By Barbara Govan
Executive Producer, Timewatch: Hidden Children
Aged just six, Suzanne Rappoport saw both her parents arrested and taken away from her to be sent to Nazi concentration camps. She was rescued by a neighbour and is one of many Jewish children who were hidden from the Nazis and survived the war.
Suzanne's parents both died in the death camps
I first got to know my neighbour Suzanne in the late 1980s.
But I began to see her more when I was at home with my children a few years later. She was a striking woman, always well groomed, long fair hair swept off her face. She had an accent I could not place. She was good fun at a party, cultured, considerate and fond of children.
One day she made a passing comment on my doorstep that hinted at her extraordinary story. I knew she wanted to tell me more, when she was ready. One day she invited me to her home and that is when I heard her extraordinary story.
For years she had tried to forget her terrible childhood experience, the traumatic loss of her parents, her life in hiding in France through much of the war.
But finally in her 60s, divorced and with two grown-up sons and four grandchildren, she decided to confront the truth.
She told me how she had wanted to find out exactly what happened to her parents after they were arrested and taken away from her, and she wanted recognition for the woman who saved her life, Madame Collomb.
'Remember I love you'
This is the text of a letter which she wrote to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum following which Madame Collomb was named Righteous Among Nations, the highest award given to those who helped save the lives of Jews during the war.
"I was born in Paris in 1936 - my name is Berthe Suzanne Rappoport, and I lived at 58 Rue de Belleville with my father and mother who were Millie and Joseph Rappoport.
"Sadly in August 1942 - I do not know what date it was, there was a big change in our home. The sun still shone, the birds sang, the sky was blue - I know because I was standing by my father's side looking out of the window when my father said, 'They're here'.
"We all went to the bedroom. I was pushed under the bed - then I heard the front door being broken by an axe. My mother was tearing out her hair and I could see it falling on the floor at my feet.
"They broke down the bedroom door and took us next door to the living room. I was told to shut up crying because I was giving one of the two men a headache - French policemen dressed all in black. My parents were told to pack a small case with provisions - my father turned to me and said very quickly 'Remember I love you'.
"At that moment our neighbour and good friend Madame Yvonne Collomb came into the apartment and said: 'What's my child doing here?' She took me by the hand and led me to her apartment where she hid me under the dining table."
Suzanne was just six years old that day. She would never see her parents again.
Passed about the country
Suzanne remembers being hidden by her neighbour for the first few weeks.
Little Suzanne sought comfort in fairy tales
There was a narrow escape when French police came to the door and Madame Collomb then turned to a network that was hiding Jewish children in the French countryside, which is how Suzanne survived the war.
"I just remember being taken out of one environment, put into another, you know, you lost your home, you lost your family, lost everything," she says.
Suzanne recalls being sent initially to Mondoubleau, a village whose role in hiding children is well documented. A German army HQ was set up nearby and Suzanne remembers the village swarming with soldiers.
She remembers a deeply unhappy time at one home there. It may be that because she spoke Yiddish as a first language she was too much of a liability to be allowed freedom. She was beaten with a belt buckle and hidden in a cellar.
She wet the bed constantly and says she eventually forgot her own name because no-one ever spoke it. She tried to remember songs her mother had sung. Locked in the dark cellar she drew patterns in the coal dust and imagined she was Cinderella.
Eventually, she went to another Mondoubleau family, the Guillaumes.
"It was a country family, nice, ordinary people," she says.
"They did what they could, in their way, they never beat me, they never were unkind but, because they were not my family, there was nobody that I could love, and there was nobody who could love me."
Suzanne was passed from hiding place to hiding place across France.
At the end of the war, she was still only nine and living in a remote farmhouse in the Auvergne where she had been put to work without shoes as a goatherd.
Madame Collomb came to fetch her back to Paris. The Red Cross traced her maternal grandparents in Newcastle and she found herself sent to a strange country where she did not know the language. Once she had learned enough English she moved to London where she began to rebuild her life.
But she could not leave the past behind.
