Claude Romney will give the keynote address on April 23. (photo from Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre)
Jacques Lewin, a Jewish physician in Paris, was arrested at the end of 1941 and was sent to Auschwitz on the very first convoy from Western Europe to that notorious death camp. His profession almost certainly saved his life, as he performed a role that the Nazis deemed useful: that of a prisoner-doctor.
Lewin’s daughter, Claude Romney, has studied the Holocaust experiences of prisoner-doctors like her father and has a forthcoming book on the subject. She will share her family’s story, and illustrate aspects of the experience of prisoner-doctors, as the keynote speaker at this year’s Yom Hashoah Holocaust Commemorative Evening, which takes place April 23, 7 p.m., at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.
Lewin’s arrest took place two weeks after Romney’s third birthday. She and her mother, Saya, survived the war in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, a small town near the Spanish border that was occupied by the Germans less than three months after they arrived.
Romney’s presentation will begin with some context about the state of French Jewry in the early part of the war, something she said is not as well known as it could be. She will share a bit about her and her mother’s experiences during the war, then turn attention to her father’s story.
That story is something that Romney has pieced together mostly after her father’s death in 1968. “I remember when he died, thinking that so much had remained untold,” Romney said. “He never talked about it.”
Years after her father passed away, Romney’s mother gave her a file containing documents from her father’s past, including a few articles he had written immediately after he returned to France after the war. These had been published in a newsletter distributed by the French resistance and never reached a wide audience.
Romney has obtained the transcript of the testimony her father gave at the 1947 trial of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, but it is not comprehensive.
“The transcript of his testimony looks as though he was so frustrated that he wasn’t given more time to talk about it,” said Romney. “I don’t know if it was 10 minutes or what, but it looks as if he was really frustrated because at one point he enumerates a number of atrocities that he saw and he said, ‘it could take me days and days to tell you about them.’ I think that’s why he never wrote any more. I don’t know whether he was approached to testify anywhere else, but he never did.”
However, other prisoner-doctors did write and testify. Romney’s forthcoming book, Saving Lives in Auschwitz: The Written Testimonies of Prisoner-Doctors, is based on the experiences of 60 individuals who survived and told what they witnessed.
When Lewin first arrived at Auschwitz, he and the others in his transport were put to work constructing a new section of the camp – to be known as Birkenau.
Lewin was one of only a few from this group that survived the war, Romney said, because he was a medical doctor. The Nazis decided around the end of 1942 that they could use prisoner-doctors to treat ill and wounded inmates who were doing forced labour. Prisoner-doctors tried their best to help other inmates, but routinely confronted horrific ethical dilemmas. They were faced, Romney said, with what the Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer called “choiceless choices.”
“If they had refused to obey orders outright, they would have sent them to the gas chambers too,” she said.
After the war, Romney studied at the Sorbonne and became a professor of French linguistics and literature, first in Toronto, then Sudbury and finally Calgary, before retiring to Vancouver. She and her husband, also an academic, thought Canada seemed an ideal place since he was English and she was French.
The annual Yom Hashoah evening is presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC). It is supported by the Gail Feldman Heller Endowment and the Sarah Rozenberg-Warm Memorial Endowment Funds of the VHEC, and funded through the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign.
In addition to Romney’s keynote address, the evening will feature cellist Eric Wilson, Yiddish singer Myrna Rabinowitz, Cantor Yaacov Orzech and the Kol Simcha Singers. Artistic producers are Wendy Bross Stuart and Ron Stuart of WRS Productions. Holocaust survivors are invited to participate in candlelighting.
Pat Johnson is a communications and development consultant to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.