Surviving the Holocaust
By Cash W. Lambert / News Editor
April 16, 2012
Life changed instantly for Yvonne Fersen on the day her father had to kill her dog in their efforts to escape the approaching German army. The year was 1941. The place was Paris, France. If their escape failed, the Fersens would be among the 4.5 million Jews, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, who would be thrown into concentration camps across Europe.
"I was 12 years old and sitting inside our car as my parents were packing it," said Yvonne, who will celebrate her 83rd birthday in May. She continued, "my father, Maurice, had to take our dog, a big dog, around the back of the house and shoot him, because we couldn't take him with us and everyone was leaving town. From that day on, nothing was normal. The last image that I saw of a normal life was my wonderful dog lying dead in a pool of blood."
Seventy-one years later, Yvonne resides in Palm Beach, a city where one in five people are Jewish. She still cannot grasp the enormity of the genocide that took place before the Nazis were defeated in 1945. By that year, two out of every three European Jews had been killed, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Nicknamed "The Hidden Children," Yvonne and her generation will be celebrated and will tell their stories of survival during the annual National Holocaust Day on April 19.
Describing the massive flight of Jews from Paris, Yvonne said they moved quickly to the southern part of France where they took shelter in Toulouse, the fourth largest city in France. "Everyone looked terrible," she said. "No one had washed or rested for quite a long time. Some walked, some used bicycles, even wheelbarrows." Even though they had a car, Yvonne's family had to abandon it when it ran out of gasoline. The Germans had overtaken France's resources, including its oil, to fuel the tanks of Nazi vehicles.
Children were the least likely to survive the rigors of concentration camps—1.5 million children are said to have died in gas chambers soon after arriving in the camps, according to several holocaust memorial documentations. For that reason, their parents sought to avoid capture by the dreaded Gestapo, the German secret police, by sending Yvonne and her younger sister Renee to a Catholic convent, which housed orphans. The Fersen family, Yvonne's maiden name, was separated and it wasn't known if they would see each other again. "Our names were changed at the convent,' she said. "Our parents were gone; our lifestyle was completely different."
Day after day Yvonne and Renee were baptized into a different belief system, immersing themselves in the Catholic ways of mass, vespers, and confession.
The head of the convent two years later allowed Yvonne and her sister to take a train ride back home to secretly reunite with their parents for a few days, with their parents who fled back to Toulouse.
Sleeping upstairs the next night, Yvonne recalled being awoken the wailing voice of her grandmother. After running downstairs to calm her, Yvonne learned that her parents had just been arrested by the Gestapo, and were being held in town. Grabbing clothes, she ran into town where she saw her parents inside a locked gate on a truck surrounded by a terrified, screaming crowd. Walking closer, she saw her mother motioning her to stay back.
"I didn't know what to do," Campbell said. "And then I heard the motor of the truck start, and the truck was gone. They were gone."
Digging his own grave
Yvonne later learned that her father had been taken to Drancy, a concentration camp in Paris that held Jews until they were sent to other death camps. He was later sent to the Auschwitz death camp, a symbol of unimaginable terror during the Nazi Holocaust. The death toll by the end of the war is estimated to be around 1.5 million solely at Auschwitz, according to a holocaust and genocide study taken by the University of Minnesota.
Jews and other ethnic groups such as gypsies and those from Poland were transported by a crowded cattle car into the camps, where each person would be selected to live or die. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, those who seemed fit for labor would be tattooed on their wrists and sent to the barracks. Anyone who was unfit to work would immediately be sent to the gas chambers, including the elderly and pregnant.
Yvonne told of Maurice's life in the barracks, where most men died of exposure or starvation. He was assigned to a group of prisoners who dug trenches that would later serve as their graves. She recalled her father's story of a German guard who flicked a cigarette butt into the trench Maurice was digging. A smoker himself, he quickly grabbed the cigarette and inhaled once. Looking up at the German guard, he said, "Now you will shoot me."
"You're not worth the bullet," the guard sneered. "You'll be dying anyway."
But that was not to be, at least not at Auschwitz. Months later as he walked out of his barracks one morning, he looked up at the watchtower, which was normally occupied by an armed guard. It, however, stood empty. Suddenly the gates of the camp swung open and a Jeep driven by an American soldier smashed inside and screeched to a halt in front Maurice. Just moments before, he had faced certain death. Now he faced life.
Wiping away tears, Yvonne said, "This is the moment when my father said that he had met his Messiah."