"All my life I've wondered what exactly happened to my parents," Suzanne says.
"I know my Dad went to Birkenau - in all four different camps. The last news was a postcard from Auschwitz in 1943 but after that there is no record, nothing about when he died."
Madame Collomb had given Suzanne a shoebox full of mementoes including postcards from her father in Auschwitz asking after his darling child. Some of the letters she could not bear to read and has only recently been able to look at for the first time.
As part of a BBC Timewatch documentary, Hidden Children, Suzanne returned to France and some of the places she was hidden during the war. Her most moving experience was the return to 58 Rue de Belleville, the little flat from where her parents were snatched away before her eyes 65 years ago.
"I expected to see the nightmare that I'd left behind me," she says.
"Instead I was confronted by a completely empty, tiny apartment. The sun was shining just as it had been on that horrible day. But because of the sunshine it made me remember my happy childhood world."
Thanks to records at the Shoah Memorial in Paris, she now knows her mother was sent to Auschwitz in convoy No 23 in August 1942, and was gassed upon arrival.
"I would have been with her if my neighbour had not stepped in to save me," she says.
"I can't find words to express how I feel because words are not adequate. I couldn't imagine what it must have been like. It is too horrible."
Suzanne Rappoport is one of four people whose stories are told in Timewatch: Hidden Children, made by Screenhouse Productions. You can watch it at 2100 BST on Friday 27 April on BBC Two.
BBC News website readers' stories:
She is lucky. I am not that lucky. I was saved by the Polish doctor family in Warsaw, but I do not know my date of birth or my real name. I was a baby. It is difficult to live with it.
Ewa Gutman, New York, USA
A similar story happened to my grandmother. She was out walking her dog and a neighbor told her not to go home. She spent a lot of time in Auvergne also.
julien hass, Paris, France
I was born in Belgium in 1940 the day the war happened, May the 10th. My father was taken, my whole family were taken from me, my sister and myself had different names. Moving from place to place, but all I remember is shame, fear, emptiness. My comments is how do you find out who you are, when all you could have been was taken from you, from one religion to another? I wonder who I could have been.
esther goldfarb, baie durfè canada.h9x2j5
I was saved by my neighbour in Sierra Leone at the year 1999 rebel intervention and I was sent under the bed any I be there for like 2 hour/ but thank God now I am in usa
henry fullah, new jersey u s a
I was born on the 25th of September 1937. My parents came to France from Poland and to be able to receive citizenship my father went into the French Foreign Legion. My parents lived in the Jewish quaters. In 1939 Germany declared war on France... My mother was taken to Drancy and then to Auschwitz. My father came back to Paris to try to save us but was denounced to the Germans and taken to Pitiviers and I was on a train to Auschwitz. The Resistance took me out of the train and I was taken by a man called Bouvret and given to Dr Gellert Etienne. He called his wife and told her he had a special package so she came and I was that special package. She took me to their home and there I passed the war. I was much loved by all the familly, even given piano lessons as Jane said all the Jews have talent for music. But she was wrong. I hated the piano. I was called Francoise. There were two boys in that familly and till now we visit each other. I see them like my brothers...
esther zitzer (born Rochman), Israel
My greatgrandmother, a wonderful woman lived with my grandmother and family in a small village in Poland. One day a couple of German soldiers came in seach of Jewish people. One man was running and she practically shoved him in the haystack of their barn as she shouted to them angrily that there were no Jews around here and for them to get out. She did this continously on several occasions and never once showed any fear even through the harsh words the soldiers said to her and the threats that were given.
Tamara, Montreal, Canada
My entire family was wiped out. I was a child at the age of 8 when my family left me. I recall that day and can still see my modder waving goodbye to me. I was lucky in that I was secretly sent to Turkey to be with a Christian family who had been friends with my grandparents. I pray for world peace.
Jacob Muscatel, Haifa, Israel
Blessed be people like Madame Yvonne Collomb for saving Suzanne, children and human beings.
