WWII survivors reunite with woman who saved them

Jewish Tribune – Oct. 23, 2008


By Shlomit Kriger

Jeannette Kalisz still shakes from excitement when she speaks to Raymonde Piédallu, the Catholic woman who saved her life and that of her sister, Henriette Gabay, during World War II.

This past August, the Paris-born sisters reunited with Raymonde, now 94, in her home in Saint-Jean-Froidmentel, a village in the Loir-et-Cher department in north-central France.

“She was like a mother to us,” said Jeannette, sitting at the kitchen table of her Thornhill, Ont. home and wiping tears off her face as she shared the story of their survival. “You could say she gave her life for us.”

In the midst of the war in 1942, afraid for their lives, Madeleine, the Polish mother of then 10-year-old Jeannette and one-year-old Henriette, made arrangements for the sisters to stay with another family through a Jewish organization in France aimed at rescuing local children.

Madeleine had just finished breastfeeding Henriette when Raymonde arrived to pick them up at the train station. Raymonde took the yellow Jewish stars used so Nazis could identify them off their clothes and led them aboard the train en route to Saint-Jean-Froidmentel.

Raymonde’s husband had gone off to war, leaving her behind with their three-year-old son and six-month-old daughter. Her house was small, with only one bedroom for all the children.

“Raymonde treated Jeannette and Henriette like they were her own children,” said Rosine Kalisz-Tanenbaum, the eldest of Jeannette’s three children, as she sat beside her mother at her kitchen table.

Jeannette helped Raymonde with some of the house chores each morning, including feeding the chickens, before she went off to school.

Just two doors down from Raymonde’s home was a Nazi headquarters. Nazi officers came to her house twice and questioned her, while Jeannette was in school and Henriette was home. Raymonde did not reveal any information about the girls.

“I was scared for our lives,” said Jeannette. “I was scared someone would say something about us.”

Everyone in the area knew they were Jewish, but no one made mention of it.

When the war ended in 1945, Madeleine came back to pick up the girls, and they didn’t see Raymonde again.

Years later, after having gotten married and raising their children, the sisters and their families went their separate ways – Henriette to Israel and Jeannette to Canada.

A year ago, during a trip to a wedding in Paris, Henriette, also a mother of three, decided to look up the name Piédallu in the French archives. She then went to Raymonde’s house to take photos so she could show them to her grandchildren.

Upon her arrival, she saw a neighbour standing outside the house and asked who lived there. The neighbour said Raymonde.

“I stood there in shock for a few moments, because I didn’t think she was still alive,” said Henriette.

She knocked on the door, and Raymonde answered.

“Don’t you recognize me?” asked Henriette.

It was the phrase that Henriette remembered saying to Raymonde as a child before they scurried to join the others in the bomb shelter – “Mother, the planes, my slippers!” – that helped her to understand who she was. They both embraced and cried.

When Henriette returned to visit Raymonde this past August, along with her daughter Nathalie, Jeannette, and Rosine, there was a big celebration at the house, and the local media covered the reunion.

Today, Raymonde remains independent. She has lived alone since her husband passed away 20 years ago, but her daughter lives nearby and often visits.

“Raymonde is still sharp and has a good sense of humour,” said Henriette in a recent interview from Israel. “She is an amazing woman.”

The family was surprised to find an old photo of Jeannette posing with a ribbon in her hair by Raymonde’s bed.

“You hear about these stories,” said Rosine, “but when you’ve been there and lived it and seen it, it’s amazing.”

In the near future, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority (Israel’s national Holocaust memorial), will grant Raymonde a medal and a certificate of honour. Her name will be engraved on stone alongside the other Righteous Among the Nations on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem.

She will also receive something from the French government.

“Raymonde doesn’t understand all the efforts we’re making to honour her,” said Henriette. “She says caring for us was something she did during the war because the situation presented itself, and she didn’t ask for thanks or anything.”

“Raymonde loved children and would do anything to protect them,” added Rosine. “She said if she could do it over again she would.”