Joseph Weismann’s story is remembered for Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) 2020.
Joseph Weismann – After the Roundup
On the nights of July 16 and 17, 1942, French police rounded up eleven-year-old Joseph Weismann, his family, and 13,000 other Jews. After being held for five days in appalling conditions in the Velodrome d’Hiver stadium, Joseph and his family were transported by cattle car to the Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp and brutally separated: all the adults and most of the children were transported on to Auschwitz and certain death, but 1,000 children were left behind to wait for a later train.
The French guards told the children left behind that they would soon be reunited with their parents, but Joseph and his new friend, Joe Kogan, chose to risk everything in a daring escape attempt. After eluding the guards and crawling under razor-sharp barbed wire, Joseph found freedom. But how would he survive the rest of the war in Nazi-occupied France and build a life for himself? His problems had just begun.
Until he was 80, Joseph Weismann kept his story to himself, giving only the slightest hints of it to his wife and three children. Simone Veil, lawyer, politician, President of the European Parliament, and member of the Constitutional Council of France–herself a survivor of Auschwitz–urged him to tell his story. In the original French version of this book and in Roselyne Bosch’s 2010 film La Rafle, Joseph shares his compelling and terrifying story of the Roundup of the Val’ d’Hiv and his escape. Now, for the first time in English, Joseph tells the rest of his dramatic story in After the Roundup.
AFTER THE ROUNDUP – Joseph Weismann and Separation
Not all the German soldiers are wearing pants with red bands. Only three or four, from what I can see. It’s almost nighttime now. We still haven’t had anything to eat or drink the entire day, and they’re continuing their endless discussion at the entrance to the camp as if we don’t exist. That’s the reality: we don’t exist for them, or at least not anymore. They were concerned with us only the time it took to gather us together and decide to deport us. The train is waiting in the Beaune-la-Rolande station, and as soon as the locomotive sets off, transporting us somewhere far away, they’ll forget that we were here among them, as alive as they were, with beating hearts, eyes to see them, and brains to wonder at their cruelty.
Suddenly the officers separate and spread out in front of the women and children. Soldiers are standing across from us with their huge dogs. Their superiors give them orders that I can’t understand. The calm that existed up to now disappears in an instant. We were mute, discouraged, dumbfounded, and totally exhausted. Now everyone begins to shout, and the tormentors’ bellowing combines with the victims’ screams.
A woman shrieks at the top of her lungs—but for whom? “The children! They’re taking our children away from us!”
Instinctively I try to move backward toward the center of the group, but it’s impossible. There are too many of us, and we’re all panicking uncontrollably, like an ant colony that someone has thrown a pebble into. A sharp cry emerges from the throats of mothers who have had a son or daughter torn away from them. Children struggle with all the strength left in their skinny limbs, whirling uselessly in the air as soldiers lift them up and throw them on the ground a few meters away.
The officers’ eyes sweep over the families. Eeny meeny miny mo, they choose their victims randomly: “You, you, you!”
The children are snatched up and put off to one side. I don’t know where to look. On every face I see a look of enormous distress that upsets me even more. On none is there any sign of encouragement, of consolation, the certainty that no, I’m not going to be selected, not me. The men try to fight back, too, with their bodies and their voices, but they receive blows in their ribs and on their heads. They’re completely helpless. So, the adults are no longer in control of anything. I tremble like a leaf at the thought of being taken away from Mama. Where are my sisters? I look for them but can’t find them. I guess that means that they’re leaving, too. Like my father, I suppose. I grab onto Mama. She’s my last defense against the hatred for Jews exploding around me, which I’m absorbing with ever-increasing awareness. She’s everything to me. It’s because of her that I’m still able to stand, that I’m still breathing, that soup still nourishes me, that the sun can still warm me. It’s because of her that my heart continues to beat. It’s for her that I want to grow up.
An officer approaches us. He wants to move quickly—to escape from the cries, to end this terrible moment, to lock the doors of this camp behind these furies and make these cursed Jews disappear. But I don’t want to disappear.
Actually, I do: I want to disappear with Papa, Mama, Charlotte, and Rachel, but all together. I want to remove myself from their sight, become invisible if that will make them happy. I promise. I’ll give up the parks of Montmartre for those of Pitchi Poï, even if they’re full of pebbles. I won’t play with Guéchou anymore, with Charret or Maurice; I won’t watch the cute little schoolgirls walking with my sisters on their way home; I won’t listen to the conversations in the bar in the Rue Cauchois. It doesn’t matter to me. Everything is fine with me as long as I can stay with my mother.
The screaming is unbearable. I don’t even hear it anymore. I don’t think I can even really see all these distraught faces. These women throwing themselves on the ground, sobbing uncontrollably, in the depths of pain and despair—they’re two yards from me, yet they suddenly seem far away. This horror … this horror is hell, if hell exists.
I’m a spectator at the events taking place all around me. I don’t feel anything anymore, except the powerful, firm hand that grabs me by the arm and drags me away.
The night is as black as pitch now. I’m alone, on the dusty ground of the open area in the center of the camp. Next to me, another child is alone. Behind me, in front of me, as far as the eye can see in the light of the watchtowers, I see hundreds of lonely beings completely indifferent to others. We’ve cried so much that our tears have dried up. We’ve screamed so much that our voices are no longer audible. We’ve struggled so much that our bodies, drained of all strength, no longer respond. Snot is running from our noses. We don’t even think to wipe it off on our sleeves. No one seems to care about us, mundane sackfuls of sorrow, inert and shapeless.
Every once in a while, though, a woman in a white nurse’s uniform comes to pick up a little one. He lets himself be led away just as a fruit allows itself to be picked. Where are they taking him? I don’t really want to know. The torture inflicted on us by separating us so brutally from our parents has destroyed any impulse in us to be curious. I have no will to get up from where I’m lying, where nothing’s going to happen anyway. Nevertheless, the moment comes when it seems like a good idea to go to sleep.
I surprise myself by standing up, mechanically, and directing myself to barrack number 7. I climb up to my bed, unaware of the emptiness around me. And what do I do now? I call on the little voice in my head to rescue me, because it’s all I have left: Don’t think, Joe. Don’t think about anything. Sleep. Sleep while you can. Afterward, we’ll see.
After the Roundup
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Forever Alert – German Child Survivors in Action Before 1945 and Beyond by Philipp Sonntag
See many more books and excerpts at Books by Holocaust Survivors