I was 4 years old and playing with my Iranian Sunni Muslim neighbor kids when my parents were arrested and taken away by Khomeini revolution guards in 1983 and burnt alive for being Bahaii's. I was saved and now I live in USA. I have lost contact with my good Sunni Muslim friends who saved me and helped me, I hope one day Iran would change to be a democracy and I can go back and make a memorial for lost families. Long live humanity that doesn't have a religion, gender and hate.
Mahboobeh Misaaq, Shiraz, Iran
I was saved by my neighbour in Beirut in 1988 during the bloody civil war in Lebanon which lasted for about 16 years. It was a miracle!
Sarah Aboud, Lebanon
I think it's hard not to know your own name and native parents for years. Millions have suffered within WWII. Being a teenager, my father for months worked at a factory (not leaving it for night) for our great Victory. All my uncles were killed in the war but nobody knows where their graves are. Maybe in Tallinn? Why not? But you are not alone - there are many people who understand your feelings and sufferings Thank God you have survived and thank God that there are good people on the Earth.
Elena Raisovna, Moscow, Russia
My great aunt who lived in Paris just down the road from the Gestapo headquarters was hidden in the cellar all during the war. She survived thanks to the housekeeper. I met her as a child and I was very moved. My great aunt Madame Fortune Dannon died 25 years ago.
blue angel, Swizerland
My greatgrandfather, God bless his soul, always used to tell me the story of how he and his brother were saved by Armenian neighbors, during the burning of Smyrna in 1922. He told me that I should never forget the debt that our family has to the Armenian people.
Christos Spyridis, London
My father was an American stationed on the Czech border during WWII. (He was in Patton's Third Army.) As a native German-speaker, he often negotiated with the locals and helped when he could. Dad's unit had secured a castle, and one by one, would find kids in the woods that were running for their lives. They moved the children into the castle to stay warm and safe. Dad and the men in his unit shared their rations, and went hunting for deer and rabbit meat to feed the children. Eventually there were over 60 kids that found their way there. After the War, Dad was able to reunite a few with their parents and other returning relatives. The rest of the kids were wards of Germany. When my Dad died, we inherited his photos. The photos that I have are astounding. I don't know what to do with them, I don't know how to make them public. These are faces of bravery, looking right into the camera. I only hope that their lives eventually found happiness.
My grandparents lived in Paris during the war. They were asked to hide two little Jewish girls, whose parents knew the Nazis would come looking for them. Without giving it a second thought, my grandparents took the girls in and the girls' parents hid elsewhere. Soldiers came that night and, according to the concierge, checked the beds to see if they were still warm. Finding no one, they left.
The French have been called cowardly for capitulating in 1940. My grandfather told me he was happy to hear the killing would end, and he would not have to kill anyone. In hiding the girls, he and my grandmother proved they were not cowardly.
A. Collette, Alexandria, VA
Not saved but saving! My Father together with my Mother, his own Father and a friend as well as my sister, brother and myself travelled by road to The Black Forest in the late summer of 1939 having attended in Zurich an International Camp there. We carried back with us the only daughter of a Jewish family could not get permission to leave their own country. I was so young I wanted to join The Hitler Youth: it seemed fun! On our return to Dover (two weeks before War was declared) she stayed as a family member until her elder brother took her to Canada as a refugee. I often wondered what happened to them all.
Anthony Biddle, Birmingham, UK
My mother, Maria Kordupel, was saved by the Polish woman named Anna Mayovska in 1946 during the Operation Visla when many Ukrainian people were killed and exiled from their native territory by Polish Communist Goverment. My mother was 9 years old when Polish Army came to her village Zhukov to take Ukrainian people and send them to Soviet Ukraine. Her family was hiding in near forest. In May 1946 my mother was sent to her family house to get some food and clothes for her family. While she was in the house her neighbour, Anna Mayovska, came and took my mother to her house and ordered to my mom to hide under the feather bed so Polish soldiers would not kill her... Later the Polish Army surrouded the forest and took the Ukrainian families to train station, put them on to cattle box and sent to the Ukrainian border. There my mother family stayed for months in open field and waited for further destination. They were settled in tiny one-room house made out of clay with roof made out of straws together with other two families in Western Ukrainian village. That house was full of lice so my mother swept them with broom. Local people robbed them and mocked at them. Later her parents died from starvation, left my mother and her younger brother who had already tuberculosis of his leg. They could not live there any longer so they moved to Siberia because they did not have a choice. In Siberia my mother did not feel welcome as well... because she had an ukrainian accent. My mother had dreamed to come back to her country for all her life. In 1993 she moved to Western Ukrainian town but there people still mocked at her saying that she is Lemko. Lemko means the Ukrainian minority who were exiled.
