Debré’s first wife died before the war. He met during the war and married after the war Elisabeth de La Panouse de La Bourdonnaye, known in the resistance as Dexia. She was active in many clandestine organizations, including the Musée de l’Homme, so called because it originated at and operated out of the famous Paris museum. She was arrested with others in this group and imprisoned in Paris’ Cherche-Midi prison from February to July 1941.
Dexia’s passion was rescuing Jewish children. She took custody of orphans and youngsters whose parents wanted them hidden, and temporarily kept them in her Paris apartment, where she fed and cleaned them, found them new clothes, and arranged their placement in Touraine. As Debré put it, these children were arrachés aux rafles – snatched from the roundups. Debré owned a home in Touraine that straddled the demarcation line between the Occupied and Unoccupied Zones. A Rothschild nurse, known as “Petite Marie,” whom Debré had placed at the hospital, originated from Touraine and worked for the underground network CND Castile. She picked up children at Dexia’s apartment and took them by train to Touraine. Debré described Marie as courageous and clever. The children were hidden on Debré’s property, or confided to his farmer neighbors who were told they were Flemish orphans. Some of the children were given to passeurs and made their way south. It is remarkable that this operation was never discovered and denounced. Debré’s critical role in the Liberation of Paris is explained in Chapter 1.
The Orphanage Records
Three registers from the Rothschild Orphanage are included in the Picpus Digital Archives, two on female orphans and one on male orphans. They provide a wealth of documentary information, including the lists of elderly who were incarcerated at the orphanage after it was turned into a hospice in March 1943. Their chief interest, however, is the information they provide on the children and adolescents who resided there in the first quarter of 1943, that is, the period covering the February 10 and 11, 1943 orphanage roundups when the French police seized 16 foreign orphans, 12 girls and 4 boys, who were taken to Drancy and deported to Auschwitz soon after. For those children, the register rubrique Observations, or Remarks, states that each of them was arrested by the Prefecture of Police.
Examination of these documents show that the orphans remaining at the Rothschild Orphanage within a few days after the roundups were remitted either to their relatives or to UGIF. The information recorded about Hedwige Plaut, the 8-year old survivor of the February 10, 1943 roundup (see Chapter 2), is inaccurate. According to the Rothschild Orphanage Admissions Register, Hedwige was remitted to UGIF on February 12, 1943. According to the other Rothschild Orphanage Register, under mutations, or transfer, she was returned to her grandfather on February 12, 1943. The truth is that Hedwige was smuggled out of the hospital and delivered to a safe home through the efforts of Rothschild social worker Claire Heymann.
There is every reason to believe that the much of the information on the Rothschild Orphanage Registers was purposely falsified, and that after the roundups many of the remaining orphans were smuggled out and hidden. Because their names were never initially on Drancy lists, it was relatively easy to alter the information.
Gisèle Pierronnet maintains that Armand Kohn knew in advance that the roundup of February 19, 1943 was about to occur, and warned Suzanne Spaak during a private dinner. Spaak, from an influential Belgian family, was involved in many organizations that resisted Nazism, and was a leader in the M.N.C.R (Mouvement national contre le racisme [National Movement against Racism]). The context of the conversation is not known, nor is it clear whether Kohn passed the information to her believing she would act. We now know that Spaak’s advanced knowledge did not prevent the roundup of 16 children, but we also know that on February 13, 1943, she, Dexia, Heymann and her coworker Maria Errazuriz, a Madame Hérault, whose husband was a doctor in Tours, and probably others, smuggled many of the remaining children out of the orphanage, to hideouts in Touraine, and others to safe houses and convents in Paris. The orphanage was thereupon converted to a hospice for elderly Jews, and the remaining children were put in UGIF homes, where they remained until late July 1944. In one of the last roundups before the liberation of Paris, more than 250 children and adolescents in UGIF homes were arrested. They were sent to Auschwitz on July 31, 1944, the final convoy to leave Drancy with a full complement of 1300 Jews (see Chapter 1).