Dragged on the death march
Annette, who had been separated from her husband and children, was also sent to Auschwitz. The women's heads were shaved and they were given prison garb. Not only did Annette perform slave labor, but she was also among those who were forced to undergo guinea pig- like experimentation by Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor who was nicknamed the "Angel of Death," according to the United States Holocaust Museum.
As allied forces began liberating concentration camps throughout France, the Nazis moved their prisoners by forcing them to walk hundreds of miles to neighboring camps. Facing a harsh winter climate and given little food, hundreds of the prisoners died on the way either from sickness or exhaustion or being executed if they dropped behind. Yvonne said her mother would walk side by side with other women in groups of three, helping the middle person to walk.
When her camp was later liberated by allied forces and she was asked to board a truck that would take her to a rehabilitation center in Sweden, Annette was reluctant to do so. "My mother said that she didn't want to go at first," said Yvonne, "because the last time she got on a truck she was sent to a concentration camp." After eventually changing her mind, however, she was shipped to Sweden.
The Family Reunion
With their mother hundreds of miles away and lost in the vastness of war-ravaged Europe, Yvonne and Renee knew no other life outside the Catholic convent with its studies and hard work. Morning prayers were more often discussed than was news concerning the Allied and Axis powers. In fact, it wasn't until her father came for her and her sister that Yvonne would for the first time learn of the Nazi genocide. She vividly recalls the morning she and her sister were both called into the office of the head master who told them that their father was there to pick them up. At last they were to be going home.
Recalling that reunion, Yvonne said, "That's when I saw a dark figure out of the corner of my eye. It was not a man; it was a skeleton with eyes bulging and no hair. I was certain it was not my father." Then the shadowy skeleton spoke. "Yvonne, Renee," it called. Maurice then collapsed sobbing.
On the train ride back to their empty house in Toulouse, "nothing was said," Yvonne remembers. "There are moments in life that are so enormously strange, that you completely withdraw and you don't know what to ask or say."
With no word of their mother's fate, their father told them not to expect her to have survived the holocaust. Then another miracle occurred.
"We had a radio," Yvonne said. "And would hear announcements for displaced people trying to reach their families. One night, we heard my mother's name, and thought it was a coincidence. The following night, we heard her name again. She was alive and in Sweden. She traveled back to Paris, where Maurice met her. "I can still see myself standing there, with my family again," said Yvonne. "We had all changed, and gone on a terrible journey separately. We just tried to find a balance again after that."
Immigrating to Freedom
Years later, Yvonne met her uncle, who came from America to see the family. He told of its prosperity and freedom, where no one was harassed by the police or asked for documentation on a regular basis. On the Queen Mary, her uncle befriended a man named James Schultz, who had made the transatlantic route from England to New York. After meeting, Yvonne gave Schultz a tour of Paris. Three months later they were married, and headed for America.
After many days at sea on the Queen Mary, Yvonne recalls the moment she saw passengers running to one side of the boat. Out of curiosity, she followed them to the deck and found out why. Her eyes were suddenly filled with the Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline.
"I finally understood why people kiss the ground when they get to America," she said.
Keeping History Alive
Fast forwarding through 60 years, a second husband, two children, three grandchildren, a language, last name and a geographic change, Yvonne Campbell was living in Palm Beach. She moved to Florida because her second husband wanted to play golf after retirement. When he later was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, "for seven years I took care of him," said Yvonne. "I never wanted to be separated from him."
After his death five years ago, she turned her focus on writing a memoir and teaching at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach. Her memoir titled "My First Violin," chronicles her journey through the holocaust. Yvonne drew the title from a moment, more than 70 years before, when Maurice called her "his first violin. He told me that I was his concert master, because everyone in the orchestra must tune to the violin first. He felt that I had the ability to rise above hardships and find solutions." Yvonne shared her contagious philosophy that had helped her through countless trials and tribulations. "If you have the capacity of never giving up, you have the capacity to overcome hardship," she said. "You just can't give up."
As National Holocaust Remembrance day approaches, Yvonne emphasized its importance. "I'm a bit afraid that some of this history may disappear in time," she said. "To us, 'the hidden children,' it means a lot because we are the last generation who can say we've been there. It needs to be remembered." But what concerns Yvonne is culture's habit of allowing the past to fade and be relegated to a textbook. "Its nice to write books about the holocaust," she said, " but a book is on a shelf and if no one picks it up, it sits there unread and forgotten."