All her life she feels as a stranger who lost her home forever.
Oksana Sams, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine
I am a Holocaust survivor. Even though more than 60 years have gone by, it still is very difficult for me to verbalize the events I went through. I was born in France and survived the Holocaust of World War II due to the heroism, sacrifice and kindness of a Christian couple who hid my sister and I.
Suzanne and Henri Ribouleau and their two sons, René and Marcel lived a floor below, in our apartment building, 17 Rue St. Fiacre in Compiegne.
My parents emigrated from Poland to the safety of France (or so they thought). They aimed to escape the ?pogroms?, the hatred of Jewish people and the bleak and restricted life of being Jewish there. They made a good life for themselves in Compiègne, France; a town of about 20,000 people, located 40 miles north of Paris. Our parents owned a clothing shop and lived in the center of town. My sister, Rachel, was born on 1932 and I in 1937. In 1940, I was 3 years old and everything was about to change.
The Allied Forces declared war on Germany. Our father, who was Polish, enlisted in the Polish Detachment under the command of the French Army to fight the Germans. The Germans bombardements destroyed half of the town. My sister remembers our mother in tears watching our small apartment building crumble before our eyes. Our mother who did not have a license and probably had never driven a car managed to drive the three of us to Paris, a two-hour trip in those days, because she thought it would be safe! Soon after the start of the war, France surrendered to the Germans. My father, somehow, found us and we were reunited. France was now occupied. Most people returned to the towns they had fled. Our home was destroyed; our parents found a vacant apartment, which we had to leave when the previous occupants returned. We moved to an apartment located on the top floor (3rd) of ?17 Rue Saint Fiacre?.
This address brings so many incredible memories. We resumed a life of uncertainty and fear under the German occupation. We had no idea what was in store for us.
The relative calm lasted only a few months. The discrimination against Jews began. Jews had to wear a Yellow Star and were no longer allowed to own a business of any kind, thus depriving us of any income. Jews could no longer go to public parks or eat in public places. Jews could no longer go to movie theaters nor could they own a radio, and on and on.
It kept getting worse until that horrible Sunday morning, July 19, 1942. At 5am, two French policemen knocked at the door and asked my parents to accompany them. They did not give any reasons for taking them away and would not let them out of their sight.
My mother was 29 years old. My father was 35. My sister was 9 and I was 4 and half. ?What about our children?? my parents asked hysterically. The cries and questions fell on deaf ears. The policemen had been told by the gestapo to arrest only our parents, and that is what they did. The policemen were too coward to disobey orders or alert our parents that they had been ordered to pick them up. The commotion woke up our neighbors from down below and they came to see what the trouble was.
My father explained that they were being taken to police headquarters and had no time to make arrangements for us, their children. Thinking that my parents would return in a few hours, Monsieur Ribouleau, a kind man who always had a warm hello whenever we saw him said:
?Monsieur et Madame Malmed, do not worry. We will take care of your children until you return?. I have images of my sister and I crying and hanging on to our parents clothes, not wanting to let go of them. Monsieur and Madame Ribouleau kept reassuring my parents not to worry about their children. ?They are in good hands with us,? she said.
Little did we know that was the last time we would ever see our parents again.
So began our new lives as Jewish children hidden by a Christian family a couple which put their lives and the lives of their two sons, René, 20, and Marcel, 17, in danger of death 24 hours a day, for the next three years.
