aunt, and uncle at the institution. In addition to photos, the booklet included the facsimile of a letter written in my mother’s unique handwriting, in which she testified to the deeds of the directress and her aides. One of the stories she recounted was Madame Rousselle’s reaction when she and her sister were reported for not showing up at work on Saturday (translated from French):

“I explained to her that my family had been deported because they were Jews, and while we were very thankful to her for looking after us, we did not want to deliberately profane the Sabbath. I offered to exchange our Saturday workday with Sunday, which could make the Catholic nurses happy. After this episode, nothing more was ever said about this subject and during the rest of our stay we observed the Sabbath …

“We shut ourselves in our room and recited the kiddush prayer over water. During the week, we went looking for discarded pieces of burnt-out candles in order to be able to recite the blessings over the candles on Friday evenings without bringing on any reprimands …

“As we did not want to eat treif (not kosher) and as the food was rationed, we had very little to eat … I implored her to have our own small pot and to allow us to cook for ourselves the food that the hospital would have for us. Madame Rousselle reluctantly accepted … She was an extraordinary person and we will cherish her memory forever.”

On Shabbat, we davened at the same synagogue in which my father was the rabbi after the war. We also attended another commemoration of bravery, at a children’s home in the area, where a Catholic priest also saved many Jewish children. Two of the children hidden there — now, of course, older men — told us that they were bar mitzvahed by my father after the war.

Zachor. “Remember.” It has long been a motto of survivors of the Holocaust, lest the world forget the evil that was done to us. This trip, for me, also represented Zachor, but in a positive way: Remember the good that was done for you. That, too, is a fundamental message of our faith.

By Ira Brandriss

 Ira Brandriss lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.