The village is named Prelenfrey-du-Gua. It is a dozen winding uphill miles from Grenoble, in the Vercors Mountains. Although today it takes only thirty or forty minutes by car from Grenoble, during the thirties and forties, when not everyone had a car, and it was served by a little bus, it seemed worlds away from Grenoble, and in fact, from anywhere. My father called it the village at the end of the world. As it turned out, escaping Grenoble and arriving at the village meant the difference between life and death to many Jews during the German occupation of World War II. But this was a secret which was not uncovered until forty years after the war was over, and it was my father who uncovered it. Through his research he revealed the life-risking courage of the villagers who hid Jews in their homes during the war. As a result, the village was awarded the Medal of the Righteous from Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and the village’s leading family who masterminded the plot to save the Jews were given individual medals and had their names inscribed in the wall of the holocaust museum in Jerusalem and the holocaust museum in Washington.
How did my father happen to come upon this story? Well, it goes back to the 1930’s when he and his mother settled in Grenoble, having emigrated from Germany to get away from Hitler, little knowing that he would follow them. His mother was fearful that he might contract tuberculosis because his father had died of it, and it was a rather common scourge in those days. Luckily they lived at the foot of the pre-Alps where there were sanatoriums and preventoriums, places where people went to “take the air” and strengthen their lungs. A “preventorium” was an observation sanatorium, intended to “prevent” serious illness. The doctor they consulted recommended that my father, then 13, spend the summer at a friendly, family-run preventorium in Prelenfrey, a kind of summer camp with lots of other kids, where he could run around in the fresh mountain air. He returned on school vacations over the next six years, and had wonderful memories of those summers, and the friendliness of the large, extended family that ran the village and the Preventorium, (which they called the “Prevent”) which was the village’s main industry. He says they were a clan, all working together. If, when you arrived, there was no room for you in the Preventorium itself, not to worry, there was always a spare bed in the home of Oncle Auguste, or some other family member.
It was this tradition of hospitality that led them to take in and shelter the desperate Jews who were to show up on their doorsteps only a few years later. By then, my father was gone, having escaped from France clandestinely, and having joined the Free French Army under General de Gaulle. Because he was away fighting during the entire war, he knew nothing about what was going on in Prelenfrey. Nor did he give the village any thought afterwards. After the war, everything was different. His mother had been taken away and murdered at Auschwitz; he had married my mother in Palestine during the
war; he had to start making a living and supporting a family. And in 1948, facing food and housing shortages in France, my parents, with 13-month-old me, made a grand move to California, an adopted homeland that treated them well and where they adjusted happily. We were a bilingual, bicultural family, but we were Americans foremost and became naturalized American citizens at the first opportunity.
Skip ahead 34 years, to 1982. My father, now retired, decides that on a trip to France it would be interesting to go back to the village of his teen-age summers and see how it is today. He and my mother make the trip. The first time they tried to take the little winding road from Grenoble, it was so foggy that they had to turn back. They tried again the next day and arrived at the village. The son of the village leaders of that time, Georges Guidi, known as Jo and today 80 years old, recounted to me what happened when my parents arrived. He was upstairs and had just woken from his nap. The housekeeper answered the knock at the door. He heard through the open window someone ask after each member of the family. To each query, the housekeeper answered, “mort,” dead. Finally my father came to Jo Guidi. “Ah, he is upstairs having his ‘sieste.’” At this point Jo said to himself; this is some one who knows the whole family. I must go see who it is.” He came to the front door, and my father said to him (in French of course) “Guess who I am.” Jo answered: “You must be David Klugman.” There was no doubt, he said; no one else had such erect posture and bearing.
During the course of an afternoon’s visit with Jo my father asked him what had happened in the village during the war and occupation. And so the story of the village’s role in hiding and protecting the Jews came out. My father was fairly well amazed, and filed the story in the back of his mind. He was working on other projects at the time and gave it no more thought then. But he says the story must have been working in his subconscious, because a full ten years later, it hit him what an important story it was, and that it needed to be told, and it looked like he was the person to tell it.
That story was that Jo’s parents, Andre and Helene Guidi, used the Peventorium to hide Jewish children and gave them false identities. They also found homes for adults and some of the older children in the surrounding farms. Altogether they were responsible for saving 51 Jews, 20 of them children. I calculate that this comes to one Jew saved for every four villagers. The elder Guidis orchestrated this conspiracy of silence.
The village may have been “at the end of the world,” but the Germans found it. By pre-arrangement with the postmistress in Grenoble, on the day the Germans were to invade Prelenfrey she gave a very brief signal, which was all she could do, but it was enough. By plan the children were sent higher in the mountains to hide in a shepherd’s hut. They were told not to come down until they saw sheets hanging on the line in the village. They had performed this drill numerous times when they received false alarms, but this was the real thing. Daniel Szydlo, today a retired doctor in Paris, was one of the leaders of the children. He and many of the others involved gave my father notarized testimony of the events from which my father wrote a book about the events, The Conspiracy of the Righteous (Nimes: Lacour, 1994).
