Israel honors Sacramento woman for wartime rescues

She knew of a deserted, isolated house on the outskirts of town. Pack your things, she told the trio. She would return with her brother and the pair would accompany the family to the hiding place.

Because of Forgeur-Hankart's efforts, the three survived the war. So did three other Jews Forgeur-Hankart took under her wing.

For saving the otherwise ill-fated Jews, Forgeur-Hankart received the prestigious "Righteous Among Nations" medal at a mid-December ceremony in San Francisco. Israeli Consul-General Daniel Shek conferred the honor on behalf of Israel's national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Established by the Israeli parliament, the honor is considered the highest that can be bestowed upon a non- Israeli citizen. Only a handful of Northern Californians have received the title.

At the ceremony, Forgeur-Hankart, a 75-year-old Sacramento resident, received a plaque inscribed with a phrase from the Talmud: "He who saves one life is as though he has saved the entire world."

Surrounded by family and friends and overcome by emotion, the retired nurse was unable to speak. "I didn't think I was a hero because I saved people," she said later. "To me, there is no choice."

Forgeur-Hankart's journey began when she and her brother, a Catholic priest, shuttled Aaron Finkelstein, his sister and niece to the house that would become their temporary home. They walked along narrow and deserted streets, where German soldiers, fearful of Resistance fighters, rarely ventured.

Forgeur-Hankart helped the trio get settled in the house and told them not to reveal themselves until she had obtained false identification cards. She did so through the Belgian police, who worked closely with the Belgian underground.

The police "didn't cooperate with the Germans," Forgeur-Hankart said. "Everyone hated the Germans in Belgium. They raped our country and took our food."

Since identification cards that looked new could arouse suspicion, Forgeur-Hankart put the papers in her shoes and walked around until the documents appeared worn. Hiding Jews, she learned, took a certain amount of imagination.

It also took bravery — though Forgeur-Hankart doesn't see it that way.

When Jews failed to surrender for deportation, the Germans figured people were hiding them. They plastered the town with posters, some on Forgeur-Hankart's street, warning that those hiding Jews would be punished with death.

"No one came forward or denounced anyone," Forgeur-Hankart said.

Despite the threat to her life, hiding Jews was, in Forgeur-Hankart's eyes, not a curse, but a blessing. "It was pure chance that I met Mr. Finkelstein in the street, pure wonderful chance," she said.

Forgeur-Hankart was also responsible for hiding her friend Lily Zandberg, whom she met in nursing school in Brussels. The pair bumped into each other at a train station during the war and Zandberg expressed fear at having an identification card stamped "Juden" for Jew.

Forgeur-Hankart took her friend home with her and Zandberg stayed there for the duration of the war. Forgeur-Hankart said her parents did not hesitate to take the young woman in.

"They were humans, too," Forgeur-Hankart said. "They liked Lily. She was the daughter of the house, too." Zandberg, who kept in touch with Forgeur-Hankart, died last year.

Forgeur-Hankart also found shelter for Zandberg's parents, who joined the others in the isolated house. There, a rug covered a trap door where residents could flee if the Gestapo came. They never did.

Forgeur-Hankart, who was raised Catholic and later became a Baha'i, maintained close contact with the residents of the house throughout the war. "I was close to them," she said. "I learned a lot of things from them."

She immigrated to this country in 1960, settling in Sacramento with husband Serge and two daughters. She finds herself thinking of the war often.

"I don't dwell on it all the time, but when I hear a bunch of planes flying over the house, I shiver," she said.

Last month's ceremony and the attention it brought to Forgeur-Hankart has also sparked many memories. "I was overwhelmed," she said of the honor. "I didn't feel I deserved such a thing."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.