Claire Heymann and Cohorts
The February 1943 escape and rescue of the orphanage children was only one of Claire Heymann’s many fearless actions. In contrast to the popular and recognizable figure of Robert Debré, and the well-deserved tributes he received following the Liberation, Claire Heymann has remained largely uncelebrated and unknown. She demonstrated immeasurable courage and intelligence. She is the unlikely and unsung hero in the tales of innumerable adult escapes and child rescues from the Rothschild Hospital and Orphanage.
Other than what is written below, we know little about Claire Heymann. She was born in Roubaix, northern France, in 1902. She was a Jew. She never married. She began working at the Rothschild Hospital as a social worker in March 1932, and held that one position until her retirement. She became a resident of the Rothschild Home for the Aged, and died in the late 1990s. .
In a sense, Heymann’s role was already determined in the late 1930s. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, plans were made in several countries to rescue Jewish children living in Germany and Austria. The operations were known as Kindertransport, or Transport of Children. In France the results were quite modest. The Baron Robert de Rothschild devised a plan with an intermediary to receive 3,000 children, but they succeeded in bringing in only 130 German Jewish children. Their first stop in France was the Rothschild Hospital, where the children were cared for by Heymann and Rothschild chief-of-staff, Dr. Zadoc-Kahn. When their physical and emotional states improved, they were sent to live and be schooled at the château de La Guette, a Rothschild hunting estate in Seine-et-Marne. In his video testimony, Helmut Schmitt recalls the journey that took him as a child from Germany to France, to the Rothschild Hospital and La Guette, and eventually to the United States.
The Vélodrome d’Hiver roundups of July 1942 convinced Heymann that Jewish children had to be rescued and saved. It was owing to her efforts that children sent from the Vel d’Hiv to Rothschild survived; four of their testimonies are in the Picpus Digital Archive. They were brought from the stadium to the hospital, and later were either adopted (Schalit Bryzski, Favier and Schiff), or sent to hidden group homes (Berthe Friedman Guenic and her brother went to the château du Moulinet where approximately 20 children were hiding), or hidden with paid families until the end of the war (Bock). Their names were erased from the hospital’s registers.
In Chapter 1, it was pointed out that the social workers of the Rothschild Foundation supervised the social services in virtually all Paris hospitals and many charitable institutions. This put Heymann in an excellent position to act, because she knew and trusted many people. She used her contacts wisely, with the result that hundreds of lives were saved, mostly Jewish children, but adults as well. The extent of the clandestine network Heymann organized will probably never be fully known; it reached far inside the hospital and deep into France. It crisscrossed from north to south. It has been pointed out time and again that it was neither safe nor prudent to know much beyond your next contact.
Of Heymann’s accomplices inside Rothschild, there were Jewish intern Colette Brull-Ulmann, and head nurse Désiré Damengout, a non-Jew. Colette’s job was to smuggle babies and children out of the hospital. In her video testimony, she outlined the procedure: she would arrive at Damengout’s apartment, which was directly across from the hospital’s main entrance on the rue Santerre, change into a yellow-starred, white doctor’s jacket, and go to work at the hospital. During the course of the day, she would be told if her “services” were needed. At the end of her day, she would return to Damengout’s apartment, change back into her street clothes (she refused to wear the yellow star), and walk past the police stationed at the hospital entrance, in the direction of the hospital morgue. She would usually continue on her way. At other prearranged times, a contact would open the morgue door, hand her a child or in some cases several children. Colette said that when she reached Place Daumesnil, a ten-minute walk from the hospital, she felt she was no longer in danger. She would leave the children at designated private homes or Catholic convents in Paris.
Yvonne Leibovici, the non-Jewish spouse of Jewish surgeon intern Marcel Leibovici, was a midwife. Historian Bruno Halioua questioned her on the unusually high rate of stillborn births in the Rothschild Hospital. Mme Leibovici told him that her involvement in the smuggling of children was to plead with new mothers to abandon their newborn children in an attempt to save their lives. If the mothers agreed, the births were recorded as stillborn, and the babies were surreptitiously spirited away
Maria Errazuriz was a non-Jew from Chile, a volunteer social worker who used her wealth to allow Claire Heymann to help people in distress. In February 1943, Errazuriz participated in the secret transfer of Rothschild orphanage children to Touraine. In 1944 she was arrested by the French police for aiding resistants. She was subjected to a torture known as the bain glacée, or ice bath, which was having her head held under ice water until she nearly drowned. She was freed owing to the intervention of the Spanish ambassador to Paris, and after the war, she returned to her native Chile.