Incredibly, for the next three years, those wonderful people paid the rent of our parents apartment, out of their savings, so our parents would have a place to live when they returned!
There were a few people in the neighborhood befriending the German soldiers and we were in constant fear of being denounced. As the hunt for Jews intensified, people would ask: ?Monsieur et Madame Ribouleau, why are you doing this? Why are you risking your and your sons? lives?? Their answer was always: ?How can we not protect these two children? We promised their parents that we would take care of them until they return?.
In retrospect, the enormity of that task is mind boggling. These well meaning neighbors made an on the spot vow to virtual strangers not only to care for their children but to protect them from harm. There was no time to think of the potential consequences of such a decision. They did not know it at the time. It quickly became apparent that it was a life and death decision for them and their two sons.
In addition to the threat of immediate death for harboring Jews, the family life had to be reorganized. Someone had to stay with me at all times at the beginning. There were not enough bedrooms in the apartment, so René and Marcel had to move out of the bedroom they were sharing and move upstairs to our parents? apartment while we took their rooms. Food supply was a critical problem as it was scarce and rationed. Since my sister and I were not supposed to exist, we did not have a ration card. The small amount of food that was available for four people, now had to be shared by six. We had a small garden but winters were long and nothing grows in winter in that region of France. The toll on all of us, especially on their sons, was terrible. Several times a week, Monsieur Ribouleau would go to the butcher at 4 in the morning, wait in line for 2 to 3 hours and would return home with nothing. There were many evening meals consisting of some bread dipped in milk. After living with!
Monsieur and Madame Ribouleau for a few months, I started to call them Maman and Papa. Although, to this day, I never stopped thinking of my own parents.
During an era of deadly repression, under a monstrous regime, there were rewards for providing information on people hiding Jews of any age. I vividly recall the time when we had minutes to elude the Germans, who probably had been tipped off of our existence and were on their way to our home with their dreaded black trucks. We eventually ended up 5 miles away at papa Henri sister-in-law where we stayed until nightfall. She too was afraid and did not want us to stay overnight. We returned to our apartment that same night; slept in our clothes awaiting for the knock on the door. I am here today.
On the same day, our cousin, Charles Malmed, 4 years old who lived in the same town about 10 minutes away was picked up by the Germans. He was also hidden in a Christian family. He was deported to Auschwitz on January 20th 1944 along with 269 children. They were all gassed on arrival in Auschwitz. His parents had been taken away the same day as our parents.
There were so many instances of such close calls, but somehow we managed to survive.
Before the war there were about 1000 Jews in Compiegne. After the war my sister and I were the only two remaining survivors.
Our parents left the Camp of Drancy on July 29 1942 for Auschwitz in a Convoy of 1000 people. 270 men and 730 women. Upon arrival in Auscwchitz, 270 men and 514 women were sent to slave labor. 216 women were gassed immediately.
The war ended in 1945 after 5 long years. Rachel was 13 and I was 8. With great anticipation, we waited for the return of our parents. We thought they had been imprisoned somewhere in Europe.
It took a long time to accept that we would never see them again.
The torments would not stop there. We soon learned the fate of our parents and family. At that time, I hated being a Jew, and that feeling lasted for many years. Adding to the trauma of having lost our parents and having lived 3 years in constant fear, a surviving aunt and uncle, brother and sister of our parents, found us and requested that we go and live with them. My sister and I refused to do so as we did not know these people. In those days, communication and travel was not what it is today.
After months of legal battles, a judge, without asking us with whom we wanted to live, decided our fate and ordered my sister and I to go and live with aunt and uncle, total strangers to us. They resided in a town one hour away, called St Quentin. In St. Quentin I had a horrible time and cried myself to sleep every night. I wanted nothing to do with these people. I had come to love the Ribouleau family that had sheltered my sister and me for 3 years. The family that had saved our lives starved for us and most importantly given us unconditional love. I wanted to run back to the only parents I had ever known, the Ribouleau family. By then, I hardly remembered my biological parents.