On July 22, 1944, 300 Germans marched into the village (whose population was only 200) and announced that by 10:00 a.m. they wanted all the men between the ages of 16 and 60 lined up against the school wall, which was along the main road. Jo showed me the wall which was directly opposite his house. It was well known that this part of the mountains was a center of resistance. At the appointed time 32 men lined up, while the Germans shouldered their machine guns to shoot them. Suddenly a 19-year-old nurse from the Preventorium came out and shouted at them to stop. These were not resisters she said; they were simple peasants who knew nothing. Besides she needed some strong men to push a wheelbarrow of supplies up the hill to the Preventorium. Astonished, the soldiers lowered their guns, and after consulting among themselves, decided to take all the men to Gestapo headquarters in Grenoble for questioning. Jo told me that once there he was selected at random to lower his pants and show whether he was circumcised, which he was not. “I had a Jew in front of me and a Jew behind me, he says, and by some stroke of luck, they chose me. I had a beard, so maybe they thought I looked Jewish.” The men were all questioned and asked to tell where the Jews were. Not one single one broke down; not a one said they knew anything about any Jews. The men were kept in jail for four days, and then told to all “get out of here.”
With the exception of Jo’s mother and one other family, who were Protestant, the rest of the village was Catholic, some practicing, some not. None of the villagers had ever met any Jews before or had much idea what a Jew was. But they had an innate sense of what was right. They didn’t like oppression whether it was against Jews or anyone else. My father always felt that the story wasn’t about Jews; it was about justice and what was right. He long wondered why the village had acted as they had. He concluded that they had a sense of moral right and wrong and a dislike for authority, as well as a hospitable tradition.
Interestingly, once the war was over, and the Jews had gone, no one ever talked about these events not even among themselves. Most of the Jews had no further contact with the village. The nurse, Anne O________, never even told her own children about the events or her part in them. It was not until my father began his research and tracked down the participants all over the world, that they began to speak in effusive terms of the courage shown by the Guidi family and the rest of the village.
My father worked hard to bring the village’s story to the attention of the authorities in Israel, and as a result the medal was given to the village in a big ceremony held fifty years to the day from the events at the school wall, on July 22, 1994. As part of the program of the day, a conference was held in which witness after witness testified about the events of fifty years before, breaking a 50-year silence at last. Afterwards a huge party was held, attended by a representative of the Israeli Embassy and many French dignitaries; bands played, flags waved. Prelenfrey finally received the recognition it deserved.
The Preventorium had been closed in the sixties due to advances in the field of medicine. Doctors began treating tuberculosis with drugs, Jo told me. Today, the building is sadly run down. My father had wanted the village to consider reopening it as a conference center, hotel, or school but nothing came of the idea. He cared very much about the village, and they knew it He maintained his relationship with the village and the individuals in it and continued to visit occasionally until his death. When he died, the villagers wanted to commemorate him in some way, so they hit upon the idea of the plaque. The plaque lists his military medals, as well as his work for Prelenfrey and mentions that he was once a patient of the Preventorium (“ancien du Prevent”). They put it right next to the plaque they had received for their courage during the Holocaust.
I think a word about Jo Guidi will illustrate the independent spirit of these mountain people. Jo is a free-thinking, iconoclastic old man. An atheist and leftist, who believes that the least government is the best government, he refuses to set foot in the village church which is right next to his house. His sense of rightness says that a nonbeliever should not step on a site which is holy to another. However, in a funny twist, when the cross on a pedestal which sits in the center of town was knocked over by a speeding motorist, he and his non-believing Protestant friend fought for years to have the government replace it. “We, the atheists, fought the hardest for that cross,” he said, “because it was part of the patrimony of the village.” Now this is some one who, clearly, thinks for himself.
It seems that some things never change. When I first arrived in Grenoble by train from Paris and got in the taxi line, the taxi ahead of me refused the party in front of me and took me instead. Curious, I asked him why he had refused the other party. “Oh,” he answered, “they were going to a place in the mountains that treats the lungs, and I didn’t have time to take them there. I have an appointment, but I have time to take you because your hotel is not far.” He couldn’t have known how amazed I was by his response – I had just arrived, and my father’s story was already coming to life.
And Prelenfrey continues its tradition of hospitality. When I visited, Jo sent one of his friends to pick me up at my Grenoble hotel, and I spent the whole day with a group of them, talking (I was grateful I had been made to learn French as a child), touring the area, and of course eating the fine food prepared for the occasion. It was an extraordinary opportunity to get in touch with both the early and the late parts of my father’s life, and helped me put him to rest .
Dina Cramer was born in France in 1947 and has lived in the United States since 1948. She was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and now lives in the Los Angeles area where she is Head of the Reference Department at the El Segundo Public Library. On the same trip during which she visited Prelenfrey-du-Gua, she also, for the first time, visited the small town where she was born. By a sleuthing process and without the address, she found the house her family lived in at the time and wrote an article about it, which appeared in the Daily Breeze newspaper. She loves everything French and thinks that the current Franco-American tension is silly and mostly a media creation.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.