Child survivors of Nazi terror testify trial of Papon

PARIS — Testimony in the trial of Maurice Papon has shifted from a historical review of Nazi-occupied France to personal accounts of suffering during the Holocaust.

For several days last week, the courtroom in the southwestern French city of Bordeaux was absorbed by emotional accounts of children snatched from their mothers' arms, of others spending months hiding in an attic or waiting in vain for the return of loved ones.

Among the latest witnesses — the children of Jews deported from Bordeaux — was Georges Gheldmann, who recounted how he returned from school one day in July 1942 and found a hurried note from his mother reading, "My dear, I'm at the police station. Come and join me quickly."

The 10-year-old spent the night in prison with his mother, Berthe, and a dozen other Jews who had been arrested by French police.

"The next morning we left the prison. I was released and shooed away. That's the last time I saw my mother," said Gheldmann, the first direct witness to the crimes for which Papon stands accused.

Papon, 87, is charged with ordering the arrest for deportation of 1,560 Jews from 1942 to 1944, when he was the second-highest-ranking official of the Bordeaux region. He has repeatedly denied the charges, claiming he used his position to work for the resistance and save Jews.

The ongoing trial of the accused Nazi accomplice, which has been postponed several times because of his poor health, was once again halted Wednesday of last week. It's scheduled to resume on Monday.

In the recent testimony, Eliane Dommange, 63, remembered the evening of July 15, 1942, when her family was having a last quick meal at home before fleeing Bordeaux for the free French zone.

There was a knock on the door.

"We thought it was our guide, but it was the French police," she said, nervously tapping on the microphone.

Along with her parents and two brothers aged 10 and 4, Dommange, who was then 8, was taken to the notorious, centuries-old Fort du Ha prison. After two days, the Dommange children, like Georges Gheldmann, were released and taken in by their grandparents.

At the time, the Nazi occupiers were demanding only the roundup of Jews between 16 and 45.

Like Berthe Gheldmann, Dommange's parents were sent to the Drancy detainment camp outside Paris on July 18, 1942. The following day, they were sent to Auschwitz.

Dommange recalled waiting after the liberation for her parents to return home. She then said, fighting back tears, "I want to tell Mr. Papon that he took the lives of my parents, and he took a part of my life."

Papon listened attentively from inside his bulletproof glass box. When Dommange had concluded, he said in a grainy voice: "With all the humility that is proper, and without underestimating the emotion that can only be felt, I see the illustration of a symbol, the illustration of a scapegoat who is in the dock."

His wartime conduct unknown or ignored, Papon enjoyed an illustrious postwar career — as Paris police chief from 1958 to 1967 and as budget minister from 1978 to 1981 — until a newspaper published documents linking him to the deportation of Jews.

The trial, taking place after 16 years of legal procedures repeatedly obstructed by senior French officials, focused in recent days on the first of 10 transports of Jews that Papon is accused of having ordered.

The proceedings, expected to run through March, are due next week to begin examining how the children left behind were taken out of hiding, allegedly on Papon's demand, and deported in a new wave of transports.

Wartime documents examined by the court suggest that Papon behaved with unwarranted zeal in carrying out the Nazi deportation orders, even when his superior, Bordeaux Prefect Maurice Sabatier, told him to stall for time.

The papers included a list of measures he had drawn up, including his instructions to French police to barricade train stations and main arteries to avoid a mass exodus of Jews once the roundups began. They also explained what to do with the children left behind when their parents were deported.

Perhaps the most disturbing testimony so far came from Esther Fogiel, a slim 63-year-old woman with the voice of a young girl.

"My parents planned to flee to the free zone. One Saturday, my mother picked me up at school and took me to the home of a young couple. She looked at me with a sad smile — it's something that struck me.

"The next day, I left with a woman who worked on the black market," Fogiel said, clenching a white handkerchief. She was 8 at the time.

"After three days, the people with whom I was staying became brutal. They must have learned that my parents were sent away and felt cheated financially. They started to mistreat me, and I was raped shortly after my arrival," she continued.

Unaware at the time that her parents, grandmother and little brother had been deported to Auschwitz, Fogiel thought they had abandoned her and attempted suicide. After repeated episodes of sexual abuse, she was able to leave that household when the war ended. The couple she had stayed with was arrested and imprisoned.

A photograph of her parents, taken by French police the day of their arrest, was projected in the courtroom.

Her father, who had served in the French army during France's brief war with Germany in 1939 and 1940, stared proudly at the camera, wearing his uniform.

"I often think of those close to me who died in distress, in absolute solitude," Fogiel said. "I keep reliving that trip to Auschwitz."