Ménardais heard about the plight of the children at the Rothschild Hospital through the sisters of the Fondation Eugène Napoléon, who had an orphanage in the XIIth arrondissement. When the German army, the Wehrmacht, requisitioned the Foundation, the sisters and their wards were forced to relocate to the château de Tachy at Chalmaison in Seine-et-Marne, which the Foundation owned.
Ménardais contacted Heymann and began to provide baptismal certificates for the Rothschild children; he also assisted in their clandestine escapes. Madeleine Levy, an aide to Heymann, accompanied the children on their journey. The children were hidden at his presbytery in Chalmaison, or at the Château de Tachy under the guidance of the Foundation nuns, or in individual homes. Ménardais convinced his parishioners that it was their Christian duty to hide Jews. The mayor of Chalmaison hid two Jewish children. Ménardais is credited with saving over 200 Jewish adults and children.
Both Abbé Ménardais and Suzanne Spaak have been awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations. It is an honor Yad Vachem in Jerusalem bestows on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In 1943 Spaak was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Fresnes, in Paris. She was murdered by the Germans on August 12, 1944, within days of the liberation of Paris.
Another Heymann accomplice was Frederic Joliot-Curie, son-in-law of Marie and Pierre Curie, and husband of their daughter Irene. In 1935, he and Irene were the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the synthesis of radioactive isotopes. In 1939, alarmed by the rise of Nazism, they placed an explanation of the principle of nuclear reactors in a sealed envelope, which they deposited at the Académie des Sciences in Paris, where it remained secreted until 1949. In 1942 Joliot-Curie joined the French Communist Party, and devoted time to the struggle against the occupying forces. He went underground in 1943, at the same time as his friends Robert Debré and Pasteur Vallery-Radot; all three denounced in the same letter. Joliot-Curie lived in Paris under the name of Jean-Pierre Gaumont. At his laboratory at the Collège de France, he organized the production of explosives, and the laboratory served as an arsenal during the battle for the liberation of Paris.
Joliot-Curie supplied Heymann with counterfeit documents he prepared at his laboratory. He helped arrange the escape from Rothschild of Marcel Gouzien, a non-Jew, an FTP resistance member (Francs-Tireurs et Partisans) and CGT unionist (Conféderation Générale du Travail). Gouzien had been caught with coded diagrams of the German telephone network linking Paris to Berlin. The Gestapo and the Vichy police correctly surmised that a plan was underway to sabotage or destroy this vital communications network. After severely torturing Gouzien for several days, the French police interned him at Rothschild.
Heymann and intern Dr. Jean Weismann tended to Gouzien, and convinced the police that he could not be interrogated again for several weeks. Heymann contacted Joliot-Curie for counterfeit identity cards, which he produced within 48 hours. On May 1, 1943, while Heymann and two Jewish prisoners distracted the security guards assigned to watch Gouzien (the guards had just changed shifts), he dove through a laundry chute down into an adjacent room where Weismann had removed floor boards separating the tunnel from the ground floor. Gouzien changed into doctor’s whites and pocketed the counterfeit cards waiting for him. He joined Weismann in the tunnel and walked to a different pavilion where he changed again, this time into civilian clothing, and passed a checkpoint by displaying the false identity cards. Underground resistance members were waiting for him outside.
Gouzien had been slated for execution May 15, 1943. Both Heymann and Weismann were subjected to long and terrifying interrogations, perhaps involving physical torture, about this escape. Finally, Heymann succeeded in convincing the French police that the escape had to have been an “outside job.”
In 1944, Blondin, the Gestapo’s liaison at Rothschild, tried to have Heymann arrested for questioning one of his directives. Eventually he settled for cutting her salary in half.
After the war, Heymann was given the grade of Sergeant for her participation in the Forces Françaises Combattantes from September 1 to September 30, 1943: Her resistance network was “Plutus.”
After the war, when Joliot-Curie was President of the Conseil Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique (Atomic Energy Commission Council), he wrote a memo lauding Claire Heymann for her courageous acts of resistance. He acknowledged her role in Gouzien’s escape, and then lauded her saving Jewish children. In part he said,
Claire Heyman a réussi à soustraire à la police des enfants juifs en bas âge, en particulier après la rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver en 1942. Elle a sauvé ainsi de nombreux enfants qu’elle plaça dans des familles et dans des orphelinats. La police allemande ne put retrouver ces enfants, les adresses données à la police française étaient fausses.
(Claire Heyman succeeded in concealing young Jewish children from the police, particularly after the Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup. She saved numerous children whom she placed in families and orphanages. The German police were not able to find these children; the addresses given to the French police were false.)
When Claire Heymann retired from Rothschild, she moved to the Rothschild Home for the Aged, the site of the former hospice on the rue de Pipcus. Many of the children she saved visited her with their families when they became adults. They called her Tante Claire. A doctor at the home related that Heymann received a nombre incalculable de visites différentes.
Heymann died in the late 1990s. Toward the end of her life, she suffered from dementia. Gisèle Pierronnet, who interviewed her, said she would cry out, “Sauvez-vous, sauvez-vous, vous allez être arrêtés tout de suite!” (“Run, run, you’re going to be arrested immediately!”) These words were meaningless to most.
While we cannot know how many children and adults Heymann assisted in rescuing, it is clear that she was a major force in salvaging numerous lives. It is one of the unfortunate fallouts of history that she has not received correct recognition, in her lifetime or after her death.