It was June 10, 1940. Frieda Kort Willner, a German Jewish refugee who had fled her homeland in 1933, turned on the radio in her Paris apartment only to hear the news she had dreaded since May.
The French Army had been defeated and the German Nazis, the death dealing agents of whom the dictator British poet W.H. Auden called “a psychopathic god,” were on the outskirts of Paris. The City of Light was about to become a city of darkness.
Her husband Charles, also a German Jewish refugee, was with the French Foreign Legion, she did not know where. And she was alone, a single mother with her nine month old daughter, Michele. “I will live with my child or we will perish together,” she had written in her diary several weeks before.
Now like many others the only thing she could think of was to flee before the horror about to arrive at her doorstep. Packing a backpack and a small suitcase, she placed her daughter in a stroller and, clutching in her hand the free railroad ticket that she had been given as the wife of a French soldier, headed for the railroad station. Like centuries of Jews before them, they were fleeing for their lives.
Sitting in the kitchen of her home in a leafy Lehigh Valley suburb 74 years later, that baby, who is now Michele Willner Levy, recalls these events as she had heard them. “I was too young to remember any of this,” she says.
Friends would tell her that she ought to write about her family’s harrowing experiences during World War II. “But I thought it was not right to call myself a Holocaust survivor,” she said. “I had never been in a concentration camp or been held captive by the Nazis.” But the passage of years and the importance of getting the story of the Holocaust to a new generation led Levy to speak out.
Her parents, Charles Willner and Frieda Kort, were members of long-settled German Jewish families in the historic city of Nuremberg. Levy recalls hearing that the city’s Jews considered themselves German.
Shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933, her father was confronted by the thuggish Nazis Brown Shirts, one of whom had been his classmate in school.
“My father was a terrific athlete, and a boxer, and he knocked out one of the thugs and the others ran off,” Levy recalls. “But they knew who he was and he realized that if they got him again they would kill him.”
Wasting no time, Willner got a passport and crossed over into France. The next day he called Kort and told her she should come to Paris to marry him. They were married by a mayor in the city hall of a Paris suburb.
France had its own tradition of anti-Semitism. In 1905, a Jewish French Army officer, Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, had been sent to prison, falsely accused of being a spy. The scandal that followed split the country. In the 1930s, French fascist groups sometimes fought police in the streets. Corrupt governments added to a general disillusionment with democracy.
But for the Willners, France meant a chance at a new life. In their apartment they had set up a knitting machine. By 1938 they had a factory with many machines.
But hell was just across the Rhine. Anti-Jewish violence broke out into the open with Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), when synagogues were burned and the shop windows in Jewish shops smashed. That was the year Michele Willner Levy was born.
In September of 1939, World War II began in Europe. The Nazi war machine smashed into Poland, slaughtering everyone they could find. Jews were their particular target.
While this horror went on, the French and sat in their fortifications along the German border in what was later dubbed the “Phony War.”
In the ultimate irony, Levy’s father, like other men from Germany or Austria, was among those suspected of being spies and rounded up. On release he joined the French Army and eventually the French Foreign Legion. Levy has a picture of him in his uniform.
On that horrible June 10, thanks to the aid of some Czech Army officers, who carried them both through the window of the last train out of Paris, Levy and her mother headed south. Here they stayed in a small half-ruined farmhouse from June to October. It had a hole in the roof that let in rain. Frieda became ill.
Hoping to hear from her husband, Frieda returned to Paris, where she lived on edge of being discovered. Finally in August of 1941, Frieda heard that he had been discharged from the Foreign Legion due to an injury and was in the south of then-unoccupied France.
In another harrowing journey, Michele and her mother headed south. They got to an unguarded part of the border where a woman with a legal pass offered to carry Michele across the border. Although fearful at giving her daughter to a stranger, she reluctantly agreed. Once across the border, the family was reunited at the town of Periguex.
When the Germans took over unoccupied France in 1943, the family went into hiding in a farm outside Periguex. Charles joined the Underground and Frieda kept house. Michele recalls his vegetable garden and her fondness for her pet dog Cesar.
“In all that time anyone could have turned us over to the Germans and been rewarded but no one ever did,” she says.
The war in Europe ended in May, 1945. Many of their relatives had been murdered by the Nazis in the camps, including Frieda’s parents. Eventually the family would go to the United States, where other family members had immigrated. Charles became prosperous in the textile business. Frieda sang in area synagogues.
Michele became a chemist, married Gilfrid Levy, also a chemist, and raised two sons. Her father died in 1988, her mother in 1998. “I can never forget them and all they did for me,” Levy says.