On the other hand, my sister, reluctantly, accepted her fate. After two years of unhappiness, my uncle and aunt decided to send my sister to an aunt in America. I was 10 years old. What was going to happen to me?
Once again, I was separated from my sister whom I loved. She had become a mother to me. Once again, I had no say in my own life.
I accompanied my sister to the train station on a cold December day in 1949. I did not know then that it would be 14 years before we would see each other again. How many times could I be torn away from familiarity? How many times could I be expected to adapt to new circumstances? In seven years, I had been taken unexpectedly from the stability of loving parents into a life with total strangers, our neighbors, whom I grew to love, only to be taken by an uncle and aunt who were also total strangers to me. Sadly, I never did develop love for the aunt and uncle. And once again I was to be separated from my beloved sister.
At that time, I had made up my mind. I was mad at the whole world. The days of being chaperoned by anyone were gone. The days of counting on someone else to make decisions for me were gone. I needed to take my future into my own hands. I decided that I would return, no matter what, to the only family I loved and felt loved by. After months of acrimonious disputes with my uncle and aunt and threats of being sent to an orphanage, they let me go back to Compiègne with the Ribouleau family. I was 12.
Three miserable years had passed since I had left. Marcel and Rene had married and left home. Finally, I was at peace.
The last three troubled years had taught me a valuable lesson. I had succeeded on my own to change the course of my life and I felt that I could accomplish anything from hereon.
At the age of 18, my sister married a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn. They have two daughters and four grandchildren.
I was married in France at the age of 26.
Over the 14 years, I never lost touch with my sister. We wrote to each other once a month. Since the telephone was neither in our budget nor in our home, for 14 years we did not hear each others voices. In 1963, I received a wonderful letter saying that Izzy, her husband, was making reservations for him and my sister to come to France. Wahoo. All the emotions that had been buried for so long surfaced.
My sister and her husband, Izzy came to France and it was a joyous reunion. I remembered my sister leaving France at the age of 16, poorly dressed and now, married to a ?Rich American? (in Europe, we assumed that all Americans were rich, very well dressed and looking wonderful. My brother-in-law had been wanting for many years to reunite us and not only in France. He convinced my wife and I to immigrate to America. When they returned, they worked in earnest to get us the Immigration visas. Seven months later, in February of 1964, my pregnant wife, our 18 month old son and I, with a few hundred dollars in our pocket came down the passageway of the SS France in New York harbor.
I have three children and three grandchildren.
After immigrating to the US, I wrote to papa and maman Ribouleau every week. I visited with them at least once a year and my sister and I brought them to the States twice. Papa died about 10 years ago at the age of 84 and maman died in 2003 at the age of 98. My wife Patricia and I were with her during her last moments. Marcel and Rene passed away, as well, a number of years back.
One of the reasons I tell the account of that period of my life is mostly to keep these wonderful people alive and for the World to know that such people do exist. I want the World to know that out of this tragedy, out of evil, came tremendous courage and goodness from many people who were never brought up to become heroes.
This is evident when you visit the Avenue of the Righteous at the Jerusalem Holocaust Yad Vashem Memorial. In 1979, my sister and I had them awarded the Righteous Status, the highest Honor given by Israel to a non Jew. A wonderful ceremony, in Jerusalem, attended by the French Ambassador to Israel and the Israeli Ambassador to France was held at the Yad Vashem Institute. They received the Medal of the Justes, in English, the Medal of the Righteous for their heroism and extraordinary courage.
According to Jewish traditions, if you save one life, it is as if you have saved a Nation.
As long as we live, we will never forget these heroes Henri, Suzanne, René and Marcel Ribouleau who saved us from certain death.
The proper attitude towards the Holocaust can be best summed up with the phrase: ?NEVER FORGET?.
The World, not only Jews, must never forget. If the World remembers, then it may not happen again.
Even now, when there are still leaving Survivors, some people deny the Holocaust.
What happens when the last Survivor dies?
Leon Malmed, Plesanton, California, USA