Rothschild: Escapes and Resistance
Anne Landau, Department of French and Italian, Northwestern University
 
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Paulette Szlifke

The compelling interview of Paulette Sarcey, née Szlifke, is part of the Picpus Digital Archives. She was the daughter of left-leaning Polish Jewish immigrants; her young life revolved around home, school, the streets and communist Jewish youth organizations. She and a comrade, Anne Neustadt, were arrested in Paris by the Brigades Spéciales of the Prefecture on March 23, 1943. These arrests were made as part of a massive sweep of some 30 young Jewish communist resistants, sons and daughters of immigrants, who belonged to the M.O.I (Main d’oeuvre immigrée), an offshoot of the communist group Solidarité. Neustadt’s husband Thomas Fogel was also arrested, as was Henri Krasuki, Paulette’s companion and one of M.O.I’s leaders. Neustadt was sent to the Rothschild Hospital because she was pregnant and feigned labor. She and her baby later escaped from a UGIF home for single mothers in Neuilly, where they were taken after she gave birth.

Paulette was taken to the Prefecture of Police, where she and the others members of M.O.I were beaten and tortured for over a week. She divulged nothing about her clandestine work: distributing tracts, recovering arms, finding hideouts for Jewish children. By chance, a passing doctor saw the badly beaten Paulette at the police station, and advised her to request to see a doctor. Paulette did, and was taken across the street to the hospital Hôtel Dieu. There she told a physician that she had been arrested for terrorism; he told her to say he diagnosed her with acute salpingitis, which was not true, and demand hospitalization. Paulette was taken to the Rothschild Hospital, where she was treated by interns Jean Weismann and Michel Lobelson, who also were resistants. Lobelson belonged to Solidarité. Paulette soon learned that many resistance operations were initiated from inside the Rothschild Hospital. Lobelson told Paulette he would pass on any reports she wanted to send to the appropriate contacts. He convinced her of his truthfulness by returning with a message from one of her comrades. Paulette wrote a series of letters from Rothschild, relating all she knew about the group’s capture.

Lobelson had to devise a way to keep Paulette at the hospital until her escape could be arranged – an appendectomy would buy her six weeks of recuperation time. She underwent the procedure. Lobelson then fitted her with a painfully uncomfortable ventouse, a suction apparatus, to feign post-surgery complications. But Dr. Hertz sensed something was not right, and arranged for the Germans to take her to Drancy almost immediately after surgery. Paulette’s hospitalization at Rothschild lasted from March 30, 1943 to May 18, 1943. On June 22, 1943, the day before she was sent to Auschwitz on Convoy 55, Paulette and her M.O.I comrades attempted a break out at Drancy. The plan called on the prisoners to sing the Marseillaise as they stormed the miradors, cut the barbed wire fencing, and escaped. About 100 prisoners joined in this failed attempt. The French police put down the rebellion in hand-to-hand combat. In the three years Drancy operated, this was the only riot to occur.

In a final act of defiance, Paulette sang the Communist hymn, the International, as she boarded the bus with the other deportees to the Bobigny train station. German soldiers, who had not been at Drancy, were on the platform, pushing Jews into cattle-cars and barring the doors. Miraculously, as recounted in her interview, Paulette survived, and to this day her mission is to speak to French school children about her experiences.

Robert Debré and Cohorts

In uncovering the story of resistance at the Rothschild Hospital, two names turn up time and again. The first is Claire Heymann and the second is Robert Debré. While Claire Heymann remains largely obscure, we have the stories of Robert Debré’s resistance which add luster to his remarkable career:

Robert Debré was the foremost pediatrician of his time. During the German Occupation, he and his friend and colleague, Pasteur Vallery-Radot, grandson of Louis Pasteur, set up the Comité médical de la Résistance (Resistance Medical Committee), from Paris, which coordinated medical resistance networks throughout France. They sent doctors to wounded and sick resistance fighters, provided counterfeit medical documents, located hideouts in hospitals, and arranged hospital escapes. Debré was able to live openly and largely unbothered until September 1943, when he was denounced. French police came to his Paris apartment to arrest him, but he managed to elude them and went “underground.” From then until the Liberation, Debré worked in disguise and often changed residences. His code name was Flaubert.

Debré had been the director of Rothschild’s conseil medical before the war; in 1940, he was its sole member to remain in Paris. In his autobiography, L’Honneur de vivre (The Honor of Living), Debré recalled frequent stops at the hospital to see how it was faring under Occupation. He had praise for his colleagues Drs. Nora, Chief of Urology; Hertz, Chief of Surgery; Walther, Chief of Maternity; and Isch-Wall, Chief of Medecine, and saluted them for their very difficult missions. Debré had other reasons for visiting Rothschild. According to documents, the Rothschild family and directors gave Debré a free hand in reorganizing the medical staff after the fall of Paris. This meant the recruitment of interns, and if they weren’t resistants prior to their recruitment, many certainly were now. As the German Occupation deepened, the resisting doctors and interns helped patients escape, passed on medicine, letters, information and packages, and smuggled children. Their underground actions were not limited to Rothschild. Colette Brull-Ulmann, for example, tended to wounded resistance members and English and French parachutists hidden in the Eglise St. Germain-des-Près, in the heart of Paris’ Left Bank. Germaine Pérel was the Rothschild dentist and wife of surgery intern and resistant Léon Pérel. In her interview, she recounted Debré’s invitation to join the other Rothschild doctors and interns in their clandestine efforts. She turned down the man she called the grand patron out of fear she would talk if captured and tortured. Nevertheless, she smuggled several children from Rothschild and found them safe haven, one in her own home.

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